Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Lexicon of Madness -- Learned Helplessness


Learned Helplessness: Beginning in 1967, psychologist Martin Seligman and colleagues conducted a series of an experiments in which they exposed dogs to a series of uncontrollable, and painful, electrical shocks. When later placed in a shuttle-box and exposed to shocks from which they could easily escape by crossing a small barrier, these dogs instead laid down and whimpered. (Dogs from a control group, which had not been previously exposed to uncontrollable shocks, easily learned the escape-avoidance behavior.) Seligman's first reaction when he observed this phenomenon was that the scientific supply company must have sold him a batch of "dud" dogs. His second reaction was that these "helpless" and passive dogs looked to him like depressed human patients. Could it be, he wondered, that some depressed patients fail to take even the rudimentary steps that could improve their lives (getting out of bed, combing their hair, paying their bills, eating a healthy meal) because they had previously been exposed to uncontrollable and painful "shocks"? Much of what we know about the risk factors for mental illness does seem consistent with Seligman's learned helplessness theory of depression. For example, men who had suffered physical abuse in childhood were more likely than their non-abused peers to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after experiencing combat in Vietnam (26% versus 7%; Bremner et al., 1993).


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