Suppose you and I are laboratory rats in captivity. And, then imagine we are housed in one of these two environments:
- in isolation inside a tiny, undecorated Skinner box -- an operant conditioning chamber developed by famous psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner, or
- with lots of other rats of both sexes (and babies, of course) in “Rat Park” -- a big plywood box (200 times the floor area of the Skinner box) filled with platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding in, wood chips for strewing around, balls to play with, and running wheels for exercise.
If given the choice of living conditions, it would be a no-brainer. Of course, we would all choose Rat Park for a variety of reasons. Nothing extraordinary about this, huh? Even as a rodent, we would appreciate all the amenities and the unlimited social contact.
But, hold onto that thought while I switch gears.
Now, suppose we (as rats, remember) can add to our lives some feel-good drugs.
Rat Park was actually a study into drug addiction conducted in the late 1970s (and published in 1981) by Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.
Rats in the experiment were held in both environments, where they could drink a fluid from one of two drop dispensers -- one dispenser contained a morphine solution and the other plain tap water.
The resuts were as follows:
“The Skinner caged rats (Groups CC and PC) took to the morphine instantly, even with relatively little sweetener, with the caged males drinking 19 times more morphine than the Rat Park males in one of the experimental conditions. The rats in Rat Park resisted the morphine water. They would try it occasionally — with the females trying it more often than the males — but they showed a statistically significant preference for the plain water.”
of housing and gender on morphine self-administration in rats."
Psychopharmacology, Vol 58. 1978.)
(Bruce K. Alexander. “The Myth of Drug-Induced Addiction.” Paper to the Canadian Senate. January 2001.)
Alexander writes ...
“The most interesting group was Group CP, the rats who were brought up in cages but moved to Rat Park before the experiment began. These animals rejected the morphine solution when it was stronger, but as it became sweeter and more dilute, they began to drink almost as much as the rats that had lived in cages throughout the experiment. They wanted the sweet water, he concluded, so long as it did not disrupt their normal social behavior.”
And, according to Alexander, even more significant ...
“When he added a drug called Naloxone, which negates the effects of opioids, to the morphine-laced water, the Rat Park rats began to drink it. Also...
“In another experiment, he forced rats in ordinary lab cages to consume the morphine-laced solution for 57 days without other liquid available to drink. When they moved into Rat Park, they were allowed to choose between the morphine solution and plain water. They drank the plain water. He writes that they did show some signs of dependence. There were "some minor withdrawal signs, twitching, what have you, but there were none of the mythic seizures and sweats you so often hear about ..."
of the Twentieth Century. 2004.)
Alexander's hypothesis was that drugs do not cause addiction, and that the apparent addiction to opiate drugs commonly observed in laboratory rats exposed to them is attributable to their living conditions, and not to any addictive property of the drug itself.
Alexander believed his experiments showed that animal self-administration studies provided no empirical support for the theory of drug-induced addiction. Furthermore, normal people, (like lab rats), can ignore heroin (or other opiates) ... even when it is plentiful in their environment, and they can use these drugs with little likelihood of addiction ... Rats from Rat Park seem to be no less discriminating."
These beliefs fly in the face of earlier experimental psychologists (1960s) who
in the 1960s had concluded that illegal drugs are irresistibly addicting and fearsome within themselves.
How about that hypothesis? Like humans, laboratory rats are highly social, sexual, and industrious creatures. Is it solitary confinement, or a monotonous and depressing environment that puts both rodents and people in jeopardy of taking, dangerous, mind-numbing drugs? Or maybe, it is both?
It seems isolation could surely cause this behavior, but also putting humans or animals in a “Skinner box environment” where almost no effort is required and there is nothing else to do would seem to contribute to taking these substances. Granted, humans are much, much more intelligent and complex than rats; however, you and I understand that humans with idle hands often seek devilish diversions.
Appalachia, Opiates, and Rat Park
We in Appalachia live in a region that has been described as backwards, helpless, and hopeless. Since at least the 1960s, Appalachia has had a higher poverty rate and a higher percentage of working poor than the rest of the nation. The overwhelming economic crisis has worsened joblessness; collapsed home values; forced the closures of public schools, clinics, and charity organizations; and further depressed communities.
To make matters worse, the elite class has instilled strong systems of inequality into Appalachian politics and the local economies. An appropriate description of present-day Appalachia is a region of “chronic poverty,” where long-term neglect and lack of investment -- a lack of investment in people as well as communities – has had a crippling, long-lasting effect on the citizenry.
Cynthia M. Duncan, author of Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America, describes children in chronic poverty:
“Even if a young person is watching a lot of TV, they're not necessarily imagining their future as being a doctor or a lawyer if they're coming from a really poor neighborhood. They're imagining themselves being like their aunt, the person next door, or maybe a teacher they admire. They structure their behavior to conform to "what people like us do.'”
