Thursday, October 14, 2010


I’ve been wondering how research might be different if well people visited doctors and psychologists. Would the doctors and psychologists get curious about the things that make people well? Maybe I’m wondering this because I recently read a speech made 10 years ago by Martin Seligman—one of my favourite positive psychology researchers. In that speech, he was quoting an article that said there were 46,000 articles on depression in the psychology literature, and only 400 articles on joy. I don’t know how the balance has changed in the past ten years, but I’m guessing it’s nowhere near equal yet. Depression, after all is a problem, and problems seem to get a lot of attention.
Then yesterday I came across an article about dogs and optimism Is Your Dog’s Bowl Half Full or Half Empty introducing me to the research done in the UK by Professor Mike Mendl of Bristol University's School of Clinical Veterinary Science. Here is what the article says about dogs and optimism.

“”The animals were taught that when a bowl was placed at one location in
the room, it would contain food - this was the 'positive' position. Meanwhile the animals learnt that a bowl placed at another location (the 'negative'
position) would be empty. Once the dogs had been trained, the scientists placed a bowl in an ambiguous location midway between the positive and negative
Dogs that ran quickly to this bowl, as if they expected it to contain a tasty morsel, were classed as being 'optimistic', while dogs that moved more slowly
towards the bowl were classed as 'pessimistic'.””

Using this measure of doggy optimism, the researchers were able to show that optimistic dogs experienced less anxiety when separated from their owners. Dogs and optimism! Wow, what a combination of interesting findings for a dog-loving HOPE LADY! That got me excited and I just had to share it with somebody. So I sent it to Dr. Derek Haley, my favourite animal behaviour specialist. He wrote:
“”Thanks Mom. Mike (Mendl, the scientist) is a friend and colleague.
They do great and interesting work there at Bristol, about cognitive abilities in animals too. For example, they are doing studies looking at pigs in an
experimental foraging task and trying to figure out whether individuals that have experience in the test arena where food is hidden, and who discover food
there, will later try to deceive other naive animals and lead them away from the food sources so that they can keep the food they have previously discovered,
all to themselves. I always talk to people about Mike's work because it's such basic research, and so interesting. Yet, it's almost impossible to get funding
for such basic research. The pig industry is not clamouring for scientists to uncover what cognitive abilities pigs have. Surprised?””

I guess I’m not surprised. Maybe there are a lot of basic things we don’t study because we take them for granted. We assume that joy is easy to find, so we study depression because it’s hard to shake. We assume that pigs are dumb, so we don’t look for evidence that they are smart. It takes a canny scientist to put effort into studying the behaviour of optimistic and pessimistic dogs.
There was a time when I didn’t see the value of basic research. I thought you shouldn’t waste resources studying things everybody already seems to know. I thought you had to know how to use results before you got them. But now I understand that basic research—because it surprises us--gives us the foundation to wonder things. For example, if 46,000 psychologists had written about joy, we might have a better idea how to create it, because we might have learned something about it that we don’t already think we know. And maybe pigs have a lot to teach us, only we don’t know what to ask them because we haven’t been interested enough to check out the basics of piggy wisdom. As for dogs, well I have a dog, and he checks his dish fairly often, just to see what’s in it. Sometimes it’s empty. Sometimes it’s full. I like to think he’s a hope dog.

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