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Monkey Do ... Sometimes

Let's hope this hard-work-for-no-pay idea doesn't catch on.

August 22, 2004

It says here in this new scientific study that, without the prospect of an imminent reward, certain caged lab monkeys will dawdle and not perform their chores. Have you ever known any human, say one in his or her teens, who blew off chores for lack of a rewarding treat? Or threat? Thought so.

It also seems that certain medical researchers who are confined to work areas in La Jolla's Salk Institute for Biological Studies can get pretty bored studying loafer monkeys. Which is unrewarding. So what they did (the humans, that is) was inject DNA into the rhinal cortex of the monkeys' brains. This is tricky business, but it's happening a lot these days. The DNA blocked the monkeys' pleasure response, which pleased the humans. And what do you think happened?

The lab residents (the monkeys, that is) didn't loaf anymore. They worked their primate behinds off, not caring about rewards, imminent or otherwise. They were absolutely chore-manic. Freed from reward expectations and disappointments, the monkeys pulled their lab levers like crazy. This excited the lab workers (the human ones), who began scribbling like crazy, anticipating the reward of a scholarly article. Eventually, the injections wore off. The monkeys returned to acting like lazy humans. The humans returned to their research chores.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 01, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 10 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Monkey study -- An editorial on lab monkeys Aug. 22 misidentified the institution doing behavioral research. It is the National Institute of Mental Health.

Such a serious study, as reported in recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, can be complex reading, easily misinterpreted by laypeople who surely have a rhinal cortex but aren't sure where it is or what it does. Hint: The rhinal cortex is usually in the head and controls the attachment of meaning to recognizable objects. Say, you turn to a Sunday editorial page expecting an imminent intellectual reward. Without a rhinal cortex, you might think it was the comics and start laughing.

This major study does raise really important questions. First, how deep have medical staff cutbacks been if we now must outsource lab chores to jungle animals? Do you think the human lab workers who first showed the monkeys what their chores were got a reward for that? If the humans didn't get rewarded for the chores but the monkeys did, then who's the dummy? Also, wasn't this the kind of abuse and unrewarded servitude that caused Charlton Heston to cause a lot of trouble in "Planet of the Apes"?

They say (the La Jolla humans do) that the study's results could eventually help decipher brain circuitry and mental illnesses involving motivation. But is there perhaps a danger that human workers could be rhinally injected someday, forfeit their vacation and feel honored to work for bananas?

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