2.10. Rat Race

How much are we influenced by nature, the body and brain we are given at birth?

And how much are we influenced by nurture, the environment we grow up and live in?

Parts of you are predetermined from your parents. But how much of your personality is from your parents and how much of it is developed by your surroundings?

This question has been debated over, time and time again.

And never so much as when trying to answer the problem of drug addiction.

How much of you has been made from all the drugs that you’ve swallowed or injected in your lifetime?

It’s 1981 and American scientist Bruce Alexander wants to test a theory that taking drugs is nothing more than a lifestyle choice, a mind trap. He thinks that drugs are only addictive because society tells us to think this.

So he experiments.

The Rat Race Experiments

1. Downtown Rats

Go back to being a rat. Instead of being one of Skinner’s rats, You are now one of American scientist Bruce Alexander’s rats.

To be precise You are a Downtown Rat.

You’re in a sparse cage along with 15 other rats. Conditions are cramped and no matter which way you turn your fur brushes up against another rat.

In this cage there is nothing to do.


You feel like one of Harlow’s monkeys that has no comfort.

No room to play, no room to explore. All you can do is eat food and drink the water.

There are two water providers to drink from.

One is plain old normal drinking water and the other is water with a sweet sugary taste to it.

Which provider do you prefer to drink from and why?

The answer is easy.

You choose to drink from the sweet water. Oh what sweet water!

As you drink it, little granules of sugar stick to your whiskers and you lick them off with your tongue.


In this hell-hole of a cage it is the only luxury you have, so you drink from this provider to your heart’s content.

The water, laced with a sugary substance, satisfies the sweet toothed rodent that you are.

The sugary water makes you feel a little light headed.

But maybe that’s not a bad thing as it takes your mind off the utter numbness you have living in this cage.

2. Uptown Rats

Now transport yourself into the body of another rat, this time you are an Uptown Rat. Instead of being in a cage you are now in a 200 square-foot home known as Rat Town.

The temperature is just right and soft wood shavings line the floor.

There are all manner of objects to play and explore with. Bright coloured balls and wheels are everywhere. Some rooms are for play, some for mating and some for giving birth.

There’s also some running water and the painted scenery of trees. There are also some cool stones so you can feel your little paws touching different surfaces.

This is the best place to live, ever!

Again, there are the two dispensers for water. One with the plain water and one with the sugar laced water that makes your brain a little fuzzy.

Again, which provider do you prefer to drink from and why?

3. The Rat That Upgrades

You are a Downtown Rat living in the bland and boring cage.

You’re eyeballs are spinning through the sugared water, but hey, it’s making you forget.

Then one day Alexander, who inflicted this misery upon you, opens up the cage.

He picks you up with both hands. You try to resist his grip around you, but your senses are so dulled any attempt to struggle free is useless.

The scientist then places you in Rat Town and everything is so lovely. You make friends, play with the rat toys and mate as much as you like.

You have become an Uptown Rat living an uptown lifestyle.

Now which provider do you drink from and why?

The Rat Race Results

1. The Downtown Rats in the boring cage had such a depressing life that the sweet water wasn’t just laced with sugar but the drug morphine as well. They drank the water because it was sweet and the only pleasure they had. The side effect to the morphine was the spinning of the eyeballs.

2. Next, after Alexander built his Rat Town, he observed that the rats didn’t want to drink the sugar and morphine water. They were only interested in drinking the normal water. For the Uptown Rats, their life didn’t need the sweet water with its hidden drug. They were content with the plain water.

3. The rats that upgrade, Alexander found, began by wanting the drugged water. But after a short while they switched to the plain water. Any addiction to the morphine laced water was lost. They preferred drinking the water without the drugs.


Alexander concluded that, in rats at least, drugs are both not needed and not addictive as long as they are content with their lives. To prove this, Alexander then did something interesting with the drugged water provider.

He added a substance to the water that blocked the effects of the morphine.

Alexander observed that the rats were then happy to drink the sweet water – as long as it didn’t have the effect of the morphine.


Alexander’s experiments with rats are not that well known. The main reason why they’ve had little influence in understanding the mind is that they’re dismissed as too far controversial against the perceived understanding of how drugs worked.

Rats are rats and humans are humans.

And humans, with their desire for drugs, are far more complex aren’t they?

We could never abuse human brains in the way Alexander abused the brains of his rats. But Alexander’s experiments do raise an interesting question.

Is dependency on anything artificial simply the trapping of a lifestyle choice?

Image from slate.com

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