Fear or Hope, You Decide

Aditi Bhargava
10 min readJun 6, 2022

Over interpreting results and sound bites in science are dangerous but seem to have become the norm. A Linked-in post that my husband chanced upon was inferring about the power of “hope” from a rat behavioral experiment. My husband read the post aloud (taken verbatim from the post)- “An interesting Brutal experiment was conducted in the 1950s by a scientist named Dr. Curt Richter. In that experiment, he took a dozen domesticated rats and placed them into jars half-filled with water to test how long they could tread water. Unsurprisingly, the rats drowned, but the idea was to measure the amount of time they swam before they gave up and went belly up. On average they’d give up and sink after 15 minutes. But right before they gave up due to exhaustion, the researchers would pluck them out, dry them off, let them rest for a few minutes — and put them back in for a second round.

In this second try — how long do you think they lasted?” continued the blog.

My husband turned to me and repeated the question, how long did I think the rats lasted. I know well about behavioral tests such as the “forced-swim test” or the Morris water maze test but without further context about the experimental design by Dr. Richter, “learned helplessness/stress” popped up in my mind. And hence my response was that the rats “gave up” rather quickly. You see, most of these behavior experiments have a pre-training session, based on the question asked and I wasn’t sure what question was being interrogated. To my surprise, my husband read on “Remember — they had just swam until failure only a few short minutes ago…How long do you think? Another 15 minutes? 10 minutes? 5 minutes?

No!

60 hours!”.

As per the blog, I was so wrong, he announced. He then went to read the full post (see hyperlink).

I was surprised by a number of issues in this Linked-in post. Given the way animal protocols are approved and regulated, I couldn’t believe that the rats would be allowed to struggle for 60 hours! Death as an end point is seldom approved by most institutional animal committees these days. But these studies were performed way back in the 1940–50s. Furthermore, the author of the Linked-in post inferred that the goal of the experiment was “to measure the amount of time they swam before they gave up and went belly up”, which seemed like a curious rationale/aim. I questioned the interpretation of the results by the author of the Linked-in post.

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Aditi Bhargava

Dr. Aditi Bhargava is a molecular neuroendocrinologist with research focus on sex differences in stress biology and immunology.