Jun 26, 2020 | Are we like mice?

Although I promised to myself that I will write this blog weekly, I broke my own resolution this time because of my PhD defense happening last week. Although, in the end, my defense turned out to be quite joyful and memorable experience, I had to burn a lot of energy (I mean, plain calories) in the process — and as a result, the day after the defense my body started screaming, “stop, work no more.”

Coming back to life after this meaningful event, I looked back at the last (almost) three years ever since my PhD contract expired in the fall of 2017, and I made some analysis of why certain events and decisions have happened in my life within this period. Overally, my life satisfaction is now better in very many different ways than it used to be three years ago.

Firstly, I finally have a job in that I enjoy every day instead of looking forward to these scarce moments of acceptance and appreciation that only happen a few times a year maximum, once you work full time as a researcher. Actually, the major conference in my research field is now happening online and I can watch how fellow researchers have to compete for attention whenever they like it or not — as of today, their careers highly depend on the amount of following that the create, both online and offline. This is just sad to watch and I know how this feels as I’ve been there too, for many, many years. So, I’m out of this game right now, and I can concentrate on the everyday enjoyment of the process of building something without the necessity to ask for any external reaffirmation. If you ask me what the difference is, it is more or less like the difference between getting an orgasm a few times a day (and without much effort put into it) versus struggling to have it once per year. You get the idea.

Secondly, I finally got one concrete vision of what I want from life in the long run, and I improved on my personal criteria for evaluating what is really important to do, and what is not. Back then, I used to say “yes!” to every project — unless I was so overwhelmed with projects that I just had to say “no” due to a exhaustion and/or a complete lack of time. Now, I have a very clear vision of what I want my life to be like in the future, so I can weight every opportunity in terms of how it fits this long-term vision, and I can say “no” without any regrets. This is such a relief!

Thirdly, I finally found myself some friends who understand me. In fact, I was always searching for people who are similar to me — but in the recent years, my definition of what similarity means, has changed. Namely, I used to surround myself with people who had the same background: those who were studying similar subjects, visiting the same places, having the same common friends as me. But, does this guarantee that these people really understand you, think like you, and will stay around no matter what? Not necessarily… I experienced quite a deep isolation after my contract has expired three years ago since all of a sudden, I was no longer an active member of my graduate school. And, I knew that I needed to change some criteria here as soon as possible. Today, I have friends who might be spread around the world, but at least, I know that we think and feel alike, and that they truly understand me, think of me sometimes, and poke me by themselves instead of waiting to hear from me.

Lastly, I finally took care of my health. Although I was always using some heuristics to live more or less healthily, I finally introduced some more self-discipline in daily life. I finally started eating, sleeping, and exercising (at least a little bit) on a so-so regular basis. I just knew that without this, my well-being and all my career plans will go bust in the long run. Subsequently, my mood in daily life also improved a lot.

So, why did all these changes happen? Why three years ago everything was so wrong, and now everything is so right? Why the quality of my life went from the mere 3/10 to the firm 9/10 within this period? When I analyze the reasons, I think that there is one primary overarching reason why this leverage has occurred. Namely, for the past three years I was living on an optimal level of deprivation. I didn’t earn enough, yet I was able to meet ends, mostly by letting go of the luxuries such as drinks in the bars, travels, new clothes, and other things alike. So, I wasn’t living a lavish lifestyle but on the other hand, I wasn’t walking around hungry neither — or at least, not too often. I also had a lot of work, as I was finishing a lot of research projects on my own, trying a lot of new activities (including trading, writing business plans coordinating a mentoring program, etc.), and setting a company and a foundation. I felt overwhelmed, but not too overwhelmed — in the worst case, I could always say to myself, “I’m done for today, I’ll finish this tomorrow.” I was also ill but not too ill — I used to get attacks of anxiety, headaches, and flu really easily, and this was making me a bit dysfunctional but I still had enough energy to work on myself and largely improve, so that none of the above happen to me anymore. Moreover, as mentioned before, I felt quite isolated, but not too isolated. I didn’t have any default social activities but with a little bit of effort, I could always schedule a meeting with someone, jump on the train, and reach any point in the country within a few hours. Lastly, I felt lost in my life, but not too lost — deep inside, I felt confidence that sooner or later, I will get far, although I didn’t even have an idea of what “far” meant at this stage. And, I still don’t.

So, why do I think that deprivation is even worth mentioning here? Because the more I think about it, the more I am confident that without deprivation, or inconvenience, one cannot be any happy at all. Even more so — without deprivation, there is no life possible!

When I see Elon’s efforts to colonize Mars and help the humanity in becoming a powerful, multi-planet civilization, I smile. I smile because I know that before we are technically able to colonize any other planet, it might be that in a hundred years, there will be no humanity left. And this is all due to convenience. So, what do we know about the impact of convenience on living organisms? We know quite a lot, actually — mostly from the classic experiments in animal behavior. In this blog post, I would like to refer to one of them in particular.

