The Renowned Rat Park

In the previous post, we looked at the origin story of the “Myth of the Demon Drug” as described by Professor Emeritus Bruce K. Alexander who suggests that, in a series of experiments on lab rodents, the demonic force at work was actually confinement in a solitary metal cell, along with the dosing methodology where the animals had tubes and needles stuck into them, and no alternative activities other than pressing a lever to get drugs.

The reason for looking into all this is to understand what people mean when they talk about FA, or food addiction. “Addiction” is quite the loaded term, and once the discussion turns to addiction in terms of food and in relation to obesity, watch out! A lot of firm opinions, and even stronger feelings, are involved in these debates.

In order to read anything meaningful about addiction into those strictly coercive drug-taking experiments, it seems as though credulity must be stretched pretty far. To emphasize this, Prof. Alexander also wrote,

[T]aking drugs in a Skinner box where almost no effort is required and there is nothing else to do is nothing like human addiction which always involves making choices between many possible alternatives.

But how did Prof. Alexander catch on to this discrepancy in the first place? He and a small group of Simon Fraser University colleagues wondered how the drug-seeking behavior of rodents might look if they lived under a more lenient, reasonable regime. As scientists will do, this group came up with a plan and proceeded to run experiments comparing the behavior of two populations:

This required building a great big plywood box on the floor of our laboratory, filling it with things that rats like, such as platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding in, wood chips for strewing around, and running wheels for exercise. Naturally we included lots of rats of both sexes, and naturally the place soon was teeming with babies. The rats loved it and we loved it too, so we called it “Rat Park”.

The researchers observed the delightful antics and well-socialized behavior of the Rat Park residents. These creatures of course possessed great autonomy, and had been supplied with lifestyle alternatives, like the opportunity to play with toys, run on exercise wheels, and experience unlimited interaction with other individuals. They even had scenery! The team painted murals on the walls, depicting the silhouettes of trees against a green background. It was a brave effort to create a simulacrum of a normal environment, inside a laboratory, with enhanced security and no weather.

And there also, on the other hand, with cruelly limited options, were the solitary confinement rats, in standard barren cages, equipped with the means to consume downers or uppers on demand. Were they miserable because they constantly self-administered drugs? Or did they shoot up all day because they were miserable? Prof. Alexander wrote,

It soon became absolutely clear to us that the earlier Skinner box experiments did not prove that morphine was irresistible to rats. Rather, most of the consumption of rats isolated in a Skinner box was likely to be a response to isolation itself.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “ Rat Park versus The New York Time,”, undated
Source: “Addiction: The View from Rat Park,”, undated
Image by Zinnia Jones/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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