Should I Stay Or Should I Go

January 7, 2010 at 7:45 PM | Posted in Mental health | Leave a comment
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One might think that lab rats lead relatively cushy lives compared to their wild brethren (and no I’m not comparing graduate students to fraternity brothers).  They’re well fed, provided with warm homes, kept in reasonably germ-free environments, and need not worry that a hungry owl or hawk will swoop down upon them at any given moment.  On the other hand, tomorrow morning a graduate student might implant electrodes in their brains, expose them to carcinogens or inject them with high doses of experimental drugs, in an attempt to determine the dosages that will kill half of them.  Perhaps, if they’re lucky, they’ll merely be guillotined and dissected.  Maybe they’ll be allowed to live in peace for a few more weeks.

I’m not saying that being a lab rat is a bad thing.  In fact, lab rats have made undeniable contributions to a wide variety of critical advances in biomedical science.  Ignoble creatures, leading noble lives.  Perhaps it’s penance for the unfortunate role they played in spreading the Black Plague.  Who knows?  Me.  I’d rather be wild.

In experiments designed to determine the effect of ambiguity on behavior, rats have been trained to expect food when a high tone sounds and a mild shock or a lesser reward, such as water, when a low tone sounds.  Over time, the high tone is lowered and the low tone is raised, to the point that the meaning of the tones becomes extremely ambiguous, and in response, the rats become anxious, disinterested, and mildly depressed.  In Evolution For Everyone, David Sloan Wilson recalls one such experiment that he attempted to replicate as a high school student:

“Somewhere I read about an experiment where rats were trained to expect food at the sound of a high tone and water at the sound of a low tone.  Gradually, the high lone was lowered and the low tone raised until their meaning became ambiguous, which supposedly made the rats go crazy.”

Dr. Wilson leaves it to his readers imagination as to whether he actually completed the experiment.  More ambiguity.

It’s obvious, at least to me, that daily encounters with ambiguity are a  common contributor to the chronic stress that now plagues much of humanity.   In Why Zebras Don’t Get UlcersRobert Sopalsky lays out a comprehensive case for chronic stress being a root cause of the diseases of civilization with wit and clarity. In this book, Dr. Sopalsky describes an experiment that aptly demonstrates that a change in circumstances isn’t necessary to give rise to a great deal of ambiguity.  Instead, rather than changing circumstances creating an ambiguity that makes future events less predictable, a static set of circumstances create an insoluble dilemma for the rats.  In the specific experiment described in the book the rats are presented with a situation in which a requirement for survival, food, can only be attained by ignoring an engrained survival instinct, the avoidance of bright light.  Rats are placed in a cage where food is found only at the center of the cage under a bright light and the perimeter of the cage is dark.  The rats instinctively settle down in the dark perimeter, but to satiate their hunger they must move into the brightly lit center of the cage.  They just can’t.  Their rat instincts tell them that entering the light is the equivalent of rat suicide, and rats just don’t do that.  It’s very much a no win situation, and the rats soon become frantic.  Rats maintained in this situation long enough eventually give up, lying listlessly in dark.  Martin Seligman has coined the term “learned helplessness” to describe this type of behavior, and it is probably one of the key causes of depression in human beings.

Depression is extremely rare among nomadic foragers, although it is much less rare, even common, among ex-foragers who have taken up more sedentary modern lifestyles.  Thus, Dr. Sopalsky includes it among the illnesses he describes as diseases of civilization.

The take home message:  Clarity people.  Under certain circumstances, passive-aggressive behavior is a very effective means of punishing a friend or family member precisely because clarity, in what is probably already a tense situation, is completely lacking; for those being punished, the ambiguity, and thus the stress, is inescapable and often intolerable.  The mind games played by the passive-aggressive are extremely stressful, and stress kills.


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