Parallels between psychology and fishkeeping

When I think about my hobbies, which include photography, cycling, motorcycling, hacking and fishkeeping, I sometimes think they’re quite diverse. After all, some of them usually take place outdoors, and others are very much indoor activities. They also seem like a diversion from the often overly cerebral world of clinical psychology. On further reflection however, there are parallels between all of them and psychology. In what might become a regular feature (at least until I run out of hobbies), I shall describe what I consider to be parallels between them and clinical psychology. The first hobby I shall consider is fishkeeping.

A bit of history: I never really intended to become a fishkeeper. Fishkeeping found me, when I was bought a tropical tank for my birthday some years ago, with no prompting. It proved to be a hit, and immediately I started doing something that all clinical psychologists tend to do: researching. I researched the best way to “cycle” the tank so that the water was safe for fauna. I researched ideal temperatures, pH balances, fish species for beginners, plants to make the tank look good and take up nitrates from the water, food varieties that would not pollute the water, optimum filling-heights, lighting regimes and so on. As with clinical work, whilst there are certainly broad dos and don’ts, there is no simple right or wrong way to go about setting up and running a tank. It requires a mix of scientific and creative thinking. After a few months, the tank was up and running.

Outcome measurement is a key part of clinical work, although it can be contentious as some clinicians feel it interferes with the process of work. There are different ways to measure outcomes: quantitative methods tend to focus on scores for things related to feeling anxious, low or other concerns. Quantitative methods of measuring fishkeeping progress could be chemical measures of water parameters, or simply counting the numbers of various organisms that can live healthily in the tank, or rates of offspring (although high snail counts often mean that something has gone awry). Qualitative methods are more related to free-flowing interviews or discussions and people’s views. These can be seen as more meaningful, but are less easy to package up as the simple answers to complex questions that commissioners and politicians like to consider when making funding allocation decisions. Qualitative measures of aquarium success might be people’s comments about your tank, either in person or (shudder) on YouTube.

A new timesuck...

Endings and their management are a key part of clinical work with people, and can evoke strong feelings related to past ending that went well, or not so well. Fishkeeping has its fair share of endings too. In my experience, they are usually unhappy ones, as fish become unwell and often do not recover. Sometimes, treatment is possible, but this raises another parallel with clinical work: ethical dilemmas. For example, when my became hosts for Camallanus parasitic worms, the prognosis was poor. One option is treatment with Nematol, which kills invertebrates. Unfortunately, I had Amano Shrimp in my tank but I did some research and it was suggested that larger invertebrates can sometimes tolerate it. Faced with an array of stricken fish, I duly dosed the tank. The outcome was pretty awful: the ill fish recovered somewhat, but eventually all died. That said, the spread of the worms halted and no further fish were infected. Meanwhile, the shrimp had complications when they shed their skins, and expired. It was really gutting. As a contingency plan, I now have a separate tank for invertebrates, so that if something similar happens in future, they can go on holiday for a while and survive.

Male Amano Shrimp - Caridina multidentata

Another dilemma was when I had a Malaysian Trumpet Snail population explosion after some got into the tank accidentally on some plants I introduced. Following the Nematol disaster, I resolved to go down the biological control method, and tried to find a predator that would control the snail numbers. It turns out that the ideal predator is another shelled-beast: the assassin snail. I put a couple into the tank and within a week the snails were under control, and the tank was strewn with a macabre array of empty shells.

Assassin Snail - Clea Helena

This was one example of the formulation one has to do as a fishkeeper. Another was when I had problems with high nitrate levels, discovered using the testing kit. All the forums and experts were saying to do more water changes, so I duly did, but this seemed not to work, and if anything seemed to exacerbate the problem. I tried measuring the water parameters more regularly, and it was when I measured the nitrates pre-and-post a water change that I realised the nitrates were coming from the tap water itself, which was confirmed by a test of the water, and looking at Thames Water’s stats. Apparently the cause was likely to be attributable to fertiliser runoff, or even a decomposing animal in the water supply! Thus I had to reformulate and account for factors in the wider system which required new strategies to address: much like in clinical work when new information comes to light which changes the course of the work.

Psychologically-minded people might find fishkeeping interesting owing to the fantastic array of behaviours that the animals in tanks display. Fish establish territories and hierarchies, and their behaviours change when they are attempting to breed. It is important to have a good “boss-fish” that will not bully its tankmates as this promotes harmony: thus in a tank, as with people, systemic issues need to be considered. I introduced the Amano shrimp to try to control rampant algae growth, and soon found that shrimp were very interesting in their own right – they have a wide array of legs adapted for different purposes: walking, eating and swimming. They also have complex behaviours like having to exuviate, or shed their shells, on a regular basis as they grow. They are also transparent, so you can see what’s going on as they produce eggs, food travels through their digestive tracts and so on.

In summary, what I thought would be a light-hearted diversion from the rigours of psychological work became, at least in my hands, another involving, complex and rewarding process. It can be all of those things in differing amounts, depending on what you put into it and your expectations. I find the diversity of tank-life endlessly intriguing, and it gives rise to an ongoing process of learning and curiosity, just as psychology should too.