Thursday, December 6, 2007

Which Rat Were You?

When I arrived home, my three children were dispersed about the living room in a random fashion. It was Monday night, and my wife had called us together as a family to entertain frank, open, honest and positive discussion. It was Spenser's turn to choose the evening's topic of conversation. Our son informed us that tonight's forum would revolve around "stress". I smirked to myself, thinking I could have some fun with this.

Lorraine Black, Joann Johnson, Spencer, Alicia Nelson & Peggy Black
Spenser Simpson with Navajo Basket Weavers at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

"Good," I said to the boy, "because I am stressed about the fact that your skinny frame is parked smack dab in the middle of my overstuffed, king-sized, super soft, distressed leather lounge chair. Hit the road skippy!" Laurie walked up behind me, making me jump. She does not always appreciate my humor, so I have to be respectful of her sensitivities; at least when she's within ear-shot.

Laurie frowned at me disapprovingly and asked if I wouldn't rather sit on the couch, with her. Carefully considering the implications of my actions, I decided that would certainly be the correct path. As I moved towards the couch, Spenser shot me a victorious grin. I gave my boy child a threatening look and mumbled, just loud enough for him to hear, that I was about to distress his leather.

Just before I arrived at my wife's side, Alyssa and McKale jumped up and
flanked her; effectively cutting me off at the pass. It seems my children derive great pleasure from inconveniencing me. I should have given fatherhood more careful consideration. I sighed in resignation, and flopped down on the saggy, baggy bean bag, readying myself to hear Spenser's thoughts.

With a nod of her head, Laurie gave our son permission to start. "Yeah,
go ahead," I said. "The sooner we get this over, the sooner we can get to those cookies I smell baking." A "no cookies for you!" look from Laurie stopped me in my sarcastic tracks. I groaned inwardly at my faux pas and angrily wondered to myself, just what experience Spenser might have with stress; the boy is 17 years old for heaven's sake.

Other than juggling high school and college classes, hormones, peer pressure, GPAs, ACTs, and ZITs, there is no significant stress. Kids stuff, a piece of cake compared to the life and times of a full-fledged adult. In the mean time, Spenser had been talking about the battle between mind and body, coping with stress, the the power of prayer, supportive families and exercise. Spenser noticed I was not paying attention, and asked if I had something to add to the discussion; the little bugger thought he had me. "Yeah," I said. " I know a bit about stress." "Pray tell," said my once darling man child.

I told my family of a Radio Lab story I had downloaded on my iPod. The pod cast concerned research by Robert M. Sapolsky, a neuroscientist. It seems rats have many human-like traits, so Dr. Sapolsky places rats in very tense and stressful situations to study their reactions. These unloved and unlucky rodents are singled out for many an initial test in which we human beings refuse to participate. In the tests, there are four or five ways in which rats alleviate pain. Scientists find parallels between the rats and humans, thus gaining greater insight and understanding into how most of us cope with stress.

The basic scenario is that there are two cages side by side; one rat in each cage, and both are going to get shocked. The electrical charge is exactly the same for each rat, the difference is that the rat in cage one just gets the shock, while the rat in the other is psychologically manipulated; getting four different scenarios or "fixes".

In the first version of the test designed to help the rat cope with stress and determine his character, a second rat is added to the cage. After receiving the shock, the first rat runs over and beats the heck out of the second rodent. This rat is going to be fine, no ulcer here, because it has someone on which to vent its frustration. Apparently abusive outlets feel great and are an effective stress reliever.

In the second scenario, the rat that gets zapped is given a stick to gnaw on. This also seems to alleviate stress and the rat, of course, is much less abusive to others.

In the third trial, the rat gets a warning that the shock is coming; a red light comes on just before the electrical charge. It seems the rat can cope better if it is able to predict the shock and prepare for the inevitable.

McKale, Alyssa, Laurie & Barry
Barry Simpson and Family

Scenario number four provides the rat with a lever that at one time reduced the voltage, but no more. It does not seem to matter that the lever no longer works, as long as the rat thinks he has control, he can better cope. The control (or perceived control) makes stress more manageable.

So what we learn from all this zapping is that beating up one another, chewing a stick, being forewarned or having a sense of control, even if it is false, are effective stress relievers. Other stress minimizers might be exercise, relaxation or, in some cases, therapy. If we can find a way to cope, we can survive. Oh yeah, the rat in the other cage, constantly being electrocuted with no way to relieve stress went totally insane, got sick and died of a massive heart attack!

"Dr. Sapolsky is a professor at Stanford University," I told my son airily. "He has also developed some provocative theories, that might interest you, by studying baboons in the wild." It appeared I had made a positive impression on my family; especially Spenser. I could see him thinking deeply as he pushed down the foot rest and sat forward in my chair. As he lifted himself up he said, "I only have one question." "Go ahead son," I said. "So, . . . which rat were you?" Spenser then sprinted from the room, knowing full well what my reaction would be. "Dibs on Dad's cookies!" shouted the girls in unison as they followed their brother into the kitchen.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

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