This theory had been confirmed in studies of rat behaviour. They went something like this;
Give a rat two choices - 1: Push a lever for a drink of water or, 2: Push a lever for a shot of Morphine.
Unsurprisingly, the rats got themselves stoned. Over and over again. Some of them got so wasted, they ceased to eat or drink. They even started listening to the Velvet Underground. Some of them died.
This proved that mammals, given the opportunity, will spontaneously become addicted to psychotropic substances. They will become so dependent on them, that they will cease to become productive organisms.
Alexander highlighted a flaw in these ideas. He argued that if you put a man in a tiny cage and make him live his whole life in it, it would be a near certainty that he'd choose to get out of his head on smack. What else has he to live for? Alexander thought that this is no different for rats.
So he made the Rat Park. A rat utopia. It was big, interesting and comfortable. Food was readily available, and the rats had ample space to form social relationships. When Morphine was made available to these rats, they chose not to use it.
Even when a rat was put in a cage and forced to become a junkie, when it returned to Rat Park it spontaneously withdrew from opiates. With very few observable withdrawal effects incidentally.
Now, we need to be careful in drawing any firm conclusions from his research, but it does pose some interesting questions about human behaviour.
Do we take drugs simply because they're there? Or do we take drugs for more complex reasons? And if we ever create our utopia, will we still use them?
Personally, I think that Alexander's ideas can be expanded beyond the realm of drug abuse;
For many, daily existence lacks any real meaning and purpose. Many live within a "mindless routine....[their purpose is to] produce the greatest quantity of widgets on the assembly line". It's little wonder then, that they return home to seek out the most soporific diversion available. Diversions such as soap operas, reality TV shows, junk food and pornography.
In a way, this mindless consumption gets us stoned. Like heroin, one-way entertainment wraps us up in a comfort blanket of thoughtlessness. Thinking is the last thing we want to do when we live in restricted cages. Ignorance is bliss.
Unlike Alexander's rats however, we're the architects of our prisons. We can choose to inject the hypnotic, each time we press the next channel button, or we can choose to make something.
This I think, is at the root of human spirituality; The need to make things. The need to be creative and express ourselves is cruicial to our wellbeing. One-way entertainment that's designed to stifle thought, strips these urges from us. It deadens something fundamental in us.
Few of us are talented artists. But all of us can make stuff;
We can make;
- someone laugh
- someone think
- an idea
- a phone call
- a heart race
- a move
- a choice