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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