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Skinner Box

Somewhere in the world there is a rat in a cage who is scratching at a malfunctioning button with its tiny paws. The scientist who set up the experiment is long gone. Dead, actually. The rat should be dead too, except that by some odd turn of destiny it’s still in there, engaging in pleasure circuit stimulation. The rat has become something of a nihilist: not only is there no sign of the designer of the experiment, but its pleasure console is now cut off from any power. The room is dark and the mechanism is essentially fried.

The rat paces around its cage once in a while doing push-ups to test himself. It starts building a routine, develops rat muscles, wonders how strong it will be when it gets out of the cage. One day while pacing by the glass checking out its voluptuous shapes, it sees its dear old pleasure button out of the corner of its eye. It doesn’t take much convincing on the button’s end for the rat to give up its act and go press the dead button for a few days, losing all but its most basic physical faculties, relinquishing any kind of progress it had made.

The rat fantasizes that if only it were given better living conditions, sunlight, waterslides, a rat girlfriend, then it would give up the button and develop a quality of life. But deep down the rat knows that’s not true.

A long time ago, when the experimenter was still around, he had introduced all of those things in the rat’s cage as part of the study, to see if the rat would give up the artificially-induced pleasure for those natural elements of a good life. The consensus around the scientific community was that most rats would indeed turn away from their pleasure controller if such good things were introduced into their existence. But not this rat.

No, this rat seemed to be committed to the bitter end. It outlived its god, outlived its own common sense. It wanted to feel more than it wanted to live, yet ironically it continued to live and never really felt anything. I don’t know how the story ends, but I have heard that this rat eventually suffered a fate worse than death. In fact, I never even dared to ask the experimenter who finally found the little mammal what had happened to it.

There is an alternate version to this story. It follows a similarly famous experiment, involving an octopus and a puzzle. The experimenter locked the mollusc in a maze-like aquarium and stepped outside for a decade-long smoke break. The octopus knew it could escape, but didn’t exactly have a reason to do so. It was quite comfortable in the tank, with plenty of fish to get fat on if he didn’t bother solving the puzzle. It certainly wasn’t sure that, even if it did put in the effort to escape, a better life would necessarily be waiting outside the aquarium. No, the sensible thing to do was to stay captive and pretend not to know how to play the game at all. Perhaps make a few half-hearted escape attempts, just in case the scientist had cameras around recording expectantly.

One day the octopus grew genuinely tired of his environment. It was its third time regurgitating and reabsorbing all the fish, the water was getting stale, but most of all it had the realization that without a wilful escape it would spend the rest of its mollusc life in a prison to which it was complicit. As profoundly seductive as this prison had once been, all of its nine brains now agreed that there was nothing left in the tank worth staying for.

So the animal shook off its complacent suffering and tapped into the wit it had all along and made a swift escape. At his point the scientist returned triumphantly and wrote down on his notepad that some animals did indeed have the ability to muster enough willpower to escape from simple but comfortable mazes. Perhaps now he should go check on the rat he left a couple lifetimes ago in the dopamine playground.

I’ve actually heard of a third experiment, this one less widely known, of a scientist who placed his own internal organs in different special dishes that could sustain their independent life. He went as far as to put his heart in there, then he placed those containers in an arcane temple suffused with effigies of old and greedy gods, and he wiped his memory clean. The experiment turned on him, I think. He spent the rest of his days worshipping at the altar of that temple, praying that the gods would let him have control over his biology once again. The deities declined him any help, though, because they either didn’t exist or disdained the scientist for his ridiculous offering.

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