You’re Feeling Very Sheepy: Animal Hypnosis is Potential Key to Unlocking Human Behavior

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ray Scrimegour.

In the face of potential danger, some animals play dead, some freeze in place and some roll over and show their bellies.

Have you ever wondered why this happens?

Of course you have. But what do these behaviors say about the instinct of animals? How much of this instinctive behavior can be found in humans? Gordon Gallup, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Albany State University, has the answer.

“Uncovering the relation of the extreme behavioral instincts of animals and humans can be modeled by putting animals through induced hypnosis,” Gallup said.

Gallup delivered this idea through a lecture called “Animal Hypnosis” at SUNY New Paltz Monday, March 7, at 6 p.m. in Lecture Center 102. According to Gallup, studying such occurrences in controlled conditions may have implications for how these states are dealt with in applied settings.

Animal hypnosis, referred to as ‘Tonic Immobility (T.I.),’ was first reported in 1636 when a man subdued a chicken after it ran away. After submission, the chicken stayed in place after the man let go. Further testing around this behavior concluded that the chicken’s involuntary submission was triggered by the physical contact of restraint.

Since then, T.I. has been found in a diverse cross section of different species. According to Gallup, further testing on other species revealed profound behavioral inhibitions which have been shown to be highly sensitive to variations in fear.

Gallup referenced the Defensive Distance Hypothesis, stating that species with prey/predator relations respond to their predator in different ways; freezing if seen by a predator, attempting to flee if being chased, struggling if contact is made and T.I. if the predator is near or causes submission.

According to Gallup, such laboratory procedures that are designed to increase these fears prolong the response while those that alleviate these fears antagonize the response.

“Under natural conditions, tonic immobility may be involved in predator-prey relations and serves as the last response in a series of distance-dependent antipredator tactics,” Gallup said.

According to Gallup, these types of extreme behavioral inhibitions have also been noted with individuals who have been in medical clinics (catatonic schizophrenia), who have been sexually assaulted (rape-induced paralysis) and who survive airplane disasters (behavioral inaction).

There are similar cases of these inhibitions that happen to humans in many ways. People can feel paralyzed, be scared stiff of impending danger or suffer from shell shock after traumatic events. In such instances of extreme behavior, Gallup said that a concept called Adaptive Advantage can be used to stop these inhibitions or potentially deny them altogether.

The Adaptive Advantage concept, referring to predator/prey relations with animals, can be applied to wild animal attacks and potential sexual assaults. According to Gallup, predators require the prey to struggle in order to deem it acceptable to consume. If the prey submits or ‘plays dead’ in the presence of the predator, the predator can’t take the chance of possibly ingesting disease or decay from a potentially dead animal.

In a real-world sense, the Adaptive Advantage concept works the same way. In the case of crash victims from airplane disasters who suffer from behavior inaction, Gallup suggests that a change in stimuli such as a blaring noise can snap people out of the T.I.

In the case of predator/prey relations, he points out that forest rangers often tell people to lie down and ‘play dead’ in the face of grizzly bears. Also, people under attack from potential sexual assaults can lie down and ‘play dead’ to end the predator’s advances.

“If the predator in both cases cannot get a struggle from the victim, then they are less likely to commit the act,” Gallup said.

The audience, who packed the room, was pleased with Gallup’s knowledge of the subject and how to address certain stimuli. C.J. O’Brien, a third-year psychology major, said he found the numerous applications of antipredator tactics fascinating.

“The numerous ways to immobilize oneself can create many good ways to deal with predators,” O’Brien said.

As Gallup closed his lecture, he pointed out how further studies will provide substantial information on how to deal with predators in extreme situations. He said there won’t be an unnatural interference in natural human responses, despite how advanced the research becomes.

“Technology is evolving, but hopefully further studies will allow us to understand and anticipate these inhibitions without undermining adaptive human responses,” Gallup said.