Posts Tagged connection

Schools Can Learn from Researchers’ Rat Park

Published by — You want kids off drugs?  Give them places where they can run, swing, discover and have a blast with friends.


British journalist Johann Hari definitely upended my assumptions in his piece The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.

Hari’s long personal relationship with addicts and addiction started when he was only a child.  He tried and failed to wake a relative who had overdosed, which was surely traumatic.  So some years ago he decided to explore addiction, talking to addicts, experts, families and doctors.  He captured his journey in Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, told mainly through the stories of those affected by drugs.  I was especially struck by his story of two drug research efforts.

One experiment was famously captured in an appalling TV ad produced by the Partnership for Drug-free America in a 1980s.  I remember it.  We see a rat in a wire cage.  A food-like pellet drops into place and the rat eats.  An ominous voice tells the viewer that 9 out of 10 laboratory rats will “use” this drug, and “use it and use it,” until dead.  Over the course of the ad’s 30 seconds, the rat compulsively eats successive pellets.  It gets increasingly addicted and sick, staggering about in a pathetic stupor until overdosing.  It was riveting TV from an era big on discouraging drug use with a “scared straight” approach.

As an education journalist, I studied the roots and effects of teen substance abuse.  I mainly found studies explaining how repeated use of alcohol and drugs effectively carve paths of addiction synapses, permanently altering the person’s brain.  Hari calls this the myth of chemical hook.  The chemical gains control of the person, which can happen (speaking as someone who spent years quitting cigarettes).  But Hari goes on to point out that people get addicted to gambling and other behaviors, but it’s not like you can mainline a pack of cards or roulette wheel.  So what’s going on?

Any social being left alone in a cage would welcome oblivion.

Canadian professor Bruce Alexander questioned the validity of the experiment made famous by the ad.  Instead, he created a Rat Park.  Also a controlled, laboratory cage, the Park was large, and filled with toys, tunnels, fun stuff to do, and most importantly, other rats. Water bottles always offered them choice of both regular and cocaine-laced water.  The rats tried both, but over time greatly preferred the regular water.  Self-medication seemed to be far less appealing if a rat could get high on the dopamine of mammalian social fun.

Alexander went further.  He too kept some rats isolated in wire cages, and well supplied with drugs.  But then he put them in his Rat Park where, after some time and twitching from withdrawal, even these confirmed addicts came to prefer regular water.  Perhaps being messed up on drugs ruined their ability to have fun in the Rat Park’s equivalent of capture-the-flag.

Hari’s stories about human addicts resemble the Rat Park tale.  (Did you know that 15 years ago 1% of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin?)  People respond really well to human Rat Parks, which to my mind greatly resemble fun 1950s neighborhoods.  You want kids off drugs?  Give them places where they can run, swing, discover, invent, imagine, and have a blast with friends.

It’s not you. It’s your cage.

Your environment affects your behavior.  Hari writes:  “Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.”

Our environments, Hari’s “cages,” are increasingly unsupportive of human connection.  Whereas once everyone knew their neighbors, now such intimacy is the exception.  As a nation, we’re in the midst of a drug overdose crisis.  The media is filled with stories of destructive and self-destructive behavior.

Isolation is especially pronounced among children, who play indoors, glued to their electronics.  They’ve had so little experience of playing nicely with others in the sandbox, they don’t develop social skills.  Their young bodies are supposed to sit for hours to “learn” and then get yelled at when they simply can’t behave.  You’d be hard pressed to find a robust network of trusting, warm human connections in most schools.  In fact, schools call human bonding “personalization,” a word whose impersonality kinda says it all.

Redesigning schools to take advantage of the brain’s hard-wired needs to have fun would surely lead to far better results than the command-and-control environments kids get now.  At least students would have the option to choose healthy academic water instead of being drawn addictively to the endless electronic relief from disconnection and boredom.  Yes, there’s some truth to the “chemical hook.”  But it’s not as deep and important a truth as the learned joys of Rat Park.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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There Is No Health Without Mental Health

Published by — Mexicans cultivate family and connection.

May is national Mental Health month.

Full disclosure:  For years I’ve served on the board of the RI Mental Health Association (RIMHA).  Why?  Because I believe that bar none, the biggest missed opportunity in schools and education is supporting the kids’ AND the adults’ mental health.  After all, what does anyone use to teach or learn if not their mental facilities?  Absent robust mental health, precious little learning takes place.  I’m astounded this issue never became high priority.

