Animal magic

A dolphin a day can keep depression at bay.

David Servan-Schreiberr | April 2008 issue
On the island of Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies is a centre for “dolphin therapy.” At the entrance, a sign on the wooden door suggests this is ritual space: “To respect the privacy of patients and their families, access to this pool is forbidden to the public.” A small bridge crosses a narrow channel. Beyond, a large expanse of water extends to the sea. Four “therapeutic” dolphins, here and there, gently play with four children, each of whom is assisted by a young therapist.
These children are unlike others. Autistic, developmentally disabled or afflicted with serious neurological disorders, all are disadvantaged. Even from where I stand, I can see the contracted muscles distorting their facial expressions. Their hands are clenched, their wrists bent back, their gestures jerky and sometimes brusque. Yet an intense joy in their eyes and their movements shines through. They don’t use words, but surprise, delight, pride ring out through their inarticulate sounds.
Seven-year-old Christen, who is mentally and physically disabled, taps on the water with the flat of his hand to get Mateo, an adult male, the children’s favourite, to come closer. Under Mateo’s spell, Christen’s movements are almost flowing. He raises two fingers and waves his hand in front of the dolphin, which has taken up a position facing him, watching.
Understanding what the child expects, the animal raises its head out of the water and “sings”: “Hee, hee, hee, hee…“ Christen chortles with pleasure. Mateo too is incapable of making himself understood, the child seems to be thinking, but how marvelous he is anyway! With his eyes set on the animal, Christen pretends to shake an imaginary hand. Mateo rises further, his tail furiously thrashing the water to keep himself erect. He waves his front flippers as if he were holding out his hand in return. Christen bursts out laughing. You see, we imagine him saying, he too is at a disadvantage, with those awkward flippers.
He doesn’t even have hands, and still we love him so much! Encouraged by the therapist in the water next to him, Christen opens wide both arms. Mateo lowers himself in the water and comes to lay his breast against the child’s chest. Christen embraces him with all the tenderness he has in him and looks toward his parents and sister at the edge of the pool. I can see them discreetly wiping their tears.
“You know,” the young Dutch psychiatrist who supervises the program tells me later, “what touches me most are the comments from the children’s siblings at the end of two weeks. At the start, they sometimes talk about their resentment of the handicapped brother who monopolizes their parents’ attention and requires constant care. When they leave, they often say that now they understand they have been very lucky. Because if their brother had not had this problem, they would never have been able to experience something as powerful as the encounter with the dolphins. When I hear that, I know the work is done.”
In the sixties, psychologist Erich Fromm advanced the hypothesis of “biophilia”: Our well-being depends on a successful relationship with our natural environment. Since then, others have gone so far as to suggest that the evolution of the human brain has been conditioned by our relations with animals. This would explain all the studies that continue to demonstrate that we live more happily (and in better health) if we’re regularly in the presence of animals that are well-disposed toward us.
A study has shown that dolphins are capable of relieving minor or moderate depression faster than anti-depressants (compared to a control group of patients who merely swam freely over a coral reef during the same period).
Autistic or disabled children are not cured. But follow-up research suggests they concentrate better, communicate more and more clearly, interact more freely with their brothers and sisters, and smile and laugh more with others. It shows that they’ve discovered something of their own worth and of the happiness they can give or receive, even with awkward gestures, few words or no words at all.
David Servan-Schreiber is a psychi- atry professor in France and the U.S., and author of Healing without Freud or Prozac.
 

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