What the Rat Park Experiments Can Teach us About Riding out a Pandemic
It’s not safe to be around other people right now, especially at my age. An impressive majority of Covid-19 deaths have occurred in older people with underlying medical conditions. Most old people have these, including my husband and me.
That’s why we don’t eat at restaurants anymore, even those with patio dining. We don’t shop for our groceries; our food comes to us. We don’t visit with other people, even those we love, except for a rare front-porch catchup. We don’t go indoors with anyone from outside our bubble.
Life in a rat park
It’s been surprisingly easy. We miss our social life, of course, but we haven’t been idle or bored because we live in a full-fledged rat park.
You probably know the reference. When caged rats reliably chose opium over food and water, researchers thought drugs were too compelling to resist. No wonder so many addicts were doing irreparable harm to themselves and their families, so the thinking went. Once they’d had a taste of chemical nirvana, they’d keep going back for more no matter the consequences. That was the accepted wisdom about addiction, and it dictated drug policy for decades.
Then, Bruce K. Alexander came along. He designed a different experiment to test the addicted-rat theory; but this time, the subjects weren’t locked in small, bare cages alone. Instead, they were housed in park-like settings and provided with toys, activities, and friends.
A morphine solution was still available to them, as it had been to their predecessors, but now, they barely touched it. As it turns out, rats who live in a park would rather be sober than stoned.
Alexander’s experiments changed how we think about the drivers of addiction. Researchers now believe that rats (and by extension, people) don’t pick drugs over a more nutritious offering whenever they've got the choice; rather they prefer drugs over a sterile existence. They use morphine addictively when life doesn’t provide them with anything better to do.
The best place to spend a pandemic
Rats want stimulation, of course. We all do. And when stimulation is available in our environments, we don’t seek it out in self-destructive ways. But when our environments’ borders are limited, as they are in cramped cages and pandemics, we’re at risk of being understimulated.
That’s more painful than it sounds. Without sufficient stimulation, we may choose to numb ourselves out, to put a barrier between ourselves and the deadening boredom of endless days, each one the same as those before it, the same as those to come.
There’s probably not a morphine drip in your house right now as there was in the addiction experiments, but there are plenty of other ways to escape a dreary life. We can get gorked on TV or sugary foods. And of course, there’s always that reliable standby, alcohol. Its consumption has skyrocketed this year, and no wonder.
Cut off from our usual activities and playmates, some of us are getting fat and drunk. Some of us, unable to tolerate the boredom, are throwing caution to the wind and resuming life as normal, exposure and the risk of contagion be damned. But some of us are thriving.
In a pandemic, introversion is a superpower
At first, I thought the difference between me (content to isolate) and people who are climbing the walls could be explained by our placement on the introvert/extravert continuum. For the first time in my life, my preference for the inner world over the outer is a strength instead of a deficit.
Like most introverts, I’m content to be on my own. I like ideas. I like sitting with them while they simmer. I need people but not a lot of them and not all the time. My husband, as my only human companion, fulfills my relational needs.
Alone, or nearly so, as I’ve been these past 10 months, I’ve focused on my other needs in a way I’ve never done before. There’s nothing to distract me. As a result and to my great surprise, both my physical and my fiscal fitness have significantly improved. I’ve got more money and more stamina. I weigh less than my driver’s license says I do. I feel better than I have in years.
Temperament + environment = pandemic happiness
But if introversion were the only answer, I wouldn’t have spent the last few weeks dreading winter’s approach. Now, here it is, on top of me. Darkness comes early in the evening, stays late into the morning. Yet it’s too cold to go outside and gaze at the stars the way we did this summer, the way we did last month.
It was the great outdoors that made lockdown so lovely. It was living in a rat park, spring through fall.
Our country house is nothing fancy. It’s just a shanty, really, but we’re surrounded by mountains, and the lake’s a mile away. There are pickleball courts, and waterfalls, and hiking trails within minutes of our door.
We’ve played with abandon over the past 10 months, but we’ve worked our asses off, too. We built raised beds, planted gardens, tended our plants, and then harvested our crops. We mowed and weeded, trapped mice in our shed, and drove them to the national forest to set them free. There was always something that needed a fresh coat of paint.
Working or playing, we were outside. We joked about needing our vitamin D, just in case we caught the virus (where?), but the sun’s protective rays weren’t really what we were after. It felt good to be in the yard, to breathe in the aroma of newly cut grass. It felt sweet to pick a tomato grown from a seed we planted in a hole we’d dug with our own hands and just as good to find a squash plant popping out of our compost pile, requiring no effort from us at all.
Our yard’s a wonderland, but not in winter. The garden is gone. The grass is brown. The mountain breezes that kept me deliciously cool all summer are making me shiver now. We’re staying inside; we’re closing the windows and lighting the fire.
We’ve still got a nice view when we look outside or dash out to the mailbox and come right back in. I keep telling myself that should be enough. I’ve made our home as pleasant as possible and done what I could to replace what we’ve lost. I bought a TV, my first in 20 years, to take the place of movies. I bought a stationary bike to take the place of the gym. I bought enough flour to open a bakery and enough toilet paper to open a rest stop. We’ve got games and pets and projects. We’re supplied. We’re okay.
But we’re not outside. And parks, by their very nature, are outside affairs. It’s only week one of frigid winter weather, but I’m already getting a taste of that stir-craziness I’ve been reading about.
So next week, I’ll pack a lunch and my portable toilet and head for the Forgotten Coast. I’ve heard it isn’t safe to travel but isolating in one place is no different from isolating in another. We won’t be eating out. We won’t be hosting guests.
But we’ll be able to go outside. We’ll be able to walk along the beach, pick up shells, watch dolphins. It will be a different environment than the one I’m used to but a rat park all the same. And being back in nature should keep me (arguably)sane.