We’ve all heard of the the experiments showing rats will do anything for a pleasure fix. Typically, caged rats are given access to a lever which they can press freely to give themselves drugs that activate their pleasure centers while also being able to manipulate identical levers to acquire food and water. Becoming addicted, the rats will hit the drug lever repeatedly, while the food and water levers often go untouched, until they drop dead from exhaustion or starvation. It has largely been assumed humans would do pretty much the same if given the chance.
In his book, This Is Your Brain on Joy: A Revolutionary Program for Balancing Mood, Restoring Brain Health, and Nurturing Spiritual Growth, Dr. Earl Henslin tells of one researcher, Bruce Alexander, who noticed a flaw in the experiments. The rat participants in the studies were isolated in their cages with nothing else to do but press the lever. “If I was strapped down alone in a cage, I’d probably want to get high too,” he thought.
Alexander conducted his own similar experiments. However, one group of rats were placed in a specially designed “rat park,” which was spacious and brightly colored with running wheels, toys, mazes, abundant, good food and water and even other rats with which to socialize and mate. He put the control group of rats alone in bare cages as in the past experiments.
Both groups of rats were given equal access to morphine laced water. Well, what do ya know? The rats in the cages got addicted, while the park rats may have tried the happy water once or twice, but ended up rejecting it.
Even more amazing, when the caged rats, who had been addicted to morphine for fifty-seven days, were put in the park, they avoided the drugs too. They were even observed trembling and shaking as they detoxed, but opted to stay off of the drug.
While humans, their environments, and other influencing factors, such as relationships, are certainly more complicated than rats in a rat park, the study does point to some interesting conclusions. Henslin writes that “Life itself was meant to be our natural high.” His book, which incorporates neuroscience and biblical insight (interesting combination, indeed!), likens an enriched environment to life in the Garden of Eden.
Henslin suggests taking a three pronged approach to create a brain prone to reside in joy. The three categories are:
- Enriching your outer world (creating a joyful, brain-stimulating environment)
- Enriching your inner world (feeding your mind and soul nourishing thoughts)
- Enriching your body-mind chemistry (through what you put in your mouth and how you move your muscles)