On Bearing 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 likely administered an analgesic before being placed inside the glass jar, and the amount of time it was willing to endure the pain of its hands and feet burning must have then been recorded and measured against other such experiments. The cruelty of trapping an animal and then turning the heat up beneath its feet elicits immediate revulsion, but 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. Wikipedia informs me that this act – jumping up and away from the hot plate – is a classic response in this particular scientific experiment.

I watched until the end of the video, and 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 painful hot plate it sat on. While it scampered around the edges of its clear prison, it never knew that it was capable of propelling itself so far, and while watching the video, I was also convinced of its inability as the seconds ticked by and the rat grew more and more uncomfortable. Its situation seemed hopeless, and like the animal itself, I never even 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.

It made me think about how the human animal licks its own mental wounds in daily life. Unlike the rat, we have much more complicated responses to even minimal amounts of pain or boredom: bags of salty potato chips, or our favorite television shows. I’m not against any of those things in principle – I found this very video by wandering into the more remote corners of YouTube, after all – but such activities rarely carry rewards beyond the time we allow ourselves to indulge in them, and they often allow us to escape from the discomforts of living. Low-level pain is bearable for a very long time, and as we are confronted day to day with painful moments, we opt for our usual methods of coping with discomfort rather than taking a more drastic leap into the unknown to separate ourselves from the source of our pain.

It also seems important to remember that the rat gained no special ability to overcome its pain by enduring it. The 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, but the prospect of leaping so far seemed impossibly terrifying compared to the immediate comfort of licking its fiery 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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