A new study lays out the case for the damaging effects of stress on orcas living in tanks.
- There are currently around 60 orcas living in concrete tanks globally.
- Orcas' brain structures and behaviors strongly suggest they are smart, emotional, self-aware beings.
- The study provides compelling evidence that the stresses inherent in captivity do damage to these naturally free-roaming cetaceans.
A study, "The harmful effects of captivity and chronic stress on the well-being of orcas (Orcinus orca)" recently published in Journal of Veterinary Behavior is the product of a unique collaboration of experts in marine mammal science, veterinary science, internal medicine, and psychiatry. It makes the case for a careful consideration of the impacts of chronic stress on captive orcas, at least 60 of whom are currently in captivity. Most have spent years or decades of their lives in these conditions. Around 57 percent of these orcas were born in captivity and 26 of them were captured young. (Orcas are actually the third most commonly confined cetaceans — there are even more bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales held in tanks.)
The study explains how the continual, oppressive stress inherent to a captive orca's life is unhealthy and should be more thoughtfully addressed. Study lead author biopsychologist Lori Marino tells Big Think in an email:
"Our review shows that intelligence, complexity, and awareness are characteristics that make an animal more — not less — vulnerable to the effects of captivity. That seems counterintuitive because a lot of people think that the more mental resources you have the better you are able to cope with various situations. But it is also the case that the more mental capacity you have the greater your needs in order to thrive and the more extreme the impact of living in an artificial environment, that is, an environment outside your adaptive envelope."
While skeptics may consider it a leap to assume that orcas are intelligent and emotional enough to suffer the ill effects of stress, Marino responds, "That would be a claim in search of evidence. Stress is a common phenomenon in all mammals and many other organisms. The effects of chronic stress have been well-studied in mice, rats, dogs, etc." The study provides ample evidence that orcas are exceptionally intelligent, feeling creatures in any event.
The orca brain
Image source: FineShine/Shutterstock
The orca brain exhibits neurobiological traits that are considered prerequisites for complex psychology, emotion, and behavior:
- a large brain size
- an expanded neocortex
- a well-differentiated cortical cytoarchitecture
- an elaborated limbic system
Even more important than sheer brain size is its size in relation to an animal's body. This is captured as the organism's encephalization quotient, or EQ. Says the study, "Odontocetes, and in particular Delphinoidea [the superfamily to which orcas belong], are the most highly encephalized nonhuman taxonomic group known … except modern humans."
Orcas also have the most highly convoluted, or folded, neocortical surface of all mammals including humans, and their ratio of neocortical surface to brain weight also exceeds the human brain's, suggesting an organ well-suited to higher-order functions.
Among a range of other clues presented by the study that suggest orcas are highly intelligent creatures are these:
- Areas associated in the human brain with high-level cognitive and social functions including attention, prediction, social awareness, and empathy are all highly developed in orcas.
- Orcas have a well-integrated mammalian limbic system that supports having emotions, memory, motivation, reasoning, learning, and abstraction.
Image source: Willyam Bradberry /Shutterstock
Observations of orca behavior richly supports the implications of their neurobiological structures. Marino says, "Free-ranging orcas live in tightly-knit social groups that are necessary during their long juvenile periods and afterwards. They support each other, help each other when in trouble, and grieve each other. Mothers and calves are very tightly bonded. In some groups, male orcas stay with their mom their whole life and if mom dies [the male offpsring] may go into a deep depression and die as well. Family and social group are everything."
Orcas also demonstrate culture, with vocalizations and even hunting methods unique within groups and passed from generation to generation.
"Orcas at Punta Norte, Argentina, hunt sea lion and elephant seal pups by beaching themselves and capturing the pups, typically in the surf zone," according to the study.
Image source: Peter Etchells/Shutterstock
In the wild, free-ranging female orcas live an average of 46 years — some live as long as 90 years — and males 31 years, or as long as 50-60 years. Captive orcas rarely live more than 30 years, with many dying in their teens or 20s. Their medical histories can be difficult to access due to facilities' desire for confidentiality. Nonetheless, some morbidities, or causes of death, have become clear over time.
