On Low-Level Pain

I don’t remember exactly how I came across this video, and when I first clicked on it, I thought it was a cold-blooded backyard science experiment hidden away on some obscure YouTube account. But a few minutes of research informed me that this is a typical experiment in the study of analgesics, medicine for pain relief.

The small, white rat in the video was administered a pain-reducing analgesic before being placed inside the glass jar. The amount of time it was willing to endure the pain of its hands and feet burning was then measured and recorded. By the end of the video, the white rat does the unthinkable by leaping to the top of the glass jar, escaping the heat of the hot plate. This act – jumping up and away from the hot plate – is a classic response in this particular experiment.

The rat’s response ultimately struck me as profound because the option of leaping upward was available to it throughout the three uncomfortable minutes it spent rubbing its hands together to distract from the pain it felt. While it scampered around the edges of its clear prison, it didn’t know of its actual options. While watching the video, I, too, was convinced of its inability to do anything about its situation as the seconds ticked by and the rat grew more and more uncomfortable. Like the animal itself, I never considered that it had the power to leap out of the jar until I saw it happen in the last few moments of the video.

This made me think about how we all lick our own mental wounds in daily life. Unlike the rat, we have much more complicated responses to even minimal amounts of pain or boredom; we have bags of salty potato chips, endless streaming music, and our favorite television shows, to name a few popular avenues of avoidance these days. Pleasurable though they are, these activities rarely carry rewards beyond the time we allow ourselves to indulge in them, and they have come to primarily be used to escape from the discomforts of living. Low-level pain is bearable for a very long time with such an array of entertainments available to us at the present moment.

But there are other avenues to take when confronted with low-level pain. In the video above, the rat’s pain was in no way necessary for the rat to learn its lesson. From the very beginning, it could have jumped to the top of the jar and escaped the heat beneath it. But the prospect of leaping so far seemed impossibly terrifying compared to the immediate and manageable avenue of licking its burning hands and feet. It was only when the heat became unbearable that it was willing to put itself in a precarious position at the lip of the container, lost and terrified at what would have to come next but surely in a better place than it was before.

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