The Amazing Rat and What it Can Teach Us

Categories: Addiction, Children, Family, Mental Health, and Relationships.

Recently at our office we listened to a talk given by a really smart guy with a PhD in psychopharmacology.  He described a study he conducted on rats (think “Rats of NIMH”).  Rats were put into four groups for this experiment.  In group one, the rats were kept alone in their own cages with nothing.  In group two, rats were alone in cages with “enrichment toys”.  I’m not sure what enrichment toys look like for rats, but I imagine a running wheel, things to climb or chew on, and maybe a coffee table book, “Cheeses of the World”.   In the third group, rats were in a larger cage with other rats.  In the fourth group, rats were in a large cage together along with those enrichment toys.  In all the rat groups, they had access to an addictive stimulant drug which they could give to themselves whenever they felt like it.  

Why do scientists run weird experiments on rats like this?  Its not because we should have a better understanding of what rats need so they are happier and healthier.   Left to their own devices, rats are naturally social and very capable of taking care of themselves.  Rodents share about 85% genetic similarity to humans.  Because they are social animals like us, we can observe their behavior and by inference learn a lot about human nature.  When the really smart guy explained his experiment about rats likelihood of using drugs,  I realized it didn’t take a genius to see the similarities between rats and humans when it comes to risk of addiction.

So, guess which group gave themselves the most drugs and which group used the available drug the least?  Group one (the rats kept alone without any enrichment) used the most drugs.  The group that used the least was group four (the rats kept together with enrichment toys).  What can we learn from this behavioral study of rats?  Well, lonely and bored rats are at higher risk for addictive behavior than rats that are socially connected and active.   

Like the rats, if we are isolated with no healthy activities to engage in, we are at a much higher risk for addictions.  When I use the word “addiction”, this could be anything that is needed in increasing quantity and the use of this thing eventually has a damaging effect.  This will include “process addictions” which are behaviors that are continued despite the negative impact on one’s life.  Examples of these include addictions to pornography, sex, gaming, social media, food, shopping and gambling.  Addiction also includes substance addictions such as alcohol, nicotine, stimulants, opioids, etc.  

Unlike rats, we humans don’t have to be put in cages.  We can isolate and limit our “enrichment toys” all by ourselves.  Enrichment toys for humans are things like hobbies, sports, church and clubs.  It’s music, art, books, exercise and creative outlets.  Parents, I encourage you to consider first of all if you are isolating and limiting your enrichment.  If so, you are at higher risk for developing an addiction.  Secondly, look at your children – especially your teens.  Are they isolating?  Are they narrowing their activity to something that has a risk of addiction?  If you are concerned, do something about it!  Talk about it with your spouse or child, or to a counselor, mentor or pastor.  Encourage “real time” social activity, and enrich the environment.   

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