Cool Science

Lizard Brain v. Lion Heart

A graduate student I know is trying to decide whether to stick with her program or bag it and follow her husband who has managed… in this economy… to score a permanent gig with benefits. She has been asking everyone she knows, and the occasional random stranger, what she should do. This inspired me to think about how we make decisions and why, according to scientific studies, we rarely get it right.

When we make decisions, there is a tug of war between the brain and the heart, between logic and emotion. Some decisions are all brain… leaping out of the way of a speeding truck. Some decisions are all heart… do I pick the red shirt or the blue shirt? Unfortunately for us, most decisions fall in the middle and we have a hard time balancing the needs and wants of the head and the heart especially when we are making a decision that impacts our happiness.


Rat Park and Deciding to Ditch the Career

First, let me explain what I mean by Rat Park.

We have all heard, in some apocryphal form, about the addiction experiments where rats would keep hitting the switch for cocaine (or some other drug) until they died. They chose the drug over everything else including food, water and other rat companions. In 1981, psychologist
Bruce Alexander ran a slightly different experiment. He noticed that in all the previous studies, the rats were kept in small, wire cages under very grim conditions. He wanted to test what the rats would do if they were housed in the equivalent of Rat Park. Would their behaviors change?

The rats living in Rat Park had lots of room, food and water, access to rats of the opposite sex and private places for their own dens. These rats eschewed the drugs. Those rats who entered addicted went out clean and those who were clean in Rat Park but moved to Rat Hell immediately started to drug up.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned here. Two examples come to mind: (1) bad experimental design and (2) correlation not equaling causation (i.e. rat suicide due to living in Hell as opposed to cocaine being all that). However, like all good addiction researchers, let’s extrapolate this behavior to humans.