Wed | Jun 3, 2020

Alfred Dawes | Rat Park – What is the real reason for addiction?

Published:Wednesday | May 22, 2019 | 12:11 AM

Some might know of the study where rats kept in cages were offered the choice between regular water and water laced with cocaine. The rats would almost always go for the cocaine-tainted water. This happened even when offered food and while their bodies wasted away.

The conclusion: when you are addicted, you will always choose the addictive substance over everything else because of the power it has over your brain and actions.

However, very little is said about a similar study called ‘Rat Park’. In this study, the principle was the same. Give rats the choice between an addictive drug or regular water.

The difference, though, was that rats were divided into groups. One group lived in cages. The other group lived in a wide-open area with other rats they could play and mate with. A fun place for rats. A Rat Park.

The study was initially rejected because its results flew in the face of the established thought on drug addiction. The rats in Rat Park preferred regular water. The caged rats, drugs. When the caged rats who were addicted to drugs were moved to Rat Park, they gave up their addiction and were quite happy drinking regular water in their new environments. The conclusion: addiction is more than a chemical dependency in your brain. It is dependent on your overall well-being. People who have full lives, and have meaningful distractions and hobbies, seldom become drug addicts in that environment. Even when drugs are readily available.

In a real-world experiment, many Vietnam veterans became hooked on heroin during the war. So bad was the prevalence of drug addiction that the US government was worried about how it would be possible to reintegrate them into society on their return.

However, the fears were unfounded. As soon as the soldiers came out of that stressful, dangerous environment and were home, in a well-developed society with friends and family, they quit heroin. The ones who continued to use the drug usually had some psychosocial issues that required prolonged escape. This confirmed the theory that addiction is not as simple as chemicals stimulating your brain and causing you to want more, even as you are aware of the ill effects of the addiction. There is a psychological component that is much more powerful than we would like to admit.


In our modern society, many people suffer from food addiction. Whether it is a snack that you must have, the constant cravings for food when you are not hungry, feeling peckish, or the comfort found in eating when we are stressed or emotional.

Not all of this addiction is to sugary drinks or snacks. Some prefer salty snacks; some, fat, and still some prefer any food, period. There are many addictive substances that are readily available, but none as socially acceptable and promoted as food.

You can get addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, and even sex – one of the most potent releasers of endorphins and pleasure known to mankind. Yet the numbers of alcoholics and sex addicts pale in comparison to the numbers of people with weight and chronic disease issues. Many persons, whether or not they are obese, have an unhealthy relationship with food. This is often ignored as we blame types of foods rather than the desire to consume those foods.

40 years ago, when the anti-fat wars began, fat was vilified as the reason people were dying of heart disease and getting heavier. The low-fat era was born. Fat was removed from foods and because of the resulting awful taste, sugar was added to improve taste.


With the current war on sugar, we are told that sugar is addictive and it stimulates the same area of the brain, as cocaine. It releases endorphins, the pleasure chemicals in our brain and that is why we crave more. The food manufacturers know how addictive sugar is and that is why they add it to everything to keep us hooked. It is this powerful addiction why we can’t help ourselves and end up being overweight and obese. If we get rid of sugar, we will solve our problems. But food addiction goes way beyond sugar.

A colleague from the Middle East, when responding to the question as to why their obesity rate was so high, said, “We live in a desert and our religion tells us not to drink alcohol. What do you expect us to do?”

Is the reason we are consuming so much unhealthy but pleasurable foods that our only source of escape and comfort in our depressing society is food? Are we living in cages, or are we living in Rat Park? When are we going to address the elephant in the room, that although hormones and genetics play a significant role in the development of obesity, they have been around for thousands of years of human history, yet our obesity pandemic is only a few decades old?

Food addiction is a significant factor in the development of chronic diseases, not just obesity. It must be addressed in any meaningful attempts at curbing these lifestyle diseases. Finding out where persons are getting their calories, and if there are any dependencies on food for pleasure, is a good starting point.

Yes, genetics and hormones may be contributing to your tendency to be obese. But how much are you adding to this with eating and drinking foods that make you feel good?

Sometimes the answers we need starts with the man in the mirror.

Dr Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic and weight-loss surgeon; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors’ Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to and