Psychoanalysts and elephants, they never forget. –Arthur Laurents

Unfortunately, the deadline for submission for the forthcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has passed. Why unfortunate? There is a serious disorder that appears to have been overlooked: Repetitive Research Disorder (RRD). Similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), RRD has long been hidden from open discussion, whispered about behind closed doors, and given various monikers to veil its stigmatizing symptoms. Those who speak out for its victims are labeled hysterics and blacklisted from their professions. Yet few will deny that RRD has reached epidemic proportions.

Here, through an excerpt taken from clinical transcripts, we are provided with a glimpse into the pernicious nature of RRD and the difficulties encountered in treatment. Names and details have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

Lucy behind bars

Lucy behind bars.


: Hi! So tell me, what's going on?

Client: Everyday we hear more of the same thing.

Therapist: Like what? Give me an example.

Client: Well, like, elephants passed the mirror test. There was an experiment at a zoo and this elephant recognized herself in the mirror. She passed the test.

Therapist: So, what does that mean?

Client: Well it's big, I mean really big. Elephants have mirror neurons, grieve, have complex cultures, mourning rituals, all sorts of emotions and complicated ways of talking to each other, get PTSD, Theory of Mind, have brains and minds that likely surpass our own, use tools, have incredible memories and cognitive skills, and now: a sense of self. And it's not just them. All the data and theory show it's true for all animals—chickens, bears, rabbits, orcas, parrots, chimpanzees—even insects!

Therapist: How does that affect you?

Client: I was blown away. It means that they're just like us. Animals and people are the same. Or maybe animals are smarter and better than us humans. I mean they don't kill each other like we do, don't make war, and don't destroy the planet. Elephants are really, really powerful but hardly ever hurt anyone.

Therapist: How does that make you feel?

Client: Panicky.

Therapist: Okay. Tell me more about that panicky feeling.

Client: What if we are running out of things to research? What if we know everything we need to know about animals? What happens if I have to apply what we already know? What are we gonna do?!

Therapist: Okay, okay, take it easy. Sit back. Take a deep breath. Go to your safe place. Good. Now, let's take it more slowly. Think about what we did last time, okay? Let's go over that.

Client [breathing deeply]: Okay. Okay. Last time this happened, I sat down, relaxed, and wrote up another grant proposal for more research.

Therapist: Good, good. Go on.

Client: I wrote another grant and it got funded. Then, we wrote up the results and it got published at the Academy: "Can Elephants (Loxodonta africana) Chew Gum and Walk at the Same Time? A Cognitive-Affective Field Experiment." It was voted best paper of the year.

Therapist: And then?

Client: And then we got more funding for the next three years. You're right. I guess I panicked and forgot that we never really have to do anything. We don't have to apply all the science. We can just keep on doing research and creating more data. Even when we run out of elephants in the wild, we have enough in captivity and more can be bred and even cloned, you know? And we can also work on different species and still get conservation funding. Phew! That was scary. Thanks for the coaching.

Therapist: That was good work today. Just remember that you are not alone. There are millions of others like you-researchers faced with having to do something honest and useful and having to deal with that possibility. Take care and see you next session.

RRD (Repetitive Research Disorder) is on the rise. Some argue that it does not stand on its own, but is a variant of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Nonetheless, while differential diagnosis is not always possible, RRD continues to haunt generations of researchers worldwide. Unless some intervention can be formulated, it is likely that those who suffer from RRD will be forced to do something, to admit that we know enough and that scientific evidence demands rights for animals equal to those of humans.

As healthcare professionals, we are ethically compelled to address this serious threat to modern culture. If not, we risk saving the planet.

Photo credits: Rob Laidlow, Zoocheck Canada

Bear in Mind

Exploring the common minds and emotions of people and other animals and their lives together

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