One review from 1979 identified infectious disease as the culprit behind the death of 17 captive North American orcas who'd died since 1965 prior to the report's writing. The new study cites publicly available documentation revealing that between 1971 and 2017, SeaWorld parks alone have experienced 35 documented orca deaths, and that, "When causes of death were available, the most commonly implicated conditions were viral, bacterial and fungal infections, gastrointestinal disease, and trauma."
Infections such as these may not in and of themselves have necessarily been lethal, but when combined with orcas' "weakened immune system, chronic exposure to chemical irritants or trauma to the skin, excessive or improper use of antimicrobials, and an imbalance in the microbiota of the body or environment (which may exist in tanks)," they become deadly. Common fungal infections may also be especially dangerous in this context "as a result of long-term and aggressive antibiotic treatment, overtreatment of water for purity, or both." The same is true for untreated dental infections.
Another frequent cause of orca death: gastrointestinal ulceration — ulcers — caused by prolonged exposure to stress.
The destructive power of stress
Image source: eldeiv/Shutterstock
"Importantly, the poor health and short lifespans of captive orcas are most clearly understood as connected elements in a cycle of maladaptiveness to the conditions of captivity that involves behavioral abnormalities, physical harm and vulnerability to disease."
The paper shows, says Marino, that "when you examine the totality of the welfare findings for captive orcas the whole picture fits best within a larger common framework of evidence on how stress effects captive animals. We know that, when confined, other animals show the same kinds of behavioral and physiological abnormalities that captive orcas do. This is not mysterious or even controversial. It is basic science."
Marino cites as especially damaging the manner in which captivity prevents orcas from making social connections. Tanks also deprive them of places to retreat, making conflicts inescapable even temporarily. Finally, captive orcas are likely to become bored and chronically demotivated by the frustration over their loss of autonomy.
The study also notes physical effects brought on by long-term stress, including:
- the release of too much cortisol by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis, causing elevated blood sugar, suppression of the immune system, as well as metabolism and blood pressure issues.
- alterations of the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex due to prolonged stress, potentially leading to increased anxiety, post-traumatic stress, cognitive impairment, depression, and mood dysregulation.
- organ degradation in response to unrelenting stress.
- a loss of natural sensory information, about which, says the study, "a growing body of research has found that exposure to excessive or unnatural levels or types of acoustic input can cause a number of impacts to cetaceans, including but not limited to … accelerated aging, suppression of the immune response, as well as premature hearing loss."
A valuable conversation
Marino explains why it was important to conduct this study, saying, "My co-authors and I wrote this review to bring all of the available information on captive orca well-being together in one place and to suggest that we might all best be able to understand the effects of captivity within a very familiar and well-researched model of how chronic stress effects all organisms. We want this paper to be a catalyst for dialogue and further scientific exploration based on data as to how we can better understand who orcas are and how we can identify the important elements needed in a captive environment for them to thrive."
What's the worst thing that could happen, and can you live with that?
- Anthony Scaramucci isn't afraid to admit his failures as an entrepreneur. The founder and managing partner of investment firm SkyBridge Capital says it's the journey that matters, and that being an entrepreneur means accepting that some things, including successes and failures, are out of your control.
- A hard but necessary question that entrepreneurs have to ask themselves is if they can live with the worst case scenario.
- In a time of crisis, Scaramucci's advice is to clear your mind, accept all possible outcomes, and to dial down fear-based instincts so that you focus on being aggressive in business.
Researchers observed "inter-brain coherence" (IBC) — a synchronisation in brain activity — between a musician and the audience.
"Through music, the producer and the perceiver connect emotionally and behaviourally," note the authors of a new paper, published in NeuroImage. And now this team, led by Yingying Hou at East China Normal University, has uncovered a connection right down at the neural level. The team has observed "inter-brain coherence" (IBC) — a synchronisation in brain activity — between a musician and the audience. What's more, the strength of this coherence could be used to predict how much the audience enjoyed a piece.
