“The Pit of Despair”

Harry Harlow was an internationally renowned psychologist who pioneered research in human maternal-infant bonding using primates.  During the first half of the 20th century, it was felt that mothers should touch their children as little as possible.  The leading mental health professionals aggressively discouraged mother-child interaction in research papers, lectures, books, and the media.  Interestingly–or tragically–enough, their recommendations were based on rodent research.  Dr. Harlow was the leading force in changing the tide of opinion using various species of monkeys.

In the 1960s, he turned his attention, also based on primate research, to some of the smaller details of human interaction.  One model he worked on for a while was that of inducing depression.  He used various isolation methods and ways of simulating parental neglect or even abuse. He was able to consistently produce monkeys that were seriously disturbed, but he was not able to cause depression.  At the time, he was experiencing his own severe depression associated with his wife’s diagnosis of terminal cancer.

He finally found a consistent methodology. He devised an apparatus that resembled an upside-down pyramid.  The sides were steep but still allowed the monkey to climb to the top to peek outside.  The top was covered with mesh.  For the first couple of days, the monkeys would repeatedly climb up to look out and quickly slide back down.  Within a couple of days they would give up, sit in the middle of the device, and not move.  They became almost unresponsive, and when they returned to their families, they would not revert back to normal social behavior.  It did not matter what problems the monkey had prior to the experiment.  The abnormal monkeys became worse and normal monkeys suffered the same fate.  Even the “best” monkeys from very stimulating and interactive families would succumb.  The researchers called the apparatus, “The Pit of Despair”.   It was felt by the research team that this “learned helplessness” was from a combination of feeling the loss of a good life reinforced by occasional glimpses of the outside world and feeling trapped.  Within a half a week, every monkey spiraled down.

“Love at Goon Park” by Deborah Blum

Physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, injections, accupuncture, vocational retraining, medications, traction, inversion tables, and finally surgery. How many times can your expectations be dashed before you lose hope?