The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

Going In Alone or Friends With Benefits?

Why we need the company of others

Misery may love company for some very good reasons. Chief among them being that a good companion can sometimes un-glitch us when alone we might remain hopelessly quagmired by our own isolation.

Moe was an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin whose experience with companion animal Mana illustrates the benefits fine fellowship can confer upon social animals, ranging from humble house mouse to our planet’s prime primate, homo sapien.

It may seem silly to think of a dolphin cowering in terror at the thought of taking a brief swim in a sunlit bay, as Moe was invited to do a few short years ago by human trainers working under contract for the U.S. Navy. But imagine yourself transported to the edge of an unfamiliar and seemingly impenetrable jungle and being asked to go for a stroll.

Who knows what dangers lurk?

Give the choice to a hundred people, and a few hardy souls might sally forth without a second thought. But most of us would hesitate. We’d weigh our options, imagine poisonous snakes and hungry tigers. We’d mutter an excuse about needing to shampoo our hair and politely demur in favor of a hot bath and an evening of social networking from the relative safety of our i-Phones.

Ahh, the comforts of home.

Like most of us, Moe was raised in the domestic bliss of captivity. But unlike us, he had no hair to shampoo and no i-Phone to hide behind. And so, when the gate of his netted enclosure opened wide, offering him free access to San Diego Bay and the wide Pacific beyond, he did the same thing any civilized homebody might: he tucked his tail beneath him and hid in the farthest corner of his home he could find.

While earnest about providing Moe with reassurance, the dolphin’s trainers were also eager to help him reach the pinnacle of his free-swimming potential. They wanted Moe to take the plunge.

Enter Mana, an older male veteran of open water work who had been friends with Moe for years. Trainers placed the two animals side-by-side and tried again. The gate swung open. Moe retreated, diving again into a corner for cover. Mana, meanwhile, charged through the gate, eager to stretch his flukes and dine on restaurant-quality fish tossed by trainers as rewards from the side of a boat.

Problem was Mana was in motion, but the boat wasn’t. Mana doubled back to find the training boat patiently waiting for Moe. It didn’t take Mana long to catch on to the idea that this was one of those never-leave-your-swim-buddy scenarios described in Navy training manuals. Not that Mana had ever been much of a reader. But still, he got the picture.

At first, Mana approached Moe’s side, then quickly darted away toward the open gate – the dolphin equivalent of “C’mon, what’s your problem? The wide world awaits.”

Moe wouldn’t budge.

Over time, Mana’s approach became more subtle. He waited by Moe’s side until the nervous dolphin relaxed. Then Mana would swim a short distance from Moe before circling back and trying again. It took several weeks, but Mana gradually coaxed Moe to the gate and, eventually beyond into open water in an impressive display of the benefits of companionship.

A recent study by Stanford University School of Medicine published in the journal Nature Medicine indicates there may be more to the notion of companionship than bosom buddies might suspect.

The brains of elderly mice, it seems, function better when nourished by transfused blood from younger mice. In tests of spatial memory, old mice fueled by young mouse blood outperformed mice operating without the benefit of transfusion as well as mice who had received blood from fellow old-timers.

Researchers said that may be because, in mice as well as in humans, the hippocampus is critical for maintaining the ability to create new memories relating to spatial pattern recognition, but it is also a region of the brain especially prone to deterioration related to aging. Interestingly, older mice with young mouse blood produced more of the neural chemicals the hippocampus makes when individuals undertake the learning of new tasks.

What is more, studies undertaken by Japanese neuroscientist Takefumi Kikusui revealed a decade ago that the mere presence of a calm, cool, and collected companion during times of tension is enough to beneficially alter blood cortisol levels in the bodies of guinea pigs, rats, monkeys, and humans, thereby alleviating feelings of stress.

So, while misery may love company, we may be wise to seek solace for our troubles not in the tempestuous emotions of currently suffering fellows, but rather from those who have already worked their way into the calming sea of solutions. The right kind of companionship may just provide the fresh blood we need to move ourselves beyond our own limitations.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2014

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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