Nature’s Playground: Exploring the Spurious Connection between Rat Wrestling, Lobster Behavior, and Human Nature

Sud Alogu
13 min readJan 16, 2023

Ivan Petrovich Sokolov was a Soviet physiologist and neuroscientist who made significant contributions to the study of the orienting response. The orienting response is a reflexive shift in attention to a new or novel stimulus, characterized by changes in physiological and behavioral measures such as heart rate, pupil dilation, and orienting movements of the eyes or head.

Sokolov was one of the first scientists to systematically study the orienting response in the 1950s and 1960s. He conducted a series of experiments in which he presented subjects with sudden and unexpected stimuli, such as a loud noise or a bright light, and measured the resulting changes in physiological and behavioral measures.

One of Sokolov’s key findings was that the orienting response is a two-stage process. The first stage, known as the “alerting” stage, is characterized by a rapid increase in heart rate and pupil dilation in response to the sudden stimulus. The second stage, known as the “orienting” stage, is characterized by a slower decrease in heart rate and pupillary dilation, as well as orienting movements of the eyes or head towards the stimulus.

Sokolov also showed that the orienting response can be modulated by various factors, such as the novelty or relevance of the stimulus, the subject’s prior expectations, and their level of attention or arousal. He proposed that the orienting response serves an adaptive function, helping organisms to quickly and efficiently detect and respond to important or potentially dangerous stimuli in their environment.

Sokolov’s research on the orienting response helped to change the way we understand attention in several ways:

  1. Sokolov’s work on the orienting response provided a new framework for understanding attention, specifically by highlighting the importance of reflexive, automatic processes in directing attention to new or novel stimuli. This contrasted with earlier views of attention as a primarily voluntary and top-down process.
  2. Sokolov’s work on the orienting response demonstrated the importance of physiological and behavioral measures, such as heart rate and pupillary dilation, in understanding attention. This helped to shift the focus of attention research from purely cognitive and mental processes to a more holistic, multi-disciplinary approach that considers both cognitive and physiological factors.
  3. Sokolov proposed that the orienting response serves an adaptive function, helping organisms to quickly and efficiently detect and respond to important or potentially dangerous stimuli in their environment. This provided a new perspective on attention, emphasizing its role in helping organisms to survive and thrive in their environments.
  4. Sokolov’s work showed that attention is not a unitary concept, but rather a multi-faceted one that includes different stages and mechanisms.

Further, Sokolov’s work on the orienting response laid the foundation for further research in the field, and his findings continue to be widely cited and influential in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science.

His contributions have helped to deepen our understanding of the neural and physiological mechanisms underlying attention and perception, and have important implications for fields such as clinical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. For example, his work on the orienting response has been used to explain and treat a range of psychological disorders, including phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Sokolov’s work has also inspired researchers to look for similar mechanisms in other species, such as rats. By studying how rats respond to unexpected stimuli, scientists have discovered that they too have an orienting response, which is remarkably similar to the human orienting response that Sokolov first described. This suggests that the orienting response is a fundamental and evolutionarily ancient mechanism that helps animals to quickly and efficiently detect and respond to important or potentially dangerous stimuli in their environment.

The orienting response was first described by physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the early 20th century and has since been studied extensively in both animals and humans.

One of the key discoveries in the field of affective neuroscience is the existence of play circuits in mammals.

The orienting response is related to the discovery of play circuits in mammals in that both are related to the concept of attention and the way that organisms respond to stimuli in their environment.

The orienting response is a reflexive shift in attention to a new or novel stimulus, characterized by changes in physiological and behavioral measures such as heart rate, pupil dilation, and orienting movements of the eyes or head. Similarly, play circuits in mammals are thought to be related to the way that animals direct their attention to and engage with potential play partners or toys.

Research on play circuits in mammals has shown that these circuits are activated by certain types of stimuli, such as the sight or sound of potential play partners or toys, and that they are associated with changes in physiological and behavioral measures such as increased heart rate and increased movement. This is similar to the way that the orienting response is activated by sudden or unexpected stimuli and is associated with changes in physiological and behavioral measures.

In fact, some research suggests that play behavior in mammals may have an adaptive function, similar to the function proposed for the orienting response by Sokolov, by helping the animals to develop and practice important survival skills such as hunting, fighting, and social bonding.

Panksepp, the author of the book, Affective Neuroscience, conducted several studies on rats to investigate the role of play in motivation and behavior.

In one study, he observed wrestling behavior in rats. The rats would pin each other to determine who would be the victor, similar to human wrestling. Another study looked at the relationship between fear and motivation by measuring how hard rats pulled on a spring when food was placed down a corridor. The rats pulled much harder when a cat odor was also present, indicating that the presence of fear can motivate an individual to take action. These studies, along with others, suggest that play behavior in mammals, just like the orienting response in humans, can be influenced by the presence of fear or other powerful emotions. Thus, it appears that the orienting response and play circuits in mammals may be related phenomena, suggesting a common evolutionary origin and shared neural circuitry.

