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Drowning Rats and Human Depression: Positive Psychology for Whom?

Do drowning rats really have anything to do with human depression?

Key points

  • Several abusive animal studies have been conducted to further understand human psychology, resulting in little, if any, new knowledge.
  • Research shows that rats have empathy, so they experience not only their pain but others' as well during experiments.
  • As data comes to light about the psychological capabilities of non-humans, people will have to confront their own ethics around animal studies.

Last week I received a news release from Georgia State University saying that "Researchers find gender-specific differences in the brain's responses to abuse." An abstract of the research project can be seen here.

The summary reads, "To determine whether juvenile social subjugation (JSS) of rats induces mood disorder-like symptoms, we exposed 28 day-old male and female rats to daily aggressive acts from aggressive male residents. Each rat received pins, kicks, and dominance postures from the resident for 10 min per day for 10 days."

Researchers then measured circulating basal and stress-evoked corticosterone (CORT) levels and weighed the adrenal glands and discovered "stress-evoked CORT levels were significantly higher, and adrenal gland weights were significantly heavier, in subjugated females relative to their controls and to subjugated males." Okay, the animals were stressed due to being dominated and females showed a more elevated response.

The stressed animals were also then given what's called a swim test to see how long they'd tread water before giving and females became more immobile more quickly than males. The grand conclusion drawn is that "JSS [juvenile social subjugation] increases depression- and anxiety-like behaviors and sensitizes the stress response system in a sex-specific manner."

I also discovered this related project described as follows: "We used two behavioral measurements: One is the force swim test, the other is the learned helplessness test," said Bo Li, a researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. "The 'learned helplessness test' tested how hard a rat would try to escape an unpleasant situation ... animals that model a depressed state have a high threshold to avoid unpleasant stimuli, which means they lack the motivation to seek a better environment. The researchers measured the neural activity in the rats with a method called whole-cell patch-clamp recording, a process where the brain is removed from the rats, and then cut into thin slices. The brain cells can be maintained alive for about eight hours once removed from the body."

This research in what's generally called "positive psychology" is a continuation of the horrific research performed by Curt Richter in the 1950s. A summary reads as follows: "Animals are subjected to two trials during which they are forced to swim in an acrylic glass cylinder filled with water, and from which they cannot escape. The first trial lasts 15 minutes. Then, after 24-hours, a second trial is performed that lasts 5 minutes. The time that the test animal spends without moving in the second trial is measured. This immobility time is decreased by antidepressants. In 1957, Dr. Curt P Richter added his riff on the theme, finding that when rats are placed into a highly stressful swimming situation will frequently die very quickly. He put two sets of rats into water. The untouched control rats drowned in despair quite quickly. In the other tank, the venerable doctor ‘saved' half the rats, those that were left swam in hope for 3 days. They eventually drowned, exhausted ..." That's right, Richter saved the rats and then let them drown when they gave up hope.

Adding insult to injury, we now know rats display empathy and that they not only suffered their own but other's pain.

Following up on this was Martin Seligman's research on learned helplessness, described as follows: "When a normal, naïve dog receives escape/avoidance training in a shuttlebox, the following behavior typically occurs: At the onset of electric shock the dog runs frantically about, defecating, urinating, and howling until it [sic] scrambles over the barrier and so escapes from shock. On the next trial the dog, running and howling, crosses the barrier more quickly, and so on, until efficient avoidance emerges." (From: Seligman, M. E. P., Maier, S. F., and Geer, J. H. 1968. Alleviation of learned helplessness in the dog. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 73, 256-262).

The research has not led to new understanding of humans

So, while positive psychology, for which Professor Seligman is the main spokesperson, should surely be embraced as the wave of the future, its roots lie in highly abusive research that ultimately told us little about humans. Surely nothing that came of it helped dogs or other non-humans. And, while we can philosophize about the ethics of Professor Seligman and what he and his colleagues did or didn't do, it's interesting to ask people who supported this research if they would have allowed their own companion dogs (or rats) to be subjects, or really unnamed numbered objects, in these horrific experiments, or if they themselves would have done the research. Everyone I've asked, including researchers, has looked at me with incredulity and said a resounding "no!" If they wouldn't do it to their companion dog or rat why would they allow it to be done to other sentient beings?

So, what do these experiments have to do with human depression? It doesn't seem like very much if anything at all. Indeed, researchers agree they don't and in some instances, outcomes opposite to predictions have been produced (see also).

My colleague Lori Marino refers to the misuse of data as "ethical gerrymandering." She writes, "As data revealing complex psychological characteristics in members of other species continue to come forth the scientific community is faced with the question of whether to adhere to its own principles and adjust to these findings or to ignore the implications for continued use of these animals in invasive ways. The integrity of the scientific enterprise rests upon whether we continue gerrymandering our data for the sake of professional objectives or take up the challenge of consistency in our roles as scholars, teachers, and human beings."

Research such as this on human depression reminds me of all the abusive animal studies done on human eating disorders that had no effect at all on the treatment of humans. For further discussion of this and the use of animal models in human psychology see Kenneth Shapiro's book, Animal Models of Human Psychology: Critique of Science, Ethics, and Policy.

This sort of research has got to stop. It's a waste of money and lives of sentient animals and hasn't helped anyone very much except for the researchers. Surely the animals get nothing out of it at all. Professor Seligman claims to be an animal lover. Perhaps the other researchers do too. Given this, I'm glad they don't love me.