So, I’ve been planning on writing about this foundational subject throughout May.

Then, as it happened, I started having a mental meltdown of my own — in a life-happens way, not a diagnosable mental illness.  Still, as you well know, feeling “crazy” disrupts even a reasonably healthy person’s ability to think straight.

So imagine the quality of thought-processing among adults and kids, especially in urban schools, where at least some are traumatized, bullied, depressed.

In my case, a family member very dear to me had broken with us, furious for reasons I still don’t understand, leaving me helpless to right whatever was wrong.  I can deal with conflict, but not silence.  Nothing makes me crazier than sudden, angry, no-end-in-sight, door-slammed-in-your-face disconnection.

Years ago I read that Dr. Daniel Siegel calls this state “toxic rupture.”  What a relief to have a term for it.  Elsewhere, researcher Denise Johnston explained how violence was fundamentally frustrated attachment.  I get why people shoot their ex-lovers.  It’s not an excuse, but radical disconnection seriously unhinges the best of us.

Anyhow, I snapped a few weeks ago and rather than rampaging destructively, acted out by buying two airline tickets to Puebla, Mexico.  Fortunately, I could postpone painting my shabby house and instead seek asylum to clear my noisy head.

While not a conventional tourist destination for Americans, Puebla is a surprisingly intact 16th-century city built by the Spanish conquistadores.  Gorgeous architecture, museums, preserved homes and cityscapes.  Beauty is calming.  Warm weather was soothing after New England’s unusually grueling winter.

But I’d forgotten that what is most healing, most heartening about Mexico is the families’ warmth with one another.  Everyone holds hands, links arms — parents and kids, grandmothers and teenage boys, friends and lovers, married and not.  People maimed by birth defects, missing limbs and developmental delays stroll with the others, tethered firmly by family solidarity.  My husband and I ambled repeatedly through the zocalo, observing happy family groups enjoying each other as much as we savored the art and antiquities.  Moms publically nuzzle little ones, both of them giggling.  Discrete nursing takes place all over.  Fathers and grandfathers, in heavy boots and plaster-splotched clothing, proudly hold the hands of impeccably-dressed children, including teenagers.

Mexican public spaces offer families opportunities to connect with one another as abundant as the exotic offerings in the open-air markets.  Parents spoil the kids with one of the vendors’ toys to keep a group of them entertained, so grown-ups can chat with one another.  When it was time to go home, one mom called her son saying, “Victor, mi vida (my life),” we’re leaving now, in a tone of voice that means Now.  Firm, but so affectionate.

The Mexicans seem scrupulous about taking ugly fights indoors.  You never see the public nastiness that has become normal here in the U.S..

They cultivate connection.  They look content, not stressed, angry or in high rebellion.  I imagine, though I have no way of knowing, they have strong mental health.

Mind you, I realize that Mexican students are in no way lighting the boards with their terrific test results.  Mexico’s new president Enrique Nieto is gung-ho about improving education, but he’ll have a tough go.  My husband finally asked me to quit mentioning it every time a flock of school-age kids were up late on a school night or seemingly not going to school at all.  My sister, who’s lived off and on in Mexico for years, says, “The Mexicans could care less about self-improvement; they’d much rather stay home and play with the new baby.”  A sweeping generalization, to be sure.

But surely a balance could be struck between the pleasure Mexicans take in their families, and the way some of our ambitious families — and schools — drive the kids to perform.  Hanging out is fun, but so is the feeling of having mastered a task, a musical instrument, or any physical or intellectual challenge.  Short-term experiences of successful mastery would make schooling far more appealing to kids than the relentless, droning push to produce performance results that will one day, in some abstract future, yield a lot of money.

We are sentient beings, hard-wired in our mammalian brains to be attached — to one another and to personal passions.  Regaining my own mental health will mean healing the disconnection that distresses me still.  In the meantime, I feel palpably how my somewhat-obsessive yearning disrupts my thinking.   How on earth can promoting mental health be ignored as the platform on which all else educational is built?  I’ve wondered this for years.

There is no health without mental health is this year’s slogan for RIMHA’s May campaign this year.  So true; so timely.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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