Monkey Brain

If monkeys have taught us anything it’s that you’ve got to learn how to love before you learn how to live.
~Harry F. Harlow,
This Week, March 3,1961

This quote is very true, and is far more relevant to my life than I would even begin to be able to explain on a public forum such as this.

To make a long story short, I experience a great deal of daily struggle with my emotions (or lack thereof), my relations with others, and my ability to empathize, not only with other humans but with other creatures. I don’t consider the latter as much of a bad thing necessarily. I was never much of an “animal lover” or “animal person”. I am largely ambivalent about such things. But that does not seem to stop the imagery and symbology from seeping into my subconscious and into my own past history.

Most vividly what comes to mind when relating this is a repeated dream where I am walking down a long and sterile hallway, like one you would find in a medical laboratory or hospital. Ahead of me is a boy who I perceive to be my younger self. When I catch sight of this boy, I begin to chase him as he turns to walk away from me. By the time I catch up with him, he has transformed into a macaque, but that doesn’t stop me from grabbing him up in my arms. I find this last part to be alarming, as I happen to be a rather severe germophobe, and monkeys aren’t renown for their cleanliness (in fact, they actually harbor more diseases deadly to humans than rats do). As the boy-turned-monkey wraps his arms around me, he disappears into me, as if I am absorbing him. By the end of this dream I am fully cognizant of the fact that the monkey-boy and I are the same person, that I seem to be actively seeking out a part of myself and, in this particular case, succeeded in seizing hold of it.

Harry Fredrick Harlow (born Harry Isreal) of the University of Madison-Wisconsin is infamous to many, both in his treatment of monkeys and his inflammatory opinions on women. But the major thing Dr. Harlow accomplished in his career was shedding light on the mechanics of affection, the damaging effects of isolation (and how to reverse its effects), and the profound usefulness of primates in research. He was one of the first scientists to introduce the use of primates and started what would be considered the first sustainable breeding colony of Rhesus macaques in the US. Through his experiments on isolation and deprivation in juvenile rhesus macaques, he inadvertently helped give rise to the animal liberation movement.

During Harry Harlow’s time, there was still the commonly held belief that physical and emotional affection were damaging to the growth, health and behavior of the child. This created sterile environments in institutions where the physical needs of the child were addressed, but the physical and emotional needs largely ignored or discouraged. Physical contact such as cuddling by the mother were believed to cause not only poor behavior in the child, but the transference of germs and bacteria. Part of this belief was held firmly in the society’s stance on women during the late 1800s and early 1900s. John B. Watson, a psychologist, early member of the APA and author of the work, “The Dangers of Too Much Mother Love”, was quoted as saying, “When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.” Deborah Blum, in her book Love At Goon Park adds:

Nothing could be worse for a child, by this calculation, than being mothered. And being mothered meant being cradled, cuddled, cosseted. It was a recipe for softness, a strategy for undermining strong character. Doting parents, especially the female half of the partnership, endowed their children with “weaknesses, reserves, fears, cautions and inferiorities.”

This sterilization principle was responsible for a very high mortality rate of children in hospitals and orphanages at the time. Some orphanages hit an annual mortality rate of 100%. It is the work of Harry Harlow, as well as some other psychologists of the time such as William Goldfarb, that helped shatter this damaging viewpoint. And Harlow would not have been successful without the macaque. Although some people to this day can’t seem to get beyond the ethics behind his experimentations, he shed some much needed light on the mechanics of affection. For this, I thank him.

This also sheds light on some of my own inner workings. If I could relate to any animal on what would be considered a totemic level, it would be the macaque (perhaps also the bear, but that is a series of posts for a later time). Its behavior, function and its usefulness to humans resonate on a profoundly deep archetypal level as it pertains to myself and my own life, something that cannot be summed up in a single post, and perhaps not as directly on a public format.

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