The team used a technique called near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor the brain activity of a professional violinist while he was videoed playing a series of 12 brief, classical pieces. They then used the same technique (which involves shining beams of light through the skull, to monitor changes in blood flow) on 16 women while they watched the video, and listened to all of these pieces. (Because gender differences in inter-brain synchronisation have previously been observed, only women were recruited as listeners.)
The violinist had been instructed to look directly at the camera and maintain a neutral expression while he played the pieces, which each lasted about 100 seconds. If he was enjoying one piece more than another, the team hoped this would not be obvious to the viewers. They were told to gaze at the violinist's face while they listened. After each piece, they rated how much they liked it on a seven-point scale.
The data revealed inter-brain coherence between each of the listeners and the musician, for all of the violin pieces. That is, there were similar patterns of heightened activity in certain key regions of the brain while the violinist played and the other participants listened.
The key regions included the left temporal cortex (which is thought to focus on processing the rhythm of sound information), the right inferior frontal cortex and the postcentral cortices. These two latter regions have been highlighted as important hubs of a hypothesised mirror system that allows a sender and receiver to share brain representations. "In the present study, the frontoparietal mirror neuron system allows audiences to experience or comprehend the mind of the performer as if they were to 'walk in another's shoes'," the researchers believe.
The team also produced an average IBC score for each piece of music, and compared these with the listeners' averaged liking scores for each piece. They found clear correlations. The more popular pieces were marked by stronger inter-brain coherence in the left temporal cortex between the audience as a whole and the performer.
The team also reported that the link between level of coherence and popularity only developed during the second half of each piece. This could be because there are two stages to music appreciation, they suggest. The first stage involves recognising rhythms, and identifying the potential musical structure of a piece. During the next stage, the listener develops aesthetic judgements and experiences emotional resonance, and generates stronger predictions about the sounds that 'should' follow. "If the expectation matches the incoming information, the musical performance will be experienced as pleasant," the team thinks.
More work will be needed to explain why the coherence-liking effect only emerged at a group level, and to explore whether the results obtained here will also apply to other types of musical instrument, and other genres. The team also note that the near-infrared technique only allowed them to look at blood flow in the cortex, not other deeper areas that might be involved in the response to music production and perception, too, such as limbic structures. Also, by design, this study only involved women. Whether men will respond in the same way is unknown.
Still, it's fascinating research. "This study expands our understanding of music appreciation," the researchers write, adding: "The results can potentially be applied to the development of brain indices for predicting public attitudes towards various musical performances."
Because geocaches are always hidden out of sight, players often have to behave in out-of-the-ordinary ways to reach them.
On a drizzly Saturday morning in June 2018, I found myself kneeling on the edge of a wooden boardwalk in Melbourne's northern suburbs.
My right arm was hooked over the side, fingers gathering cobwebs and dust as they probed the rough pine of the planks. I hoped for the smooth sensation of plastic or metal rather than the squish of a creepy-crawly.
I looked over at my partner on this expedition: sharkiefan, as she's known in the geocaching community, a pharmacist from New Zealand. She was sprawled on her stomach across the boardwalk, with her shoulder jammed in for maximum reach. Before I could suggest she move into a less hazardous formation, a man on a bicycle swerved and braked to avoid her outstretched legs. He shuddered to a halt, plastic poncho swirling.
“What are you after there? Flowers?" he asked. His eyes were wide behind his raindrop-covered glasses. “No," said sharkiefan, calmly rolling into a sitting position. “We're looking for geocaches."
“Oh," he said. He continued to watch as sharkiefan made a last-ditch effort for the geocache (which our GPS assured us, unconvincingly, was right there). Then he rode away, poncho flapping. With the rain starting to spatter, sharkiefan hauled herself up and decided it was a DNF (did not find)—for the moment, at least. “Besides, that guy was kinda creepy," she said. “I didn't wanna keep looking for it while he was watching us."
