Bully Rats, Tasers, and Stress

New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier has an interesting piece in today’s edition (link here) about an experiment using lab rats to assess the effects of chronic stress, feedback loops in the brain, and how to reverse the damage.  It’s a good report on a thought-provoking study, but for me it confirmed what has become obvious:

According to Angier, the researchers exposed rats to stressful environments, including “moderate electric shocks, being encaged with dominant rats, [and] prolonged dunks in water.”  These “chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.”  Their brains became rewired, as “regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.”

“In other words,” reports Angier, “the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers.”

Fortunately, once removed from the stressful environment and given a bit of vacation, the rats showed signs of recovery:  “But with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the [food pellet] bar.”

As I read the piece, I found myself thinking, yeah, I’ve seen this before.  I’ve witnessed the same feedback loop over and again with targets of severe workplace bullying and others who have been stuck in stressful, difficult, and highly dysfunctional work settings.  I’ve also seen genuine transformations when people remove themselves from these settings and spend time in healthier environments.

I will resist the temptation to ponder here whether it was necessary to subject animals to an experiment that sadly could be done with human subjects facing a variety of stressful real-life situations, including work.  Indeed, the results of this experiment merely reinforce a lot of what we’ve come to understand about unhealthy workplaces — and how to help folks who are suffering because of them.

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