What the dogs teach

One of the most famous experiments in psychology was done many years ago on dogs. Now many years later it still effects how we think about ourselves.

The experiment was really simple. They put a dog on an electrified pad and gave him an electric shock. When he jumped a small fence onto another pad the shock stopped. Not suprisingly the dogs learned to jump quickly. Then they changed the rules. They put the dog down on the same pad. This time they waited until he jumped and then shocked the pad that before had been safe. Took a bit longer but the dog stopped jumping. But the important part of the experiment was the last part.

They changed the rules again. Sometimes they shocked them for staying. Sometimes they shocked them for jumping. The important thing was that it didnt matter what the dog did. Pain came randomly. It couldnt be controlled or predicted. It didnt matter what they did.

The dogs were more human than anyone recognized. They laid down and quit. They wet themselves. Even when they took them out of the experimental situation they quit. And some I think even stopped eating and died. They died because of what they learned about life.

This experiment was the genesis of the theory of learned helplessness, and led to many ideas about depression and the importance of optimism in human life. It has profoundly effected many ideas about what cause depression and what can be done to help.

We are incredibly tough and resilent characters. I have known people who dealt with incredible pain and suffering in ways that seem almost beyond understanding. The key is to find a pattern to the pain, an order. We can find the strength to do almost anything as long as there is the smallest something that we can do to make a difference.

I am reminded of a two friends who didnt make it. One was not quite 17 when he died. He had demons of his own, but was caught between a mother and father who both thought he was the ammunition in their battles. It was too much and he simply gave. He slashed both wrists, took a bottle of pills, and hung himself.

Another died from psychiatry. She had problems, real problems for a long time. She was given the pills to become better, but never found a person to hang onto. Finally they were giving her meds to cure her other meds and nobody really knew what was causing anything anymore and she quit. She gave. She took a bottle of pills. It took 4 days for her organ systems to shut down.

I wish the dogs could have talked to each other. I wish we would never stop. Sometimes it is in the stories we tell and that we hear that we find the order to our pain. It is finding out how others have lived that we grasp a way for us to make it. The biggest lie of mental illness is that we are all alone, that our words must always fall on silent ground and our tears fall unseen amidst people who never know we are there.

Share your story today. I wish the dogs could have talked. Reach out to someone today


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