There was something different about Ralph from the very beginning. He was never your run-of-the-mill lab rat, even if he did not know it yet, and neither will you, unless you keep reading.
Ralph was randomly selected for a special research project when he was very young. He and about two hundred others, or four hundred if you count the control group. Nothing special in that. A research psychologist and professor was studying addiction, in the conviction that his findings would also apply to a two-legged species. First, he needed to get control of Ralph by “hooking” him on M&M’s. Using a standard lab protocol, he offered cocaine first, then cross-addicted Ralph and his 199 test peers to M&M’s.
The conditioning process worked just as the professor intended. Ralph was trained to jump through a hoop, and it took three M&M’s per trial to shape that behavior, step by step. Then he learned to swim a small pond—five M&M’s per trial to get his whiskers in the water, as Ralph hates water up his nose. Then came a complicated trick: standing on two legs and hitting the ball in the air with a stick. These unnatural acts took so many M&M’s they led to a cost overrun for the grant. Fortunately, an anonymous pharmaceutical company bailed out the professor’s budget. After that, it only took one M&M to get Ralph sprinting to first base. Ralph thoroughly enjoyed the process, as he was meant to do. It was all part of the conditioning, the first phase of a study on the interaction of pleasure and pain in the brain. Specifically, the persistence of complex behavior in the face of increasing pain.
You guessed it. “First base” was actually “the hot corner,” a phrase that two-legged stick-ball players use for third base. But Ralph’s base was hot for a very different reason. After dozens of joyful repetitions, Ralph landed on first base and was greeted by his first electric shock. Thus began the final phase of the professor’s study.
Oh, it was not so bad at first. Just a tingle, really, like when you sleep with too much weight on your tail, or your fat brother does. But soon, the voltage started to go up. Ralph still loved flying through the hoop, doggie paddling across the pond, swatting the ball in the air, but galloping to first base was no longer a joy. That voltage kept climbing. Ralph’s hair stood on end and his feet started to smoke. There was a distinct odor of burning flesh and singed hair.
Here are some of the things Ralph tried. He tried just swinging at the ball without legging it to first, but his brain was flooded with the delirious chocolate taste . . . he just had to have more, and more, and more. He tried treading water, floating in the pool. No luck; the craving burned and Ralph the Rat had become a moth to that flame. In fact, by now the kindly professor had eliminated the M&M reward for all of Ralph’s tricks. Except, of course, the one for completing the circuit to first base.
Ralph tried to abstain from even the first trick: jumping through his beloved hoop. The heavenly taste, bathing each taste bud in chocolate bliss . . . it was just too much. He would hobble gingerly to first base on blackened soles, banging the stick on his head the whole way, cursing himself for a fool. His appetite was gone, except for those precious, sacred, diabolical M&M’s. Every day was a bad hair day.
What to do? Ralph could not live this way anymore, yet he could not live without the “pleasure” that was killing him. He was beyond desperate. This is when Ralph’s special gift revealed itself. Actually, it awakened to the come-hither purr of another special rat (no one said Ralph was the only one, or that they were all male).
One night, when the professor was at home, eating Adderall like candy to stay awake (he was on deadline and crunching numbers for his next publication), Ralph heard a tapping on the back of his cage. “Pssst! You in the cage!” Ralph heard.
You have probably guessed what comes next. Loretta, a lovely female of his species, explained to Ralph about his lethal programming and that he was doomed to keep shocking himself until he died. In fact, that was the professor’s goal: to measure just how long it took, how many times he would pay the price of hotfooting it to first base. “Is there nothing I can do?” Ralph pleaded. “Actually, yes!” Loretta said.
Then sweet Loretta recounted how there was another professor just down the hall, who was not only a Zen master, a student of pleasure and pain, and an avid animal rights activist, but who had rescued her and a few other “special” rats who could and would listen to him. He had perfected a program that would override the one leading Ralph by the whiskers. Though it was no permanent cure and would work only for short periods, it could be renewed indefinitely. The secret was daily maintenance. Bottom line, Loretta and her “special” friends were able to abstain from chocolate in any form. They no longer felt compelled to jump through hoops to get it, so long as they stuck to the new regimen. Their once-blackened feet were hairy on top and pink as a medium-rare steak on the bottom. They jokingly called themselves “the Sinking Ships” and Ralph would soon see how much they were enjoying themselves in their little community of survivors. Sadly, not all of the tortured rats would join this small group. So, Loretta asked Ralph her five triage questions:
- Are you sick and tired of your suffering?
- Are you aware that if you start the sequence, it will always end the same?
- Are you aware that your legs leap through that first hoop, for the sake of an M&M?
- Are you aware that your awareness does not stop you from deciding to do it anyway?
- Are you aware of what happens if you do not stop?
After humble answers and a bit of further discussion, Ralph got her point. “You mean I have been brainwashed? It really is me jumping through the hoop, but I cannot help it? My conditioning makes me decide what I decide and act how I act? I do need the power to choose for myself! How do I get that?” he asked.
Loretta taught Ralph what she had been taught: how to lie on his back, stiffened legs to the ceiling, until the unsuspecting lab technician disposed of him. Yes, a rat playing possum to trick a human! Once he was safely disposed of in a plastic bio-waste bag, it was a simple matter—urgent if the incinerator was on—for Ralph to chew his way to freedom.
So, our story has a happy ending for Ralph and Loretta, at least. “Convention,” another word for “programming” shared by writers and readers, requires that they fall in love and live reasonably happy lives. As the Sinking Ships continue to recruit from the dark lab down the hall, Ralph and Loretta emphasize to baffled victims that their personal decisions are both caused and causes: “Yes, it is you who jumps through the first hoop to gulp the first M&M, and you who suffers the painful consequences. Something makes you decide to do that, in spite of your own desperate decision not to. We used to be like that, and to be as baffled as you. We suffered in a similar way.”
Meanwhile, the professor would count Ralph’s fake corpse for his study and be none the wiser. He would complete the project and his publication would pass peer review. The man himself could step off the publish-or-perish treadmill and retreat to his suburban cage, yellowing the walls with nicotine, ingesting 4,500 calories on a good day, and feeding the crematorium 11.6 years earlier than the mean for his demographic.
As you can see, this fable is not just about Ralph. It is also about that anonymous professor. The good doctor apparently lacked that special gift Ralph and Loretta had. The thing that made them both so special that there is no recorded instance of this awakening ever happening for an actual rat. Not even one anecdote.
Hopefully you see that Ralph and Loretta and all the Sinking Ships were blessed with their own independent variable called “self-awareness.” This trait appears in some humans as it did in some of the fictitious rats. It enables subjects to eventually realize how toxic programming controls decision making. This realization in turn provokes a sense of urgent necessity: there must be a better way. When a teacher appears, offering a “path” or “way of life,” the desperate subjects are all ears and all in. There are millions of recorded instances of this experience in human beings, and of the transformation that follows. The phenomenon is as real as chocolate candy or a PhD, but not nearly so easy to replicate. Fictitious Ralph got it. The hypothetical professor did not. Fortunately for him, he does not actually exist.