Mothering, fathering, and dead baby monkeys


When it comes to a pigtail macaque

With a maternal quality lack

Life expectancy’s brief

If you bring it to grief

And don’t let the mother come back.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  In May 2010, I left my position of 23 years, and honoring my non-compete clause, traveled for a year doing locum tenens work.  In June of 2011 I joined up with the Community Health Center, which provides care for the underserved.  I’m now working part-time, which, for a doctor, means 54 hours a week.

During my premedical years I held a lot of jobs, some of them pretty weird.  One had to do with death, grief, and infant pigtail macaque monkeys.

At that time, an investigational neuropsychiatrist worked with pigtail macaque monkeys at the University.  On an irregular basis, he needed unskilled but intelligent labor to work all night.

The project involved taking an infant monkey, implanting three EEG (brain wave) leads, three EKG (heart monitor) leads, leads to measure time, temperature and muscle activity in the eyes and the back of the neck.  Those leads would feed into a radio transmitter the size of a matchbook, implanted in the monkey’s abdomen.  The signal would be picked up by a receiver in the next room, and the information recorded as a polygraph (much like a lie detector)on a piece of paper a quarter-mile long; remember these events took place in the age before digital recording.

The nature of paper records makes them vulnerable to failure of pen and paper, thus the project would pay a grunt like me to monitor the equipment.  I found it a good time to study.

The experiment aimed to find out exactly how an infant dies of grief; one can induce grief in an infant monkey by taking it away from its mother.

I do not know what journal published the results; I know that personal involvement in the study brings information that doesn’t make it into the books.  And I don’t mean the time that the alpha male monkey broke through the one-way glass and set out to terrorize the building.

Not all the experimental subjects died: hypothermia in the middle of the night provided the mechanism of death for those baby macaques; if you look in psychiatric journals from the early 70’s you can find that result.  But you won’t find quality of mothering as a predictor of death, and it’s very counter-intuitive.

One would think that a bad mother’s baby would be happy the source of irritation went away and would bounce right back, but the experiments showed just the opposite.  The infants of the good mothers survived, those from bad mothers didn’t.  The investigator hypothesized that the bad mothers took up all the offspring’s energy trying to get attention, and loss of focal point made for more intense grief.

I think that good mothering gave babies better emotional resilience.

My father-in-law died two weeks ago, age 90.  The death came suddenly but not unexpectedly.  Easy to love wholeheartedly but difficult to get close to, he and my mother-in-law gave their three children a firm emotional foundation.

 

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