Does God Love Rats?

I attended an episcopalian high school, which meant that I had to sit through a chapel service every day. Thankfully the services were never fire-and-brimstone stuff. These were Episcopalians, after all. Instead, they were most often like general-interest lectures. But one service in particular has stuck in my mind, during which whoever was giving the service described an unusual experiment involving the relationship between rats and God. I think the experiment might be an interesting addition to my next book, so I'm trying to track down details about it. But so far I've been unsuccessful. So I'm hoping that one of the Museum of Hoaxes readers might know something about it.

The experimenters, so it was said, wanted to test empirically if the universe tends more towards benevolence (good) or malevolence (evil). So they attached two sets of wires to some rats. One wire delivered a painful shock. The other wire triggered a pleasure-center in the rat's brain and made them feel good. The researchers then programmed a computer to randomly activate these wires over a period of time. The activation of the wires was supposed to be totally random, but when the researchers measured which wire got turned on more often, they discovered that it was the pleasure wire. From this they concluded that there must be a benevolent force in the universe (i.e. God) that favors pleasure over pain.

Now, I can see many flaws in the design and conclusions of this experiment. Not least of which is that a benevolent God would never have made the rats suffer by making them endure the experiment in the first place. But that's not the point. The point is that it's a very odd experiment... if it ever really did occur. Or is it just one of those urban legends that circulate through the church community. Anyone know any details?


Posted on Sat Aug 05, 2006


This has all the marks of one of those dubious legends that make their way into half-baked sermons and then we can never get them out.

Did somebody really do such an experiment? Obviously, it's possible, but it seems very unlikely. What was the purpose of the experiment? And why would God allow this experiment to take place, and then mess with the results?

In any case, even if the experiment did happen, the interpretation is hideously bad theology. I think one thing scientists and fundamentalists could agree on is that God does not operate in this fashion. As Einstein is supposed to have said, "God does not play dice with the universe" (that is, the universe follows consistent and discernable patterns of cause and effect).
Posted by Big Gary  on  Sat Aug 05, 2006  at  11:53 AM
A similar anecdote, that also shows up in countless sermons and dinner speeches, is the old "frog in a pan of water" chestnut. This one makes an appearance in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" movie too.

The story is that a frog placed in a pot of hot water will jump out, but if you put the frog in cold water and gradually heat it, the frog will stay in until it boils to death.

I've heard this since I was a young boy (about 1725 or so), and I've always wondered if it was true. It seems like it couldn't be true: When the water gets hot enough to be painful, wouldn't any animal jump?

For reasons I hope are obvious, I don't want to repeat this experiment myself, but does anyone know of any well-documented record of it being done, and what the results were?
Posted by Big Gary  on  Sat Aug 05, 2006  at  12:01 PM
Here is one:
Posted by Straight Outta Lynwood  in  La-la-land  on  Sat Aug 05, 2006  at  03:50 PM
And also since no computer can really produce "random" numbers (Just pseudo-random numbers based on an extremely complicated formula and derived from the system time) it kind of throws out the whole "good or evil influencing the randomness" point.
Posted by luckygerbils  on  Sat Aug 05, 2006  at  07:18 PM
"The other wire triggered a pleasure-center in the rat's brain and made them feel good."

I doubt there is such a thing as a pleasure-center in a rat's brain, especially one that can be accessed with a simple wire. And if there is, how did scientists discover it? Watch for the rats to smile? I vote for urban legend.
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Sat Aug 05, 2006  at  07:39 PM
Yes there's a pleasure center in a rat's brain.One for humans, too. Yes, it's theoretically possible to have someone carefully shove a wire into your brain, and spend the rest of your life in a state of nigh-orgasmic bliss.. but there'd be rather nasty biological repercussions. Basically, your brain could handle such a thing only so long, then it starts burning out..

As for the validity of the experiement, I could actually see some idiots trying that. Where's PETA when you really need them, eh? Even assuming a lack of true random number generation, I'm willing to bet that the number of good zaps to the number of bad zaps differed only by a margin of three or four per rat, and probably much less. If God does love rats, it's not by much.

Mind, if the God in question is Ganesh, then we know he likes rats.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  in  Californian Wierdo  on  Sun Aug 06, 2006  at  01:44 AM
"...Mind, if the God in question is Ganesh, then we know he likes rats."

Good point, Robin Bobcat! :lol:
Posted by Big Gary  on  Sun Aug 06, 2006  at  12:48 PM
If I recall correctly an experiment invloving stimulating the pleasure centre of the rats brain was done by psychologists. It involved the rat pressing a button to receive food or a button to stimulate it. The results were that the rat would rather starve to death by constantly pressing the pleasure button.
Posted by Underminer  on  Mon Aug 07, 2006  at  03:29 AM
The one about the rat with a wire into its pleasure center was: James Old and Peter Milner, "Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions on the rat brain," Journal of comparative and physiological psychology. 47 (1954): 419-422.

It's a pretty famous experiment.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Mon Aug 07, 2006  at  08:50 AM
If it happened, sounds like one of B.F. Skinner's disciples, if not Skinner himself. (Although he didn't believe in punishing his subjects.)

A behavioral psychologist, at any rate.

Another equally valid conclusion to draw is that God wants the pleasure centers of the brain stimulated -- so we should smoke, drink and do drugs.

They need a Sunday School teacher these days?
Posted by SicTim  on  Mon Aug 07, 2006  at  02:17 PM
Running this experiment once would not be conclusive, since a perfect 50-50 split between your two possibilities (the number of pain deliveries versus the number of pleasure deliveries)is very unlikely. So if one possibility "wins" the first time, you need to run it more times to see if it always wins, or if it wins roughly half the time.
Posted by mara  on  Mon Aug 07, 2006  at  03:50 PM
Well, I'm all for the "wire to the pleasure center of the brain" idea. I mean, who wouldn't like to ride out the rest of their lives experiencing repetitive orgasms? There was a sci-fi book that had a short story about this, and about people locked up in pleasure-pods. Until, the metal-eating, flesh-eating worms got in, of course. Who remembers this?
Posted by stork  in  the spiracles of space  on  Mon Aug 07, 2006  at  08:26 PM
I've seen the frog heating myth debunked on snopes and several other pages (google is your friend).

You can get "real" (quantum) random numbers from ... at least, totally unpredictable.

And I do recall reading a news story about scientists putting a monkey into perpetual orgasm via electrical stimulation, but I cannot find any reference to it online, so maybe I just imagined it. Although, Larry Niven did write extensively about 'wireheads' and 'tasps' (similar).
Posted by Splarka  on  Tue Aug 08, 2006  at  01:22 AM
Article on electrical stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain in both rats and humans.
Posted by SicTim  on  Tue Aug 08, 2006  at  11:29 AM
Here's my theory (if the experiment really happened): The rats used micro-PK to make the computer give more pleasure than shocks.

@luckygerbils: Random numbers are possible:
Posted by Ian  on  Sun Aug 13, 2006  at  05:47 PM
Posted by Anonymous  on  Thu Aug 31, 2006  at  03:59 PM
Down near the bottom of this page is a link to a video clip of a rat pressing a lever in a Skinner box. (And the rest is a pretty good article on operant behavior.)
Posted by SicTim  on  Thu Aug 31, 2006  at  06:01 PM
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