Collage of film stills featuring rats and data.

Shared Suffering Onscreen

Circulating Now welcomes guest Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa, PhD, Assistant Professor in Film Studies at Seattle University, to discuss his research on the history of scientific filmmaking and animal studies in a new essay “Shared Suffering Onscreen: Animal Experiments and Emotional Investment in the Films of O. H. Mowrer” now available on Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM.

A rat eats from a hand.
Animal Studies in the Social Modification of Organically Motivated Behavior, 1938
National Library of Medicine #8901844A

The history of animal testing and the history of the life sciences go hand in hand. As Claude Bernard, the founder of physiology, stated, experimental animals, particularly frogs, are “closely associated with [experimenters’] labors and their scientific glory.” And yet, these experiments were always fraught, as scientists had to manage their own emotional entanglement with their animal subjects, who often were killed or maimed in the process of the experiment. Donna Haraway describes these emotional and ethical complexities as the “shared suffering” of the lab. This argument is premised on the recognition of animal agency in the lab, a space where animals, apparatuses, and scientists are all responding and responsible to each other, though in very different ways. This essay will consider the process of shared suffering in the rat films made by Orval Hobart Mowrer while at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations during the 1930s. I hope to prompt us into thinking about “shared suffering” not only as a guidepost for understanding the ethics of animal experiments but also as a methodological tool to understand visual images, specifically films, from the history of science. Mowrer’s films contain traces of the burdened relationship between him and his rodent test subjects.

Historian of science Rebecca Lemov describes Mowrer’s midcentury rat experiments as “a kind of autobiography,” in which Mowrer enacted his own psychological suffering on his rodent test subjects. As a teen, Mowrer began suffering from a deep depression and feelings of unreality, which he later attributed to his own secret “sexual perversion,” the details of which he never fully disclosed. Whatever he meant, it seems clear that Mowrer thought of himself for much of his life as a secret outsider, a position that pained him profoundly and indirectly influenced his work. In his later writing, Mowrer described the period of his life working with animals as wracked by intense bouts with alienation, anxiety, and depression—the very emotions he was simulating and testing in the lab. Drawing from Mowrer’s own accounts, Lemov concludes that Mowrer’s experiments were an attempt to physically manifest his own internal demons and thereby control them as he controlled the behavior of the rats.

Most of this work was conducted at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations (IHR), a well-funded interdisciplinary program created to tackle overarching questions about humanity. After graduating from John Hopkins with a doctorate in psychology in 1932, Mowrer eventually secured a full-time position in the Psychology Department at Yale University and as a Research Associate in the IHR. There, Mowrer worked under the direction of Mark A. May and alongside the sociologist John Dollard as well as with fellow psychologists Clark Hull and Neal E. Miller. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the IHR’s collective research focused on integrating Freudian psychoanalysis with behaviorism by adapting psychoanalytic language describing motivation, desire, and repression to the quantitative observations and dispassionate vocabulary of animal laboratory testing. The result was a comprehensive (if speculative) theory that connected experimental research with the feelings, emotions, and behaviors of human populations at a variety of scales, a theory that became widely known as the “frustration-aggression” hypothesis. Mowrer helped develop these theories as a coauthor of Frustration and Aggression (1939), where the IHR researchers collectively outlined their work.

An important subsection of this research focused on extending behavioral psychology as an explanation for Marx’s laws of economics. Here, the “frustration-aggression” hypothesis was applied to Marx and Engel’s description of the formation of class in The Communist Manifesto. The authors argued that Marx’s materialist interpretation of history “introduced unwittingly a psychological system” that mirrored the psychologists’ own. The authors thereby reframed Marx’s description of primitive accumulation through the lens of behavioral psychology. In the version proposed by IHR researchers, the spiraling tendencies of class conflict begin with an almost mythic moment of initial, individual frustration, when the worker discovers their confined role within the instruments of production.

Perhaps, as Lemov describes, Mowrer’s take on this dynamic was rooted in his own experiences of depression and alienation, since his work emphasized states of suffering produced through material circumstances. In his laboratory work, Mowrer claimed to simulate anxiety in rodents by regularly shocking them with electric currents. In a series of articles, Mowrer outlined the debilitating effects of anxiety on rats as they waited for these shocks to occur and the surprising reduction in tension when the shock was actually administered. He also used these findings to construct an extensive explanation for human behaviors, especially those of marginalized and oppressed classes of people. In his chapter of Frustration and Aggression, Mowrer argues that crime is caused by a disparity between an idealized American lifestyle (which he notes is mostly propagated by advertising and film) and the actual material circumstances confining groups of people. As historian Corbin Page describes, Mowrer claimed that “African Americans, Native Americans, poor people, people with less education, shorter people, young people, less attractive people, people with physical disabilities, children of single parents, unmarried people, divorcees, and so on were all more likely to be criminal” because of the restrictions of society. In Mowrer’s description, these criminalized groups deviate from “normal” life, where frustration is channeled towards legal and acceptable pursuits. In this framework, criminalized underclasses of oppressed people are created through primary moments of frustration and confinement, which then leads them to a variety of antisocial pathologies and behaviors.

Title screen for An experimentally Produced Social Problem in Rats
An Experimentally Produced “Social Problem” in Rats, 1939
National Library of Medicine #8601094A

Mowrer not only participated in theorizing this dynamic but also set out to simulate and film its occurrence. In An Experimentally Produced “Social Problem” in Rats (1939) and Competition and Dominance Hierarchies in Rats (1940), he used film to record social interactions and their effects on individual psychology. Mowrer’s films are primarily interested in the process of individuation. Hierarchies of behavior are produced in groups of rats over multiple experimental interventions in which each rat develops an identity specific to their relationship with the group as a whole. These films are primarily interested in the development of group dynamics. Although they occasionally title and individualize single rats, the animal subjects are always presented as members of a group rather than as a single (yet universal) example in the way that animal subjects function in many other research films, e.g. Neal E. Miller’s Motivation and Reward in Learning (1948). Over the course of the films, these rats are meant to model the development of behavioral patterns of particular classes in society….

To read the full essay and to see the films go to NLM’s Medicine on Screen, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.

Dr. Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa is an Assistant Professor in Film Studies at Seattle University. His research focuses on the history of scientific filmmaking, nontheatrical film, and animal studies. His book, The Celluloid Specimen: Moving Image Research into Animal Life is due to be published by the University of California Press in 2022.

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