Lab Rats Confirm That Harry and Meghan Made the Right Move

Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

AAlthough it can be difficult to discern fact from fiction when it comes to the media’s coverage of the British royals, it appears that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to relinquish their roles as senior members of the royal family — aka Megxit — caused quite the stir.

Findings emerging from laboratory rat investigations suggest that Megxit may indeed be the ideal adaptation to the traditional royal lifestyle.

Listed among the couple’s motivations to establish a second residency in Vancouver, British Columbia, is their desire to establish financial independence. Walking away from extreme financial security may seem perplexing to some, but findings emerging from laboratory rat investigations — an unlikely parallel — suggest that Megxit may indeed be the ideal adaptation to the traditional royal lifestyle.

The value of work

As a professor of behavioral neuroscience, I pay close attention to cause and effect. When rats in my laboratory are trained to work for life’s sweet rewards, Froot Loops cereal in their case, they develop more emotional resilience than what I call the “trust fund” rats that receive their rewards for merely showing up. This rodent model allows us to probe the effect of effort-based rewards associated with working and the neural adaptations that underlie healthy response-outcome contingencies.

It appears that working for rewards builds a sense of rodent self-agency and mastery over the task at hand, resulting in several desired outcomes, including healthy stress hormone profiles, evidence of neuroplasticity (changing neural circuits), and impressive problem-solving abilities.

The wisdom emerging from these studies suggests that experiences that prompt us to “work” the environment for desired outcomes stock our brains’ experiential inventories, leading to more optimistic behavior in the form of prolonged persistence when we’re faced with challenging tasks.

Although royal allowances provide the luxury and privilege of being able to afford most anything one’s heart desires, the brain benefits from a different currency in the form of experiential, rather than financial, affordances.

Experiential wealth (of knowledge)

When we see a pot with a handle on it, our past experiences direct us to grasp the handle and pour. As we move beyond pouring tea to more complex tasks, varied experiences are essential for the successful navigation of life’s challenges.

Remember the 1980s television series MacGyver? It featured a U.S. military operative, Angus MacGyver, who could famously get himself out of any life-threatening challenge with his affordance-rich brain — even with limited physical resources. He was known for his innovative solutions — making pistols out of paperclips and bombs out of birthday candles. He impressively displayed optimal affordances in challenging times.

Similar to the flexible coping rats, Harry and Meghan have adopted a new and fresh approach to their expected duties that appears to more closely align with their current needs and interests.

Though fictional, MacGyver was based on something science reveals to be true: Rich and diverse experiences help fuel prosperous brains. And in the case of the royals, one could argue that these benefits (from a neurological perspective) are far greater than the benefits of rich and diverse financial portfolios, elaborate allowances, and guaranteed inheritances.

In addition to building valuable neural infrastructure, stepping away from predicted royal provisions to a life of uncertain outcomes requires a sharpened focus on relevant details to make smart and strategic decisions. Varied environments and experiences support healthy neurochemical outcomes. Dopamine, often oversimplified as the brain’s reward chemical, facilitates our ability to identify strategies that consistently and reliably lead to desired rewards.

Greater effort = lower stress

Researchers at Northern Kentucky University found that when dopamine was depleted in rats, they were less likely to exert effort to obtain a high-value reward, opting to exert minimal effort and settle for a low-valued food reward. In contrast, dopamine-rich animals made an extra effort to obtain high-value food rewards. Thus, dopamine keeps us from settling for the low-hanging fruit by directing us to life’s richer rewards, even when they require more hard work to obtain.

A final lesson from the rats is that the effort-based reward lifestyle leads to a healthier stress hormone profile. Whereas stress hormones such as corticosterone (cortisol in humans) are great for keeping us out of harm’s way when we need to avoid an impending threat, stress hormones become toxic when elevated for extended periods.

When our worker rats are faced with a mildly stressful challenge, a resilience hormone, DHEA, is increased in proportion to stress hormone levels. Higher DHEA levels provide a buffer against toxic stress hormones. In other studies, we have profiled rat coping strategies, distinguishing between animals that always respond to challenges the same way (such as being consistently shy and withdrawn) and animals that exhibit a flexible strategy more dependent on the specific situation. In these studies, we find the flexible coping rats have healthier stress hormone levels than their predictable, consistent counterparts after a challenging situation, which ultimately reduces the potential toxicity of the initial threat.

Also relevant to recent lifestyle changes for the duke and duchess, rodent work suggests that having offspring provides neural boosts in the form of adaptive cognitive and emotional responses. Our maternal rats can find buried treats in a more efficient manner than their counterparts with no reproductive experience. They also exhibit neural modifications linked to neuroplasticity and healthy stress responses. And the socially sensitive California deer mouse, among the mere 5% to 10% of all mammals that exhibit paternal responses, reveals a brain rich in the social-linked neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin, fueling their paternal capacity.

Although few among us may look to rodents for mental health recommendations, the carefully controlled investigations of these impressively adaptive animals reveal important universal themes associated with healthy mammalian brains.

It turns out the Duke and Duchess of Sussex may have identified the perfect lifestyle for healthy neural and mental functions — moving away from trust fund status to effort-based rewards status. Similar to the flexible coping rats, Harry and Meghan have adopted a new and fresh approach to their expected duties that appears to more closely align with their current needs and interests. The recent arrival of little Archie may also be responsible for a rise in healthy brain neurochemicals that build strong and trusting social relationships. Taken together, the unexpected and unique choices of these young royals may be the perfect lifestyle Rx for optimal mental health.

MacEldin Trawick Chair and Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience, University of Richmond https://www.kellylambertlab.com/

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