Saturday, May 19, 2012

Like a Drowned Rat

In 1957 Curt P. Richter reported interesting laboratory results based on what many of us would describe as "rat torture."  You can read the relatively brief article at  Be a little patient, because he starts out discussing the phenomenon of "Voodoo Death."  He gets to the experimental evidence fairly soon after that.

Richter and his colleagues forced rats to swim in enclosed jars of water until they drowned.  The overall experiment showed that some of the rats were able to continue swimming up to sixty hours, depending on water temperature (thus the torture).

The experimenters also noticed a wide distribution in swimming times when the temperature was at an optimum level (95 degrees Fahrenheit).  A few rats lasted only minutes before succumbing to their watery graves.  A few rats continued to swim for well over 60 hours.  "At all temperatures, a small number of rats died within 5-10 minutes after immersion," Richter reports, "while in some instances others apparently no more healthy swam as long as 81 hours."

The experimenters created a variety of conditions for the rat subjects to determine some cause for the differences in survival times.  Richter's conclusion is one of several experimental insights that began to move psychology away from the sterile battle between Freudian psychodynamics and Skinnerian behaviorism:
"The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight--it is rather one of hopelessness; whether they are restrained in the hand or confined in the swimming jar, the rats are in a situation against which which they have no defense.  This reaction of hopelessness is shown by some wild rats very soon after being grasped in the hand and prevented from moving; they seem literally to 'give up.'"
I don't recall which contemporary psychologist first put me on to "Richter the Rat Torturer."  When I read this paragraph, however, I was riveted.  Hopelessness in a situation against which they have no defense...suddenly I felt like a subject in such an experiment conducted on a cosmic scale.

The sudden death of a loved one, in my experience, produced a sense of helplessness like none I have ever known.  There is no further option.  There is no changing what has happened.  There is no alternative path back to life.  Rats who surrendered to the reality of their situation perished in minutes.  I had an idea what they experienced.

The resilient rats also died, of course.  I was so grateful, therefore, that the article continued a bit further.  Researches made the observation, Richter reports, "that after the elimination of hopelessness the rats do not die"--not for a long time, anyway.

The technicians eliminated the rat hopelessness "by repeatedly holding the rats briefly and then freeing them, and by immersing them in water on several occasions."  The goal of this priming activity was to convince the rats that there might be some avenue of escape that was possible.  In terms of hope theory, the rats were "told" that an alternative pathway to the future might exist.

When rats received such hope coaching, they lived significantly longer.  Hope is a choice based on experience and courage.  Hope is current confidence in a better future.

I know, all this talk of persuading and coaching Norway rats seems to move into the realm of science fiction.  But I don't write it, I just report it.  When I first read the study report I thought to myself, "If rats can be persuaded to have new hope, then perhaps I can get there as well."

I'm not swimming for my life in an enclosed jar, although at some moments that was an accurate description of my emotional state.  I don't have anyone holding me and releasing me in order to condition my future responses.  Instead, I cling to the substance of the Christian hope--that death is not the final word for this cosmos.  For me Jesus is the true and living Way to the future, the hope that does not disappoint.  When all other hopes fail me, I know that New Life is still available.

That is a much longer conversation (yet to come), but it's amazing where a drowning rat can take you if you're willing to go.

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