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What to Get the Lobster...
Who Has Everything?
What to Get the Invertebrate Who Has Everything...
--(Excerpt from the upcoming book)
By Casey Sugarman
Invertebrates can really be the best teachers. In fact, the first people to show me the Motivator in its most straightforward form were the lobsters. Lobsters are angry solitary hermit people, at least when they work 9-5 jobs. When they were handing out personality, lobsters were holding the door. That claw they throw up at you is just an extra thick middle finger. In the absence of pressing business, lobsters just want to be left alone. They don't fall for cheap tricks, and there's no way to sweet talk 'em. I know because everyone around me was trying.
Woods Hole, MA is the name of a town, but it happens to be the original Mecca of Marine Biology in the US. The people I hung out with at Marine Biological Laboratories were chemosensory modelers. They had government grants to design robots that could smell very well under water. Think Wiley Coyote buying an Acme Automatic Nose; of course, he would set the dial to a picture of the Road Runner. Now think of that device working under water, and imagine setting the dial to, say, radioactive material…
You can imagine the applications, but what you may not know is that smelling under water is a little more bizarre than smelling in air, because currents in water have different flow dynamics than currents in air. Never mind because, as all good computer modelers are apt to do, they just look for a critter who has that talent, they watch that critter do its thing, and then they program the computer to just do the same. There's a little finger crossing too.
Anyway, that was what the very smart people were doing where I was hanging out, and since lobsters are like underwater bloodhounds, and are also easy to come by in New England, they were the critters hired for the gig. The human crew spent most of its time, as is the lot of the scientist, getting rid of variables one by one. The water had to act predictably, so we built a 40-foot laminar flow tank in the basement. It felt like we were building the arc, but this time, all the water was on the inside. Eau de clam (like Bar-B-Q to lobsters) was going to be the smell that flowed down stream, but of course, the computer's cameras had to be able to see the smelly stuff, so we made it and the tank markers glow in a UV light.
The setup looked like a sci-fi landing strip for alien craft, and the count down counter was counting down. All the lobster had to do was sniff his way through the glowing plume all the way to the other end to show the computer how to sniff under water. In would go the lobster to his starting gate at the mid-tank mark (gate number 5 for those of you who bet on the ponies) and the race was on!
Fat chance. "#$%# you!" said the lobster, doing anything and everything except hunt… He was climbing the walls, walking in circles, and flipping us the bird all the while. Good multi-taskers, lobsters. If you touched him, "#$%# you!"; if you flipped him, "#$%# you!", if you blocked him "#$%# you!", if you ignored him "#$%# you!" Even a trap door setup would have ticked him off, so the rat maze gate idea was out.
I think watching the frustration build up in my friends who were very smart cognitive behavior scientists pushed me to notice that the only thing that was completely predictable about lobsters was that they always chose the exact opposite of whatever it was that we wanted. So I guessed that it just stood to reason that if I told the lobster I wanted the opposite of what I hoped for, he'd be a sport. Reverse psychology, shellfish style.
We wanted Mr. Lobster to sit still, right side up, facing front, on the bottom, at attention, no profanities. So I put a brick lean-to on the bottom at gate five, and I grabbed Mr. Lobster between 2 gentle fingers, and very slowly swum him too high, too far forward, and facing backward. And as soon as he flipped me the bird, I simply opened my fingers and let him loose at the top of the tank, free to make his own decisions.
Within 3 seconds, all by himself, and with willful purpose, every lobster we put in there reversed direction, swam down to the bottom, gingerly backed himself into the starting gate, claws folded nicely in front, and patiently waited for as long as it took us to get ourselves together, moving live electric chords out of the saltwater puddles, etc. And that was all there was to it. The experiments could now proceed without animal choice variability because the invertebrates were playing by our rules ON PURPOSE.
What I had created was a necessary 'natural psychological environment' in the middle of our landing strip. I didn't know at the time the significance of what the lobsters had taught me, but I knew it was new to me. Most interestingly, it didn't feel like manipulation. Ultimately, in fact, the experience was stress free for the lobsters. As for me, I can tell you that the only reason I learned the solution was because I chose to look at a lobster and see a whole person who had the power, the power to piss us off and the power to make us happy.
Don't get me wrong; lobsters taste good. One time… don't tell anybody… I ate a patient. Some well meaning people found a 12-pounder at a supermarket and tried to Free Willy the behemoth to the aquarium. For some reason, kind hearted bozos keep "saving lobsters" without using any seawater, and though we did our best, he died of shock at 5 pm. I know you're not supposed to eat your patients, and I didn't do it very often. He was for sale at the fish counter that morning, and he was going to be biohazard the next… waste not. But in a comparison of experiences, I can tell you that eating a 12 pound lobster doesn't teach you a damn thing; listening to a 1 pound lobster, however, teaches you every damn thing, especially that everyone's choices matter.
Casey Sugarman, Phobia Specialist
Sugarman has been reversing phobias in animals and in people for 18 years.