Panksepp also found that motivation can be increased through deprivation. Juvenile rats that were play-deprived fought harder to play than non-play deprived rats. Another observation was that rough and tumble play, such as wrestling, is important for children as it teaches them about the limits of their own bodies and how to interact with others. Additionally, the author found that if the bigger rat did not let the smaller rat win at least 30% of the time, the smaller rat would no longer ask the bigger rat to play.

The findings of Panksepp regarding motivation and play deprivation in rats have several implications for humans:

  1. Deprivation can increase motivation: Panksepp’s finding that motivation can be increased through deprivation suggests that when people are deprived of certain experiences, such as play, they may become more motivated to engage in those experiences when they become available. This could have implications for understanding and treating disorders related to motivation, such as depression.
  2. Play is important for children’s development: Panksepp’s observation that rough and tumble play, such as wrestling, is important for children as it teaches them about the limits of their own bodies and how to interact with others. This highlights the importance of play in children’s development and the need for opportunities for play and physical activity in early childhood.
  3. Fair play is crucial: Panksepp found that if the bigger rat did not let the smaller rat win at least 30% of the time, the smaller rat would no longer ask the bigger rat to play. This suggests that fairness and the ability to win and lose are important elements of play, and that children and adults alike may be less motivated to engage in play activities if they perceive them as unfair.
  4. Deprivation can lead to negative outcome: Panksepp’s finding that play-deprived rats fought harder to play than non-play deprived rats, suggest that deprivation can lead to negative outcomes such as increase in aggression or negative behavioral changes.
  5. Play is not just for children: Panksepp’s research emphasizes that play is not just for children but also important for adults and animals, and that it has a fundamental role in brain function and emotional regulation.

Another important aspect of the orienting response is habituation. Habituation is the process of becoming less responsive to a stimulus over time. Dishabituation occurs when attention is redirected to a stimulus after a change in the nature of the stimulus. The intensity and duration of the orienting response can indicate how important a stimulus is to a specific individual. This is one of the explanations for the basis of the polygraph examination, which measures physiological indicators of orienting such as electrodermal responses.

Additionally, the study of habituation, which is a decrease in responding to a stimulus over time, is also relevant to understanding human psychology. Habituation plays a role in how individuals filter and prioritize information, and can help explain why certain stimuli may capture our attention more easily than others. The concept of dishabituation, which is the redirecting of attention to a stimulus after a change in its nature, is also important in understanding how individuals react to novel or unexpected situations.

Another area where the orienting response is relevant to human psychology is in the field of lie detection. The polygraph examination is based on the physiological indicators of orienting, such as electrodermal responses, which can provide valuable information on an individual’s behavior and motivation.

The study of rat wrestling is relevant to understanding human behavior in several ways.

First, the observation of wrestling behavior in rats is similar to human wrestling, which can provide insight into the evolution and development of social behaviors. By studying the behavior of rats, researchers can gain a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms and motivations behind wrestling behavior in humans.

Second, the study of rat wrestling can provide insight into the relationship between fear and motivation. In the study, researchers observed that the presence of fear (in this case, the scent of a cat) can motivate rats to take action, such as pulling harder on a spring to access food. This finding has implications for understanding how fear can influence behavior and motivation in humans, and how to use that knowledge to overcome fear-based obstacles.

Third, the study of rat wrestling can provide insight into the role of play in motivation and behavior. The study found that play-deprived rats fought harder to play than non-play deprived rats, indicating that play can be a powerful motivator. This insight can inform the development of interventions and strategies for individuals who may struggle with motivation and the need for play.

Fourth, the study of rat wrestling can provide insight into the importance of fair play. The study found that if the bigger rat did not let the smaller rat win at least 30% of the time, the smaller rat would no longer ask the bigger rat to play. This suggests that fair play is important for maintaining social interactions and relationships in both rats and humans.

If any of this sound familiar, it is likely that you have watched or read Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on Youtube, or his books of the same title, ‘Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief’.

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor, has often referenced lobsters and rats in his lectures and books as a way to illustrate the role of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in human behavior.

According to Peterson, lobsters are a useful model for understanding the neural basis of behavior because they have a simple nervous system that is similar in many ways to that of humans. He argues that lobsters, like humans, have a hierarchical nervous system that is organized around a set of “dominance hierarchies” or social ranks.

Peterson explains that lobsters and humans have a dopamine-based reward system that drives them to pursue and maintain high social status. In lobsters, this system is triggered by the presence of other lobsters, and it leads to an increase in dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn leads to increased aggression and dominance behaviors. In humans, the same system is triggered by the presence of other people, and it leads to similar changes in dopamine levels and behavior.

