Ivan’s No Bell Surprise

Man’s best friend?

“Well, I don’t know why I came here tonight.
I got the feeling that something ain’t right” [1]

Ivan Pavlov won the Nobel Prize for the category “Physiology or Medicine” in 1904. [2] He had been performing advanced research on the digestive system of dogs since about 1890.

Over a century later, Pavlov is better known for his studies in psychology and conditioning. He observed that dogs, expecting rewards, would salivate when he or an assistant entered their rooms. He theorized, and proved in 1901, that dogs could be conditioned to responsively salivate to a variety of stimuli that previously had no meaning whatsoever to the dogs. Such as a bell.[3]

Now we are all conditioned to specific responsive thoughts whenever someone says: “Pavlov’s Dog.”

Pavlov's Drawing of experiment [ref 3]

Pavlov’s Drawing of experiment [ref 3]

On a darker note, Pavlov extended the experiments to train dogs, and test behaviors, to “negative stimuli” … such as electric shocks. [4]

In what has been called one of the most unethical psychological experiments ever [5] psychologists Mark Seligman and Steve Maier performed behavioral tests on dogs in 1965 that may have been inspired by Pavlov and his darker experiments.

Paraphrasing and summarizing: Dogs were trained to push a button in order to receive pleasure or a reward. The dogs were then divided into two groups and put in a room where a mild electric shock was administered. Dogs in group A found the button, pushed it and the shock stopped. Dogs in group B, similarly trained, also pushed the button; but for them the shocks did not stop. Eventually dogs in group B just gave up, laid themselves down and whimpered.

Non-helpless dogs learned to jump over the barrier to avoid shock

But not done yet. The same dogs were put into a room split in half, with a very low barrier between the halves. One-half of the room could be electrified, to administer a similar mild shock. When dogs in group A were shocked, they discovered that they could simply step over the barrier and were relieved of the annoying pains. Sadly, when the dogs in group B were shocked, they just continued to lie down and whimper … not even bothering to step over the low barrier to relief.

The poor dogs in group B. They had acquired “Learned Helplessness.” Their experience with no positive response to trying to control their condition had taught them “what’s the use?” The  Dogs in group A had learned empowerment in control of their pain/pleasure environment. The experiments are cited by psychologists and sociologists still today. One supposes that they apply to sociology, presuming of course, that humans are somewhat like their mammalian class cousins: the dog.

But we can imagine an experiment that goes a step further. We are not unethical, so we’ll just imagine this experiment … for now.

Let’s say that dogs in group A are put back in the room with the button and mild electrical shocks. At first, they get relief from the shock by pushing the button. But then, the rules change. The button works only 75% of the time. Then only 50%. They push the button over and over until it works.

Then the button only works 25% of the time … with a twist. The rest of the time pushing the button makes the shocks get worse and more frequent.

Will the dogs try to guess the new rules? Even when the rules change? At what point do they become like group B? >> Just lie there and take it.

I am sort of like those dogs in group A in the final “imaginary” experiment at this point in my brain healing: There now seems to be very little correlation between: (a) what I do; and (b) how often or severe my headaches are, or my sleep patterns. Sigh. I am told this could last quite a while.  Sigh, again.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is many-fold: a) I have not acquired learned helplessness; b) my support from my wife has been fantastic; c) so has my support at work; c) even as the rules change, the frequency, the duration and the severity of headaches seems to be steadily, although unevenly, decreasing; There are still bad days and sleepless nights, but I feel like myself almost all of the time; d) I have developed a number of tricks to get through (although not always completely relieve) headaches and restless nights.

Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore.
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right:
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you. [1]

I wish you all peace. And I wish you all the strength and perseverance for whatever your struggles may be, or whatever may come. Remember to practice patience and compassion whenever possible, for you cannot know the invisible struggles that haunt so many fellow human beings.

Joe Girard © 2014

[1] Steelers Wheel – Stuck in the Middle with You
[2] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1904/

[3] www.psychlotron.org.uk/…/AS_AQB_approaches_behaviourismCC.ppt
[4] http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/death-ivan-pavlov
[5] http://listverse.com/2008/09/07/top-10-unethical-psychological-experiments/

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