Creating Your Own "Rat Park"

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had read something in “O” magazine that I wanted to talk about, but then I got distracted by something else.  Well, on this beautiful sunny summer’s day–when what I really want to do is get outside–I’m going back to that article & just write a quick post about it.  It’s from the February 2014 issue, and the article is by Martha Beck.  [And good luck finding it online–I just checked & I find the website a little daunting, but I haven’t been on it before, so maybe it’s just me].

Anyway, the point of the article is that sometimes the behaviors we beat ourselves up over–and call “self-sabotage”–happen because of a larger situation we are in that is making us miserable; and our bodies [that is, us in our fullness–more than just our rationale minds] are desperately trying to find succor.  The title of the article [which I’ve lost now but has something to do with rats]–and the title of this post–comes from research that a Canadian psychologist/professor did with rats [his name is Bruce Alexander].  He was examining the many studies that show how addictive heroin and other opiates are, studies proven by the behavior of lab rats, who, when given the chance, consistently dope themselves to oblivion.

He wondered if part of the reason for the rats’ behavior had something to do with the fact that all the rats [intelligent and social animals] in the study were being kept isolated in cages.  Beck says, “And then he had a radical thought:  Maybe (follow the logic closely) rats don’t like being alone in a cage.  Maybe they dislike it so much that when locked inside, they’ll desperately distract themselves with whatever is available.  Hello, heroin!”  So, Alexander tried a different kind of experiment:  he and his colleagues built a “veritable spa” for rodents:  “a large, clean, wood chip-strewn enclosure they called Rat Park.”  At this point, you might imagine what happened:  when Alexander took the rats out of their lonely cages and put them together in the Rat Park, and then gave them a choice of plain water or sugar water laced with morphine, the rats most often chose plain water.

You see where Beck is going with this:  in a similar situations, humans respond uncannily like rats.  When we are miserable–trapped in various kinds of “cages,” we, too, engage in behavior that allows us to escape to “oblivion.”  She argues that our “computer” selves follow reason and logic, and insist on certain types of action that make “sense.”  That’s all well and good, but our “animal” selves want comfort, love, joy and peace; and when we are denied that, we act out–finding it in whatever escapes are available to us.  She writes, “The computer self builds a sort of cage of obligations and beliefs.  Bad habits are your animal self’s attempt to ease its distress while living in that cage.”

Now, I’m not completely sold on the whole “animal/computer” dichotomy, but what I found compelling about her argument is first, the recognition that we are whole beings–not just minds–and all of who we are matters in how we live.  We can’t endlessly suppress our emotions, our sexuality, and the needs of our bodies to move, dance, and rest without consequence.  And second, therefore, in the long run, for us to thrive, we need to create an environment in which we can live in safety, harmony, and contentment.  When we do that, there is a good chance that the behaviors we categorize as “self-sabotaging” cease to have as much power over us.

Everyone is different, of course, and there are situations always in our lives that we wish we could change, but we have to live with–at least for awhile.  But I always find it empowering to remind myself of the changes I can make–none of us are entirely without agency in our own lives; and then I can either make them, or choose not to–but when I do that, I remind myself I have made that choice:  it makes me feel less trapped.  No animal likes to be “trapped”–and we’re animals, after all.

So, now I’m going out in the sun!

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