The Reality of Behavioral Pain
In a recent study reported in ScienceDaily, a trio of psychologists (Naomi I. Eisenberger, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Kipling D.Williams) discovered that the brain responds the same way to social isolation as it does to physical pain. Given the part of the brain involved and role the response to physical pain plays in animal survival, it seems reasonable to speculate that behavioral pain plays a critical role in domestic animals, too.
Briefly, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of a group of college students who participated in a game called Cyberball which was designed to socially exclude them. The students were led to believe that the ball-tossing figures on the screen corresponded to other real students who could choose to throw the ball to whomever they wanted. In the first part of the study, the students were told they couldn't participate in the game because of technical difficulties. In the second part, they believed they were incorporated into the game. In the third, they believed the other players were choosing not to throw the ball to them. In both parts of the test in which the students were excluded from play, fMRI scans revealed increased activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate which is involved in the negative reaction to painful events.
Other cingulate details relevant to this discussion include that it apparently functions as an interface between the more primitive, emotion-based responses of the limbic system and the more analytical ones of the frontal lobe. Second, while penile erection and grooming are associated with cingulate stimulation in laboratory animals, it may negate all activity (mutism) or cause increased activity, including muscular tics, grimacing, pacing, twirling, sniffing displays, among others, in humans. Third, surgically disconnecting the cingulate from the frontal lobe has been used as treatment for severe obsessive compulsive disorder in humans.
Returning to those college students, during those parts of the experiment in which the students were excluded from the game, the amount of activity recorded by fMRI in the anterior cingulate correlated with the amount of distress the students later reported experiencing during those same periods. In the third round, however, activity also increased in the ventral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with self-control and thoughts about emotions. The more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the less activity in the cingulate.
From this we can see that human animals, at least, have two routes of response to social isolation, one very primitive, more emotion-based one, and one that results from a process of conscious thought. The more the response arises from the latter, the less pain associated with the event.
When I read this report, I could immediately imagine those who find it difficult to ignore, for example, leaping canines saying, "Aha! I was right! Ignoring these dogs does cause them great physical pain because we're socially isolating them." However, I would counter this view on two counts. The first is that no matter how happy or endearing we may want to believe leaping or other exuberantly attention-seeking dogs are, it's also possible that these animals are expressing the tend/befriend fear response rather than joy. Consequently, when we react to these behaviors we are, in fact, reinforcing that animal's fear.
Second, recall what happened in the third part of the experiment. While all the students initially were upset when excluded from the game as a function of those technical problems, there were those who later used their higher brain centers to block the pain when rejection occurred again. One way or another they made their peace with the fact that were being excluded, and this decreased the amount of pain they felt. Perhaps they told themselves, "It's another technical problem the researchers don't know about," or maybe "Neat! I'm getting paid for doing nothing!" Rather than allowing themselves to feel victimized by the situation, they used it to their advantage.
Given how the majority of leaping dogs quickly settle and either doze off or amuse themselves, it's difficult for me not to believe that a similar phenomenon occurs somewhere in the canine brain. These dogs make the connection, "People reward me when I'm calm rather than stressed," a response that also makes sense in terms of survival. Stress and any physical or emotional pain associated with it is an extremely energy-expensive response that may undermine and even preclude the fulfillment of all but the most basic functions. Canine ancestors who could not cope with stress, i.e. emotional pain, surely were eliminated from the gene pool.
Now let's look at some other kinds of social isolation which occur in human-companion animal interactions. Often in the training literature we find references to managing serious behavioral problems in which people make environmental changes to limit or eliminate the amount of damage the animal can do. Cats who mark are confined to rooms covered with plastic sheeting; dogs with separation anxiety are locked in dog-proof rooms; aggressive dogs are kept in secure enclosures. Basically these animals, who are already experiencing fear-based behaviors and all the emotional pain that goes with these, are also being subjected to social isolation. While not worrying about the destruction of their belongings might decrease any negative feelings experienced by the owner, we can't overlook the fact that this approach might increase these animals' pain.
Another form of companion animal social isolation results when we take a problem-oriented rather than integrated approach to problems. The dog barks or the cat claws the furniture and we focus all of our attention on stopping that specific behavior. For example, we may put a shock or citronella collar on the barking dog or spray the clawing cat with a water pistol. Or maybe we give the animal a treat when he/she stops displaying the behavior. When the animal reliably stops displaying the defined "problem" behavior, we say the problem has been solved. However, because nothing has been done to address the underlying fear that causes the problem, most likely any pain associated with the negative behavior persists. To this pain, we must also add whatever social isolation is experienced by an animal who shares a home with humans who a) don't recognize the underlying stress the problem behavior communicated, b) prevent the animal from relieving the stress in that manner, and c) don't offer the animal any viable alternate way to deal with that stress.
Then we have those animals who hump/masturbate, pace, spin, and display other compulsive behaviors when stressed. Might they be telling us that they cannot make sense of what's going on around them, including our expectations relative to their behavior and their relationships with us?
This brings me to some final thoughts evoked by this study. If we accept that those who experience pain of behavioral origins are in every bit as much pain as those who experience that resulting from physical problems, how can we justify viewing those with serious behavioral problems as "healthy." It seems to me that denying euthanasia for such an animal is akin to denying it to one experiencing uncontrollable pain from cancer. Would we do it?
Granted some would not euthanize an animal with serious behavioral problems because they would not euthanize any animal suffering intractable pain of physical origin either. Whether we agree, no one can deny the ethical consistency of that view. However, how can we rationalize euthanizing those experiencing severe pain of physical origins at the same time we deny such release to those suffering emotion pain on the grounds that the latter are "healthy" when both conditions activate the same areas of the brain? I say we cannot, and the sooner we can get over our unsubstantiated beliefs that emotional/behavioral problems don't hurt every bit as much as physical ones, the sooner we will be able to respond to these in a meaningful way.
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