06 June 2013

Rat Park: debunking myths about drug addiction

Canberra based cartoonist Stuart McMillen has drawn an entertaining and informative cartoon about the work of Professor Bruce K. Alexander, psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and has kindly shared his work with Australia21.

McMillen’s cartoon covers the “Rat Park” experiments conducted by Professor Alexander in the 1970s, which demonstrated the importance of psycho-social context to the issue of an individual’s response to exposure to drugs.  According to the Wikipedia entry on Professor Alexander:

The Rat Park experiments, published in psychopharmacology journals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, flatly contradicted the dominant view of addiction in their day. They quickly disappeared from view, having evoked only negative responses in the mainstream press and journals. Lauren Slater’s controversial psychology book, Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century helped to bring them back to public attention in 2005. These experiments are now widely known and cited.

The Rat Park experiments were among the first to show the error in the once dominant myth that certain drugs, particularly the opiates, convert all or most users into drug addicts. In the 1970s, this myth was said to be demonstrated by the high consumption of opiates and stimulants of rats isolated in specially modified Skinner Boxes that allowed drug self-administration. Alexander and his colleagues demonstrated experimentally that rats isolated in cages of about the same size as Skinner Boxes consume far more morphine than rats that are socially housed in Rat Park.  Subsequent research has confirmed that social housing reduces drug intake in rats and that the dominant myth was wrong both for rats and for human beings. Nonetheless, the myth is still embedded in popular culture.

Access Bruce McMillen’s cartoon strip here.

For more about Professor Alexander’s work visit his Globalization of Addiction website.

To see the citation on the Simon Fraser University’s website marking Professor Alexander’s being awarded the 2007 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy click here.

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