Yesterday I attended a talk by one of my colleagues. He was giving an update on a project we are both heavily involved in. The key difference is that he works on animal models (in vivo), mainly asking “what” type of questions; whereas I work at the cellular level (in vitro) focusing on the “why” and “how”.
While I cannot delve into the details of his project, I will say this much – the study used mice as an animal model to study effects of a drug on spatial learning and memory. The main brain region responsible for this type of learning is the hippocampus. A battery of behavioral tests was used to determine the effects of treatment on hippocampal function.
One of these tests is a classical paradigm in behavioral neuroscience, called the Morris water maze. Rodents typically dislike water, but if they need to survive from drowning they can swim and float. The Morris water maze consists of a large circular pool filled with opaque water. In one quadrant of the pool, the scientist places a small circular platform that can be used by the mouse to escape from the water. The platform can be made visible, by placing it above the water level, or invisible, by submerging it just beneath the water. A mouse is placed in the the pool, and is timed for how long it will take to find the platform and escape. If an animal shows good learning over multiple trials, the amount of time it takes to get to the platform progressively decreases over the period of training. As a final test, the scientist can completely remove the platform from the pool and measure how much time the mouse will spend in the correct quadrant of the pool in search for the platform.
Despite this technique not being new to me, I went home thinking about it in more abstract terms. As I was going to bed last night, it hit me that the Morris water maze can serve as a great metaphor for life in general. While the rodent test typically does not last for more than a few minutes, we all go through life stumbling, “swimming” and searching for our ultimate destination. The path can be circular, tortured and quite murky. And some people may have visible goals in sight, whereas others may be searching for something hidden. Some mice give up and try to float instead of swimming, analogous to some people just trying to get by. Still others may come to what they consider their correct destination, and not find anything there.
A lot of people say that happiness is in the journey rather than destination. But unless you have a goal in mind, you might as well just be floating. How do we uncover our hidden platforms, and can there be more than one? Or are all of them just moving targets?