At the time, I was an anthropology student in Melbourne studying geocachers, or people who play geocaching. Geocaching is one of the many location-dependent digital games that have proliferated since smartphones with GPS capabilities became common in the mid-2000s. You can think of it as a kind of multiplayer treasure hunt, where players use GPS and a digital map to hide and search for containers (geocaches) filled with trinkets.
Because geocaches are always hidden out of sight, players often have to behave in out-of-the-ordinary ways to reach them. They might have to climb a tree, crawl through bushes, or flatten themselves on a boardwalk like sharkiefan and I did. The way they use public space departs sharply from social norms, without providing any obvious motives to passers-by.
When onlookers are left to fill in the blanks, they often assume some kind of deviant behavior. For instance, vividrogers, an avid creative writer and stay-at-home mom, recounted the time she had squatted under some pines to sign a cache's logbook. At that moment, a family came past. She told me sheepishly, "The mum said, 'Let's not go this way, kids,' because it looked like I was doing a wee or something."
As I did my field research, I became more and more interested in how this unusual behavior makes some geocachers appear sexually threatening and others feel sexually vulnerable—usually depending on their gender. A man ferreting in the undergrowth might notice suspicious gazes. And a woman sprawled on a boardwalk might feel uneasy when a man takes an interest in her "flower gathering."
People playing mobile locative games—like geocaching or Pokémon GO—are often perceived to inhabit a somewhat trivial world belonging to a subculture all their own. But, as my experiences highlight, they are in fact deeply entangled with the political currents of the everyday world. They, too, are impacted by the social norms and current events that establish gendered assumptions and provoke fear.
The winter sun dipped in the sky as I wrapped up an interview with Peter, a chemistry teacher in his early 40s, at a café in southeast Melbourne. After our chat, we drove our separate cars to the nearby Valley Reserve, a tranquil, densely vegetated park, where we planned to do some geocaching. It was getting dark under the trees, and only a couple of other vehicles were parked on the far side of the lot.
We pulled up next to each other and got out. As we juggled notebooks and GPSs, Peter remarked, "Shouldn't you have a chaperone? Going into a bushy park with a strange man—I don't know, if it was my daughter, I would want her to have a chaperone."
Peter's comment flustered me. I ducked my head to hide my embarrassment and frustration. Not only had he verbalized the irrational fears I'd spent the whole day trying to dismiss from my own mind, I was also more than a little disgruntled at the idea of needing a chaperone.
The previous week, the news and social media had been swamped by stories about Eurydice Dixon, a young woman who was raped and murdered by a man in a Brunswick park in north Melbourne. The statistical likelihood of experiencing such violence from a stranger in Melbourne—one of the safest cities in the world—is miniscule. But the news had piqued everyone's anxieties, and concern about the potential for violence was in the air. It was on my mind. Presumably, it was on Peter's too.
But then again, people around me had expressed similar concerns long before this awful murder had brought the issue to the fore. Before my research had even begun, my university's ethics committee had made me resubmit my application with better risk-management strategies. "As a young female student … Is it safe for the researcher to travel alone with the unknown geocacher in a park or other abandoned areas?" they wrote. Each time I left for an interview with a male participant, my parents made me text them the name of the interviewee and our meeting place. While I took reasonable precautions, I wanted to put these worries in their place. Statistically, violence was so unlikely, it seemed unfair that the fear of it could exert so much control over my life.
What surprised me about Peter's comment was that the person who appeared as the "threat" in this narrative had voiced misgivings himself. Perhaps he had been trying to diffuse any tension, as if a perpetrator wouldn't be so frank about such things. To fully disperse that tension, I should've laughed it off, saying something like, "Oh, but I'm sure you'd never do something like that!" Unfortunately, I tend to strive for accuracy more often than I strive for social harmony. What I actually said was, "Well, I suppose you have to take risks."
On that somewhat dark note, we set off.
