"Why Keep a Dog and Bark, Yourself?"


Another Mancunian aphorism, meaning: “Why do the thing you pay (or feed) someone else to do for you?” We now launch into a world of pain & suffering, the “fourth irritant,” which has received short shrift in this blog, so far. Since I [Lieutenant Commander Kangaroo] am at the helm, we shall first make a short detour…to the Orient.

Have you heard about the “Bow-lingual” Dog Bark Translator? It purports to analyze your dog’s utterances, and assign each of them to one of 6 mood states: “happy, sad, frustrated, on-guard, assertive, or needy.” Since, of course, it comes from Japan, it offers the dog owner (“just for fun,” the distributors insist) Japanese “translations”: a phrase to capture each of the 6 canine moods. Since, by coincidence, we have trained Lili to respond to Japanese commands, wouldn’t it be fun to find out what she is saying back to us, in Japanese? [Not $213’s worth of fun, I feel.] Just within the past month, though, she has begun to make this new, yodeling sound on her way to the hearthrug “penalty box,” for over-the-top “barkitude” at intruder dogs on our property. My own translation of it is the adolescent’s plainsong chant of protest, “Mah-am!” It’s not exactly defiance–more of a minority report on the unfairness of the sanction. [It’s a struggle not to laugh when she does it.]

Now, back to pain & suffering. Three cheeky chappies @ the University of Keele, in the UK, wished to study the “point” of swearing, in response to pain. Their research design was so cute, that it merits some attention. Undergraduates were recruited for a (supposed) study of “the degree of stress that various forms of language elicit during tense situations.” [That’s the dullest phrase in the NeuroReport article, I promise.] Each subject was asked to list “5 words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer,” as well as “5 words to describe a table.” Only those who listed at least one obscenity were included in the experiment. They ended up with 38 males and 29 females. [Already, we’re doing sociology & anthropology, no?] Each subject was tested twice, in randomly assigned sequence–once while repeating the first expletive they listed, and once while saying the ordinally corresponding “table” descriptor from their other list. The pain & suffering inflicted was [a maximum of 5 minutes of] their hand submerged in a bucket of ice water. So, guess under which condition each & every subject endured pain significantly longer–expletive or furniture adjective? Not surprisingly, swearing out loud is “hypogesic.” [It lessens pain perception.]

But why? The boffins from Keele are a bit baffled. The best they can do is surmise that it has to do with amygdalar arousal. Therefore, we armchair researchers can feel free to kibitz. What if there had been a third test condition, besides obscenity & Ikea cataloguery? What if the contestants had also been asked to list 5 Emotive (but genteel) outcries [you know, like “Rats!” or “Crumbs! or “Bother!”]? How do we know that such polite but vehement expressions of dismay are not equally hypogesic? [I don’t believe it for a minute, mind you; but it would have made the study’s findings more robust.]

Many dog training books assert that when a canine launches into a prolonged bout of “barkitude,” he is producing endorphins, and therefore rewarding himself with a powerful–some would say addictive–stimulus/response loop, that soon has little to do with the original cue for barking. [The UPS truck is long gone, but the stoner dog is still “self-medicating,” man.]

Maybe that’s what a human yelp of obscenity evokes in the brain: a lovely hit of endorphin, which makes the icy water much easier to handle. If so, and if the yelp is prompted by amygdalar arousal in response to pain & suffering, then (shock, horror!) maybe the amygdala is Not All Bad. Maybe, like most things found in nature, it’s a double-edged sword. And so, too, [until someone does the “Crumbs!” variation on the Keele study] is the occasional, appropriate human bark of (insert expletive).

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Filed under confounds, murky research, pain reduction, stifled wolf

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