According to Peterson, lobsters and humans both have a “dominance hierarchy” in which the individuals with higher social status have access to better resources and more opportunities for reproduction. He argues that humans have a similar hierarchy, in which those at the top have access to more resources and opportunities for success.

Peterson also states that lobsters and humans have the ability to adapt to the changing environment, which is the key to survival. He argues that lobsters and humans have a similar ability to adapt to changing circumstances by adjusting their behavior and neurochemical responses accordingly.

However, using animals as models for human behavior can be highly misleading, as there are many significant differences between humans and other animals that make it difficult to accurately extrapolate patterns of behavior from one species to another.

One major difference between humans and other animals is the complexity of our cognitive abilities. Humans have a highly developed capacity for language, abstract thinking, and self-awareness, all of which allow us to understand and navigate our environment in ways that other animals cannot. These cognitive abilities shape our behavior in ways that are fundamentally different from the behavior of other animals, and it would be an error to assume that patterns of behavior observed in other species can be directly applied to humans.

Another key difference between humans and other animals is the role of culture and socialization in shaping behavior. Humans are deeply influenced by the cultures and societies in which they live, and these cultural and social factors have a profound impact on our behavior. In contrast, the behavior of other animals is largely determined by genetic and environmental factors, and it would be a mistake to assume that patterns of behavior observed in other species can be directly applied to humans without taking into account the complex cultural and social factors that shape our behavior.

Moreover, some animals have different neurochemical responses than humans. For example, lobsters and rats have very different neurochemical responses to certain stimuli compared to humans, so it would be an error to assume that patterns of behavior observed in other species can be directly applied to humans.

Another important difference is that animals don’t have the same level of consciousness and self-awareness that humans have. Many animals are guided solely by their instincts and biological needs, whereas humans are capable of making conscious choices, taking moral and ethical considerations into account and have the ability to reflect on themselves.

While it is true that humans share many things in common with other animals, there are also many significant differences between our species that make it difficult to accurately extrapolate patterns of behavior from one species to another. It would be an error to try to use animals as models for human behavior, as the complex cognitive abilities, cultural and social factors, neurochemical responses and consciousness level of humans are fundamentally different from those of other animals.

That is not to say that animal studies cannot provide valuable insights into the biological and neurological processes that underlie behavior. However, it is important to approach these studies with caution and to be aware of the limitations of using animal models to understand human behavior.

One way to approach animal studies is to focus on understanding the basic mechanisms and underlying processes that are common across species. For example, studies on the neurochemical and neural basis of behavior can provide insight into the ways in which dopamine and other neurotransmitters influence behavior in animals and humans. These basic mechanisms can be studied in animals and then extrapolated to humans to help us understand similar processes in our own species.

Another approach is to focus on the similarities and differences between species in order to understand the factors that shape behavior. For example, studies on social behavior in animals can provide insight into the ways in which social hierarchies and dominance relationships influence behavior. This can be compared to similar dynamics in human societies, and can help us understand how social hierarchies shape behavior in our own species.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the specific context in which behavior is observed in animals may differ from the context in which the same behavior is observed in humans.

Consider a few simple (and humurous) examples of how generalizing from animal studies to humans may be problematic:

  1. A scientist studying the mating habits of flamingos, observes that the males in the flock engage in elaborate courtship rituals to attract females. Based on this observation, the scientist concludes that human males should also engage in elaborate dance routines to attract a romantic partner. The scientist begins to encourage men to take up ballroom dancing classes and practice salsa moves, in the hopes that it will lead to a better chance of finding a mate.
  2. A researcher studying the behavior of bees in a colony, notices that the bees communicate with each other by dancing. The researcher concludes that humans should also communicate with each other through dance. The researcher begins to teach people how to communicate through interpretive dance and encourages people to hold “dance-based” meetings, where instead of speaking, participants communicate through movement. The meetings are highly confusing and unproductive, as people struggle to understand each other’s movements and intentions.
  3. A scientist studying the territorial behavior of lions, finds that male lions will fiercely defend their territory against rival males to maintain dominance. The scientist concludes that human males should also physically fight to establish dominance and defend their territory. The scientist begins to encourage men to engage in physical altercations to assert their dominance in their personal and professional lives. Men begin to get into fist fights at work, in social gatherings and even in their own homes.
  4. A researcher studying the behavior of chimpanzees, observes that they use sticks to extract insects from tree trunks. The researcher concludes that humans should also use sticks to extract insects as a way to improve their manual dexterity. The researcher begins to encourage people to carry sticks around with them everywhere they go and to use them to extract insects from various surfaces. People start using sticks to extract insects from lamp posts, mailboxes, and even cars, causing confusion and damage.

Another problem is that humans can often cherry pick the most obvious examples to support their argument, leaving out or downplaying others. Depending on your political inclinations, certain animal studies may appeal more to you than others. What you choose to pay attention to (as the orienting response suggests) may have a lot less to do with your intention, and more to do with your temperament and biases.

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