Happy rat

It’s the Environment, Stupid!

Rat Park

In the early 1980s, a Canadian researcher by the name of Bruce Alexander published a couple of interesting articles about his work with rat populations. What Alexander did was take some rats and give them some dope—but with a twist.

Alexander made water containing opiates available along with fresh water to the rats. The drug made the water bitter, so the rats needed to at least overcome the bad taste to get their fix. But Alexander was interested to find out what other environmental factors might affect the rat’s drug-use behavior. To test this, he arranged one rat environment to be the Bel Air and Disneyland of rat habitats. It was full of the things that rats like: places to hide, problems to solve, safe places to nap, and, significantly, other rats. He found that when rats were in this rich environment, while they had free access to the spiked water, they didn’t consume it. On the other hand, when he arranged a rat tenement that lacked the things that rats groove on, especially other rat friends, the animals pushed right past the bitterness in the drugged water and became dependent on the opiates it contained (Alexander et al., 1978, 1981).

Outside the Lab

It occurs to me that I’ve seen unofficial versions of Alexander’s experiment played out in my garden from time to time. When I’m too busy cleaning up and “solving problems” out there, weeds flourish, squirrels get fat, and birds take over the place. I see it with folks I sit with, too. I can think of more than a few of them who probably wouldn’t need to come see me if we could just tweak their environments a little. More secure housing, a little less time at work, a bit less financial worry could go a long way to helping a lot of these people live lives they cared about. So too could more frequent positive and sincere interactions with other people.

Humans are incredibly social creatures. As my friend and mentor Dr. Kelly Wilson says often, “This is the kind of monkey we are.” We don’t do well when we go it alone. Just like Alexander’s rats, when the circumstances of our lives are stressful and impoverished, and we’re cut off from the warm community of our fellows, we struggle. Many of us turn, in fact, to drugs for some relief. But since we also have these big brains and language, both of which enable us to get up to a lot more mischief than rats.

You Don’t Always Need to Look Inside

To takeaways here: If you’re struggling, look around you. Are there things you can change to make the world you live in a little richer and more supportive? Maybe you can’t double the size of your house or move to a chateau in the south of France, but what about opening the windows? Letting in more light and air? What about making time to take a walk each day or making a deal with yourself to turn off your phone at nine o’clock each night?

And the issue of other people matters, too. In these strange times, few of us are having the kinds of social interactions we’d like. But are there even little changes you could make to connect more often and more deeply with people who matter to you? And what about that special someone? How is that going? Are issues in your intimate relationship sending shockwaves into your individual mental well-being? Sometimes seemingly individual problems are as well addressed through couple therapy as individual, particularly when the problems you’re experiencing are directly related to the relationship.

Whatever challenges you’re facing, take a moment to consider the environment you live in and the people you share it with. Often, these will be places where meaningful change can begin to blossom.



Alexander, B. K., Beyerstein, B. L., Hadaway, P. F., & Coambs, R. B. (1981). Effect of early and later colony housing on oral ingestion of morphine in rats. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 15(4), 571–576. https://doi.org/10.1016/0091-3057(81)90211-2
Alexander, B. K., Coambs, R. B., & Hadaway, P. F. (1978). The effect of housing and gender on morphine self-administration in rats. Psychopharmacology, 58(2), 175–179. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00426903

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