The day after Eurydice Dixon was murdered, I was cycling to Brunswick for an interview with vividrogers. Losing my bearings, I turned up alongside an expansive park and paused to check Google Maps. Then I saw the police cordon stretched across the grass of the soccer pitch. I realized, with a visceral jolt, that I knew exactly where I was.
Vividrogers, like many of the female geocachers I spoke to, said she was unlikely to go geocaching by herself at night: "It definitely occurs to you. As a female in today's society, I probably wouldn't wander around in a dark park in the middle of the night on my own."
Rod, a truck driver and respected member of the geocaching community, often takes women on nighttime geocaching expeditions. He acts as a kind of "chaperone," to use Peter's term. He does know female geocachers who go out at night alone, but just like my parents and the ethics committee, he worries about them. "And there are grounds to worry," he said, "based on recent happenings in Melbourne."
Sharkiefan, though, isn't afraid of the dark. Rod has invited her on his night expeditions before, but she wouldn't limit herself to night-caching with a male companion. "I feel safe in the city," she said. "It doesn't mean I'd go down an alley, but you just have to be sensible."
The assumptions that make women feel vulnerable at times can, in other contexts, act in their favor. One of the things that sharkiefan loves about geocaching is that she can sneak through a park full of children and parents, rummaging under benches and peering into foliage, without anyone taking much notice. At a glance, she isn't assumed to be threatening. "Being a white girl, and being middle-aged, well, you can kinda just do what you like," she told me once over brunch. "No mums and dads give me a second look because I'm not a guy and I'm not gonna be some child molester or something." Without a partner or children beside them, lone male geocachers in parks are sometimes interpreted as gay men wanting casual sex in the toilet block, or as potential pedophiles, she explained.
Race plays into these assumptions too. But this is less noticeable in geocaching, because most players are white—in fact, a study conducted in the U.S. found that 96 percent of geocachers identified as white, a statistic that matched my own experience in Melbourne. You could even speculate that geocaching is so white precisely because prejudices like these keep people of color away from the game.
In any case, the result is that it's the men who bear the burden of suspicion. "If I was a man … men are always more …" she said. Sharkiefan couldn't find the word, so she started again. "If you were a woman and there was a man lurking around acting a little bit weird, you'd be a bit creeped out. If it's a girl, people are just like, 'Oh well, whatever.'"
I didn't start my research with such heavy topics in mind. I was more interested in how people interact with digital technology and how that technology affects the way they experience their environments. But the topic of suspicion, and the possibility of violence, kept coming up. Both for me as a researcher and for my subjects—male and female—there was a marked intersection between geocaching and gendered assumptions about threat and vulnerability in urban public spaces.
Geocachers and non-geocachers size each other up from the other side of the street, using the tools they have available to judge whether the other might be innocent or predatory. Unfortunately, these tools are incredibly blunt. Poor Peter—he is a lovely guy. I'm sure the cyclist on the boardwalk is too. Some might say we'd dressed lambs up as wolves.
Is feeling wretched actually helpful?
You know what it's like to be sick. You feel fatigued, maybe a little depressed, less hungry than usual, more easily nauseated and perhaps more sensitive to pain and cold.
The fact that illness comes with a distinct set of psychological and behavioral features is not a new discovery. In medical terminology, the symptom of malaise encompasses some of the feelings that come with being ill. Animal behaviorists and neuroimmunologists use the term sickness behavior to describe the observable behavior changes that occur during illness.
Health care providers often treat these symptoms as little more than annoying side effects of having an infectious disease. But as it turns out, these changes may actually be part of how you fight off infection.
I'm an anthropologist interested in how illness and infection have shaped human evolution. My colleagues and I propose that all these aspects of being sick are features of an emotion that we call “lassitude." And it's an important part of how human beings work to recover from illness.
Your body sets priorities when fighting germs
The human immune system is a complex set of mechanisms that help you suppress and eliminate organisms – such as bacteria, viruses and parasitic worms – that cause infection.