(“Why Poverty Persists In Appalachia: An Interview with Cynthia M. Duncan.” Frontline. January 09, 2006.)
Many scholars speculate that these stereotypes have been created by powerful economic and political forces to justify exploitation of Appalachian peoples. For example, the same forces that put up barriers to prevent the development of civic culture promulgate the image of Appalachian peoples as politically apathetic, without a social consciousness, and deserving of their disenfranchised state.
(Dwight Billings. “Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: a Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis.” Social Forces.1974.)
An Analysis of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disparities & Access to Treatment Services in the Appalachian Region (August 2008) by the National Opinion Research Center found a higher prevalence of mental health disorders in the Appalachian region as compared to the rest of the nation, with proportionately more Appalachian adults reporting serious psychological distress and major depressive disorder. The findings show ...
“Notably, mental health diagnoses for serious psychological distress and major depressive disorder are proportionately higher in Appalachia than in the rest of the nation, independent from substance abuse. That is, Appalachian disparities in mental health status do not appear to arise as a result of higher levels of co-occurrence with substance abuse. Community hospital discharge data, national household survey data, and treatment episode data all indicate this regional mental health disparity, independent of substance abuse. This disparity is particularly acute in more economically distressed areas of Appalachia.”
I ask you, “Does this imply that living in Appalachia, itself, greatly contributes to mental health problems, and that very existence is a major reason inhabitants, like lab rats denied a stimulating environment, seek opiates in their sad states of isolation and boredom?” After all, many would blame opiate addiction for the widespread poor mental health here. Maybe the reverse is closer to the truth – a depressed land breeds mental problems that subsequently leads people to seek a chemical means of escape.
Bruce Alexander cites history to draw a parallel …
“At first, the English settlers explained the universal alcoholism of the natives with the story of genetic vulnerability. They said 'Indians just can’t handle liquor' and tried to solve the problem with strict alcohol prohibition. That didn’t work and most people don’t believe the genetic vulnerability story anymore.
“So why did universal addiction strike the colonized natives of Western Canada and the world as well? Certain parallels between the problems of colonized human beings and the rats in Rat Park appear to provide an explanation. In both cases there is little drug consumption in the natural environment and a lot when the people or animals are placed in an environment that produces social and cultural isolation. In the case of rats, social and cultural isolation is produced by confining the rats in individual cages.
“In the case of native people, the social and cultural isolation is produced by destroying the foundations of their cultural life: taking away almost all of their traditional land, breaking up families, preventing children from learning their own language, prohibiting their most basic religious ceremonies (potlatches and spirit dancing in Western Canada), discrediting traditional medical practices, and so forth. Under such conditions, both rats and people consume too much of whatever drug that is made easily accessible to them. Morphine for the rats, alcohol for the people.
“In both cases, the colonizers or the experimenters who provide the drug explain the drug consumption in the isolated environment by saying that the drug is irresistible to the people or the rats. But in both cases, the drug only becomes irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed.”
Living In a Cage
To me, Alexander's study has huge implications for root reasons that lead rural Appalachians to take opiates and eventually become dependent and addicted to these substances. His findings are not consistent with all clinical research about the causes of addiction, but they offer some very clear evidence that helps explain high rates of substance consumption in Appalachia.
Like rats in Skinner boxes, many residents of Appalachia feel socially and culturally deprived in the 21st century. While trying to cope with modern life, most exist with serious threats of continual depression and inescapable poverty. Thanks to criminals who prey upon those who live with such misery and deprivation, opiates are readily available to anyone wishing to find instantaneous, temporary mental relief in drugs. This substitute for living a “fuller life” is nothing but life-threatening drops willingly derived from dealers and other substance dispensers. Thus, addicted people become human laboratory rats without the benefit of a pleasant park.
Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review refers to Appalachia as “the Big White Ghetto” and writes ...
“Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007.”
(Kevin D. Williamson. “In Appalachia the Country Is Beautiful and the Society Is Broken.” National Review. January 09, 2014.)
Maybe we residents should just move away from this area – give up on our established roots and find a better environment elsewhere. Or, maybe we should stay, educate ourselves with every available resource, find mountains of financial assistance, and start building a new, fantastic rat park. In fact, we need to construct thousands of them in order to stimulate our own industry and fix all of our problems of chronic poverty, and in the process, we will also end widespread opiate addiction in Appalachia.
"My take is that it seems like the last bastion of America that’s sort of generalized, lumped together, and made fun of. It’s a relatively common thought that people from Appalachia are underprivileged, poorly educated, and backwoods. That probably says just as much about my bias toward outsiders as their perceived bias about Appalachia. I also know what I see and what mass media feeds our culture, and that is this pervasive view of the celebratory hillbilly. If that’s the filter that’s put on Appalachia by mass media, then shame on us if we lay down and take what mass media is feeding us.”
(Becky Harlan. “A Fresh Look at Appalachia—50 Years After the War on Poverty.” National Geographic. February 06, 2015.)