Following on from last week’s blog, an important – indeed, key – point to make here concerns the difficulties (for fairly obvious reasons, e.g. practical, ethical, humane, logistical etc.) of researching “learned helplessness” in man. Let me explain what I mean here by way of reference to a reported study, carried out in the field of animal experimentation; i.e. into certain aspects of “learned behaviour” using, in this instance, a terrier dog as the subject.
In the initial stages, the dog was approached by the experimenter, who was holding in his hand a neutral-looking, propelling-pencil-like battery-operated object. When touched by this object, the dog received a mild but nevertheless unpleasant sensation. Not surprisingly, the animal promptly ran off in alarm, swiftly learning to effectively counter the noxious (unpleasant/offending) stimulus, by means of escape; (running away). Thereafter, the dog remained in avoidance mode, i.e. staying away for just as long as the pencil-like “deliverer’ of the noxious, i.e. unpleasant stimulus, remained in view.
At this point the dog was placed in a restraining harness, from which such newly learned behavioural responses of escape and avoidance were no longer available options. On sight and approach alone of the-‘pencil’ like object, the now captive and helpless animal struggled in vain to deploy its newly learned responses of escape and avoidance. Thereafter – and surprisingly quickly – the dog adapted to its present plight, i.e. restrain; by crouching in the corner of the room, as far as was possible away from the feared; pencil-like stimulus.
Finally, the ‘researcher’ removed the harness altogether, so that the dog was once again entirely free to escape and thus to avoid. However, now when approached with the noxious stimulus, i.e. the ‘pencil’; the animal made no attempt to escape but simply crouched; at first wimpering softy but thereafter, enduring the experience silently. Clearly the learned responses of escape and avoidance had now been ‘overlaid’ with a freshly learned response, i.e. to accept and be helpless: in other words, “learned helplessness”. It should, of course, be stressed that such work, using animals as subjects, is by no means analogous to that involving human beings. There is a ‘chasm’ of difference phylogenetically•, i.e. concerning the evolutionary history of species; and scale of difference in development, between the brain of a dog and the human brain.
Although here in this blog I have referred to learned helplessness in the manner in which I have, it by no means signals any kind of comfortable and compliant acceptance of such reported studies on my part. Indeed, it has been my life-long experience, even up to this present time and without exception, that animals – especially those of the domestic pets variety – consistently give back more by way of trust, loyalty and companionship than typically, they are ever likely to receive. Such is a gift to man; thus, he must ever be vigilant never to abuse it.
And now just a brief final thought concerning depression in humans: I remember from childhood days, my father once commenting (I can’t remember about what); “You know; rather than asserting as we are sometimes inclined to do, that “Where there’s life there’s hope”; it would sometimes make more sense to me to maintain that, “Where there’s hope, there’s life”!”