Activating the immune system, however, costs your body a lot of energy. This presents a series of problems that your brain and body must solve to fight against infection most effectively. Where will this extra energy come from? What should you do to avoid additional infections or injuries that would increase the immune system's energy requirements even more?
Fever is a critical part of the immune response to some infections, but the energy cost of raising your temperature is particularly high. Is there anything you can do to reduce this cost?
To eat or not to eat is a choice that affects your body's fight against infection. On one hand, food ultimately provides energy to your body, and some foods even contain compounds that may help eliminate pathogens. But it also takes energy to digest food, which diverts resources from your all-out immune effort. Consuming food also increases your risk of acquiring additional pathogens. So what should you eat when you're sick, and how much?
My colleagues and I propose that the distinctive changes that occur when you get sick help you solve these problems automatically.
- Fatigue reduces your level of physical activity, which leaves more energy available for the immune system.
- Increased susceptibility to nausea and pain makes you less likely to acquire an infection or injury that would further increase the immune system's workload.
- Increased sensitivity to cold motivates you to seek out things like warm clothing and heat sources that reduce the costs of keeping body temperature up.
- Changes in appetite and food preferences push you to eat (or not eat) in a way that supports the fight against infection.
- Feelings of sadness, depression and general wretchedness provide an honest signal to your friends and family that you need help.
Of course these changes depend on the context. Any parents reading this article are likely familiar with the experience of being sick but pushing through it because a child needs care. While it may make sense to reduce food intake to prioritize immunity when the sick individual has plenty of energy reserves, it would be counterproductive to avoid eating if the sick person is on the verge of starvation.
Sickness as an emotion
So how does your body organize these advantageous responses to infection?
The evidence my colleagues and I reviewed suggests that humans possess a regulatory program that lies in wait, scanning for indicators that infectious disease is present. When it detects signs of infection, the program sends a signal to various functional mechanisms in the brain and body. They in turn change their patterns of operation in ways that are useful for fighting infection. These changes, in combination with each other, produce the distinct experience of being sick.
This kind of coordinating program is what some psychologists call an emotion: an evolved computational program that detects indicators of a specific recurrent situation. When the certain situation arises, the emotion orchestrates relevant behavioral and physiological mechanisms that help address the problems at hand.
Imagine you're walking through the woods, thinking you're alone, and suddenly you are startled by sounds suggesting a large animal is in the underbrush nearby. Your pupils dilate, your hearing becomes attuned to every little sound, your cardiovascular system starts to work harder in preparation for either running away or defending yourself. These coordinated physiological and behavioral changes are produced by an underlying emotion program that corresponds to what you might think of as a certain kind of fear.
Some of these coordinating programs line up nicely with general intuitions about what makes up an emotion. Others have functions and features that we might not typically think of as "emotional."
Some psychologists suggest these emotion programs likely evolved to respond to identifiable situations that occurred reliably over evolutionary time, that would affect the survival or reproduction of those involved.
This way of thinking has helped researchers understand why some emotions exist and how they work. For instance, the pathogen disgust program detects indicators that some potentially infectious agent is nearby. Imagine you smell the stench of feces: The emotion of disgust coordinates your behavior and physiology in ways that help you avoid the risky entity.
Another example is the emotion of shame, which scouts for signs that you've done something that causes members of your social group to devalue you. When you detect one of these indicators – a loved one rebukes you for doing something that hurt them, say – the experience of shame helps you adjust your mental map of what kinds of things will cause others to devalue you. Presumably you will try to avoid them in the future.
Drawing from the emerging discipline of evolutionary medicine, my colleagues and I now apply the idea of these emotion programs to the experience of being sick. We call this emotion "lassitude" to distinguish the underlying program from the outputs it generates, such as sickness behavior and malaise.
We hope that our approach to lassitude will help solve problems of practical importance. From a medical perspective, it would be useful to know when lassitude is doing its job and when it is malfunctioning. Health care providers would then have a better sense of when they ought intervene to block certain parts of lassitude and when they should let them be.