Although some behavioral paradigms such as the Skinner’s experiments on classical and instrumental conditioning, are widely known to the general public, not too many people have heard about John B. Calhoun’s experiments from the 70-ies. And, it might be worth to get familiar with these! Calhoun’s original vision was to explore how a population of rats would evolve in the ideal conditions in which they had a lot of resources and no natural enemies. Thus, the original research question in his experiments related to the natural evolution of the population; he aimed to examine how much time it will take for the rats to populate the whole habitat that he had prepared for them. But the results of the experiment were far off from what he had expected…

The experiment started from putting 5 pregnant female Norway rats in a secluded forested area of quarter of an acre. The experimenters made sure that the area is free from predators, and rich in food and water. Then, the subjects were left undisturbed so that they could explore the environment and proliferate. Since he knew this particular strain of rats very well from his previous PhD research and he could estimate the needs of these rats as individuals, Calhoun estimated that the area could host up to 5,000 Norway rats. But, rather than reaching this number, the population grew towards the maximum of merely 150 rats. They also didn’t populate the space uniformly, but rather, they divided themselves into groups of 12 rats, occupied distant areas of the habitat, and used different feeding locations. After 2 years, the experiment was concluded. Within this time, the population never extended 200 subjects. The main reason was the high mortality in newborns; for some reason the mothers were not caring about newborns properly and this led to them dying before reaching maturity. Calhoun had some beliefs why this might be so, but to prove his theories, he would need more scientific input — preferably collected in the controlled, laboratory conditions.

Thus, for the next decade, he restlessly experimented with building cages and habitats for rodents in the laboratory conditions. In the end, the launched his most famous experiment in which Norwegian rats were replaced with albino house mice genetically modified so that they have lower chance of getting infections (logical move, given that they were supposed to share a small area). In this experiment, mice were hosted in a huge cage with an unlimited supply of food, water, and nesting material, that — according to Calhoun’s calculations — could host up to around 3,840 subjects. He also decided not to intervene with the population to any capacity. So, he placed 4 males and 4 females in this ideal habitat, and just watched.

He then observed four distinct phases in the experiment (Calhoun, 1973):

Phase 1: “Adjustment” (Day #1 – Day #104) — the phase before the first new mice were born. In this phase, everything was going on more or less as expected; the mice were exploring the environment freely, and the social hierarchy between the males was established just as it happens in the natural environment.

Phase 2: “Exploitation” (Day #104 – Day #315) — in this phase, the mice doubled in number every 55 days. The doubling continued until day #315 but after that, the growth rate decreased to doubling every 145 days (so, the growth rate slowed down by factor 3). Similarly to the Norway rats from the previous experiments, the mice also didn’t have a preference to populate the space uniformly, but rather, they were cluttering in specific areas of the cage and creating “mice cities.”

Phase 3: “Stagnation” (Day #315 – Day #560) — this is when the most interesting events from the sociological point of view, have happened. In the natural conditions, mice that cannot socially adapt to the group, leave the colony, but in these laboratory conditions, this was just impossible. So, those who were forced to stay, withdrew from the society. The rejected males formed a large group in the middle of the cage. Many of them were wounded as they were victims to attacks from other, more dominant males. Moreover, since mice preferred to socialize while foraging, only some of the containers with food and water were ever used (and usually, used by multiple mice at a time) while some other containers were completely abandoned. Since there were too many males per square meter, the dominant males no longer had power to constantly protect their territory and their females from other males. The females were then forced to defend the nests by themselves, even while feeding the newborns, which led to the increase of stress and aggressive behavior in females as well. This aggression was soon misdirected to the newborns which were often wounded by their mothers and forced to leave the nest before reaching the level of development required to get by on their own. Mothers were also often forgetting about some of their young while moving from one nesting site to another.

Phase 4: “Extinction” (Day #560 – …) — the whole generation of youth were rejected by their mothers early and forced to leave the nests. This generation was completely incapable of exhibiting normal social behaviors. In this generation, the females had far fewer children, and those who had children, lacked the maternal instincts necessary to raise them. For their male counterparts, Calhoun coined the term “the beautiful ones.” These males were not interested in making any sexual advances towards females and they didn’t engage in fighting, thus their pelage was impeccable. They were mostly interesting in sleeping, eating, drinking, and grooming, which meant no social engagement at all. The growth of the population stopped completely at this point, and the population started decreasing in size. The last male died around day #1780 of the experiment, which sealed the fate of the population.

Calhoun initially couldn’t believe in the results of this experiment, thus, he rebooted the “mice heaven” experiment four times — and, four times he got exactly the same results. In his research articles, he expressed his concerns about the grim implications of this study for the human population. I have the same concerns. I think Calhoun’s experiments showed that the structure of the environment has huge impact on the quality of the social interactions, and these interactions, in turn, have a huge impact on the success of the population as a whole. But, for me, another important conclusion is that, convenience kills. In Calhoun’s experiments, the subjects were given everything on a plate, yet it all ended up so badly for them… Instead of uniting with each other to protect their nesting sites against predators or joining efforts to forage more efficiently, they turned against each other. My conclusion is: this tiny bit of inconvenience when you need to put a little bit of effort to get what you need, pushes you to find those who are similar to you, unite with them, feel alive, and stay hungry for success. Challenging yourself is not a luxury — it’s absolutely necessary to live on!

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