A Rat’s History of Psychology – Part 2

Continuing my fearless exposé of rats' contributions to the history of psychology...

Part 2 in our series: Psychology from the point of view of a humble – but opinionated – rat

Little Albert and the Rat

I have to say this right from the start: I never meant the little guy to get upset.

This is what really happened. John Watson wanted to show that he could create fear where no fear had been before. For some reason, he figured that a young baby would be the perfect experimental subject. Weird.

That little boy, Albert, wasn’t even one year old, but he was already a nice little kid – gentle, friendly and not in the slightest bit worried about me scurrying around nearby. He and I were getting along just fine. Then the big guy, Watson, decided to scare us both to death by whacking a steel bar with a hammer. Well, of course Albert was upset. I was pretty shocked myself. He burst out crying. I reckon it took him a few minutes to calm down.

Then every time I went near the little fellow I heard that awful loud noise. Soon Albert didn’t want to have anything more to do with me. Even when there was no sound at all, Albert jumped violently and began to cry whenever he saw me. I hadn’t even so much as nibbled his cute, fat little cheeks!

Look, I understand the theory of the experiment, but why did I have to be the fall guy? And why was that innocent, defenceless little baby chosen as the lead participant?

In psychological terms, this is what happened: that little baby had acquired not just a physical reaction but an emotion that he now connected with me, even though he hadn’t been afraid of me at all at the start. He had linked that loud, scary noise, which naturally frightened him, with me, a harmless furry creature with a friendly nature and a-maz-ing intelligence. Even without the loud sound, Albert had learned to fear me.

This is a form of classical conditioning, an automatic form of learning. You don’t have to think about it to form an association between two stimuli. If those stimuli are presented together enough times, bingo, you have learned something. You can’t stop yourself. That’s horrifying, if you think about it. The emotion that Albert learned is called a conditioned emotional response or a phobia. Humans have developed a conditioned emotional response when they feel scared at the sound of a dentist’s drill or happy at the sound of an old song to which they once danced with a loved one.

We rats don’t have to worry about dentists, of course, and the advertisers who use classical conditioning to sell everything from Coke to underpants don’t care about us. But I still feel pretty bad about little Albert. You see, when his mother found out what was going on, she took Albert away. His fear was never extinguished. Wherever he is, he might still be scared of white furry things – like me and Santa masks. Poor little kid.

There’s nothing scary about me, honestly. But some research psychologists are downright spooky.

Extra reading: http://www.simplypsychology.org/classical-conditioning.html

A simple flowchart: before, during and after conditioning

A Rat’s History of Psychology – Part 1

Part 1 – Rat feeding time

Your teachers may seem knowledgeable about psychology, but if you want to hear from someone who has experienced the subject from the inside, ask a rat.

Like me, for instance. I can tell you, I’ve run mazes with the best of them. Pressed levers too. I was lucky that they left me out of the brain surgery group. Fortunately, my hypothalamus is still intact. If it weren’t, I’d be in no shape to be the mascot of this blog.

Psychology is a relatively young science. Luckily for us rats. It wasn’t really until the nineteenth century that people began to study human behaviour using the kind of scientific approach that modern psychologists like to imagine they bring to their work.* Of course, there had been philosophers long before that time who had ruminated on the nature of consciousness. But the people who began to study human thought and behaviour scientifically, using a systematic method that could be repeated by others and written up in dusty journals, emerged only in the nineteenth century.

This history is not about Wilhelm WundtWilliam James, Sigmund Freud or even Jean Piaget. Forget about Hermann Ebbinghaus. This is a rat’s history.

You may be shocked to learn of the cruel exploitation of rats in the history of psychology. If you’re sensitive, don’t read on.

For example, we rats were part of a study in 1943 that showed how vital the hypothalamus is to the experience of hunger. Rats with a lesion (in this case an injury caused by surgery) in one part of this tiny structure in the brain showed little or no interest in eating. They had to be fed intravenously; otherwise, they would have died. When a different part of the hypothalamus was cut or lesioned, the affected rats couldn’t stop eating. They no longer knew when they’d had enough. The first kind of rat became emaciated, the second obese (Brobeck, Tepperman and Long, 1943).

I feel great compassion for the rat comrades who were subjects in that experiment. Is that kind of suffering ever justified? 

That study provided all sorts of information about the role of our hypothalamus. The human hypothalamus is similarly important. It’s about the size of a kidney bean but it is vital to the regulation of basic biological needs. One of its key functions is to control the autonomic nervous system. It is consequently vital in regulating the so-called four f’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding and mating.

So, you see, that experiment provided insight into many topics that you will encounter in your years of psychology study:

*The brain (view 3D pictures of the brain online at the Genes to Cognition website)
*The hypothalamus
*The autonomic nervous system
*The regulation of hunger and other biological needs
*The fight-or-flight response
*Sex, arousal and so on

I need hardly say that as a rat I feel torn. On the one hand, we have contributed to the development of human knowledge. On the other, we have suffered for it.

Kind regards,

The Rat

*Wilhelm Wundt established the first formal laboratory for research in psychology at the University of Leipzig in 1879 and the first scientific journal in 1881. He viewed psychology as the scientific study of conscious experience and he founded a new science that drew from both philosophy and physiology but modelled itself, at least in theory, on the scientific method of fields such as physics and chemistry.

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