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"Learned Helplessness" - a new spin on an old theory

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

- by Diana Kastner and Katharina Pieper

I have been trying to find just the right words to bring this message to you as gently as possible, but in the end, there is only one way to state a claim as bold as this one, and that is to say it as it is:

"Learned Helplessness" is not learned

Yup, you read this right. After more than 50 years of believing that repeated or prolonged aversive stimulus teaches our dogs that no matter what they do, the outcome is the same, we have come to find out that this is not how it works. But who in this world would ever go against solid research such as that of Seligman and Maier, which we have adopted as the gospel truth since the 1960s?

First, please allow me to bring back the story of L. David Mech, who, in the 1960s did research of a different kind and later published his first book "The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species". Though L. David Mech wasn't the first wolf expert to conclude that wolves asserted dominance and subsequently followed a well-established alpha hierarchy (Rudolf Schenkel released his then-groundbreaking paper "Expressions Studies on Wolves" in 1947), he was certainly the main player in spreading the dominance (or alpha) theory - especially in the dog world. From the mid 80s on, L. David Mech spent summer after summer living amongst wild, free-roaming wolves on Canada's Ellesmere Island. And that's where the unthinkable happened: He learned that his very own original theories were flawed; that rather than wolves living in unrelated packs and fighting for dominance and alpha status, wild, free-roaming wolves live in harmony within family packs where they care for one another, hunt together, play together, rest together and teach each other. Based on these new findings, L. David Mech has debunked his original work. Yet, the myth persists! In cases when we accept something as being factual, it is difficult for us to let go of it, even if the original source of said fact courageously admits that the old fact is flawed.

Today, we are witnessing a similar situation, in that the authors of an original theory relentlessly searched for a more up-to-date truth, and this new truth so happens to debunk the old. And just as a vast majority of the public clings to the myths of the alpha theory, it might be challenging to convince the dog training world of this new truth behind learned helplessness; a truth that was daringly uncovered by no other than Maier and Seligman themselves.

Psychology and Neuroscience

When Seligman and Maier originally experimented with naive beagles and street-smart mongrels, they did so strictly from a psychological perspective. While all dogs underwent the same general process, the dogs were split into three groups. To begin with, all dogs were placed into hammocks, where group 1 received a series of foot shocks but was trained to push a plate that would allow them to turn off the shock (ESC group). Group 2 received the same series of foot shocks but were not given any control over the outcome, thus making the aversive stimulus inescapable (INESC group). The dogs in group 3 were lucky enough to have not received any foot shock to begin with (Zero group).

A set time after the hammock experience, the dogs were moved to a device known as the shuttlebox. The box consisted of two compartments, divided by a knee-high barrier that could easily be jumped by any of the participating dogs. The floor on one side of the shuttlebox was set to deliver foot shocks once again. It so happens that the majority of the INESC dogs went passive and accepted the new shock as their inescapable fate. However, the dogs from the ESC group and the Zero group performed equally well in jumping the barrier and to safety.

Over the years, Seligman and Maier conducted a number of experiments that led them to coin the resulting passivity observed in the INESC dogs as "learned helplessness".

Learned: because they theorized that the INESC dogs learned they had no control over the outcome of an aversive event, and they learned that they would have no control over the outcome in future aversive events.

Helplessness: because nothing one does matters.

Seligman and Maier theorized that this was a cognitive process.

At some point, Seligman and Maier parted ways. While Seligman went on to focus on human psychology, especially on the correlation between learned helplessness and depression, Maier found himself drawn to study the brain. Finally, this newly found interest in neuroscience prompted him to search for the neurocircuit of learned helplessness. And this is where it gets really interesting. This is where science shifted gears and did a complete 180 on an old theory that was based strictly on observable behaviors. And the outcome is nothing short of amazing: The original theory of learned helplessness has it backwards. Rather than learning that the animal has no control, the animal learns control; rather than the animal expecting lack of control in future aversive situations, the animal learns to expect control; and rather than passivity in the absence of control being cognitive, this passivity is a deeply subcortical default survival mechanism.

The procedures used in finding this circuit was quite complex and invasive. By now, Maier and Seligman have moved from experimenting on dogs to rodents (Maier) and humans (Seligman). With the help of various tracers, agonists and antagonists, Maier and his team of researchers were able to arouse or inhibit different brain activities in the rat brain and thus map out the circuit that facilitates not only the default mechanism of learned helplessness, but also the learned mechanism of deactivating it. To read the author's manuscript detailing the research, please follow this link.

The Learned Helplessness Circuit

The groundbreaking news about the mechanism of learned helplessness (from here on referred to as "default passivity") is that it is set in motion by default any time an animal is exposed to a threat or otherwise aversive stimulus. The brain regions involved in this circuit are the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), the amygdalae, the striatum and the periaqueductal gray (PAG). Within this circuit, the DRN acts as a hub. In a nutshell, a threat activates multiple brain regions, which in turn activate the DRN. The DRN then releases higher amounts of serotonin, which signal to the PAG and striatum to inhibit fight and flight, as well as to the amygdalae for heightened fear and anxiety.

However, the subsequent state of passivity (PASSIVITY/ANXIETY) is not an immediate occurrence. While initial serotonin levels spike quickly at the onset of an aversive event, reaching the threshold that finally induces passivity is a gradual process, which explains why only prolonged aversive stimuli result in what we have come to know as learned helplessness (default passivity). And just as it takes a while to reach said state of default passivity, once passive (due to sensitized serotonin receptors in the PAG and striatum), it will take a number of days following an inescapable stress event for these sensitized serotonin receptors to desensitize to once again allow the animal to become more active.

This graph shows the mechanism of default passivity due to prolonged inescapable aversive stimulation (PASSIVITY/ANXIETY)

The following cluster of behaviors observed during the state of default passivity are behaviors that can be linked to either passivity or anxiety (hence PASSIVITY/ANXIETY):

  • Reduced aggression (PASSIVITY)

  • Exaggerated attention to external cues (ANXIETY)

  • Potentiated opioid reward (PASSIVITY)

  • Potentiated fear conditioning (ANXIETY)

  • Slowed fear extinction (ANXIETY)

  • Reduced food and water intake (PASSIVITY)

  • Neophobia (fear of novel foods) (ANXIETY)

  • Reduced preference for sweet tastes (PASSIVITY)

  • Reduced juvenile social exploration (ANXIETY)

  • Reduced social dominance (PASSIVITY)

Deactivating the LH Circuit

With exposure to escapable shock (or other aversive stimuli), and thanks to neuroplasticity, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC) learns to:

DETECT: detect control,

ACT: first build a new neural pathway between the prelimbic area (PL) of the VPC and the DRN by creating proteins (plasticity proteins to be exact) and then deactivating the DRN via this new pathway when control is DETECTed

EXPECT: expect control in future aversive events

Please note that recognizing the mere presence of control (rather than the act of controlling) will deactivate the DRN.

This graph shows the mechanism allows the VPC to deactivate the default passivity when the presence of control is detected

Once the ACT pathway is created, immunization (see below) will allow it to be activated (and the DRN deactivated) even when the aversive situation is inescapable. However, since immunization is not permanent, it is important to keep "refreshing" this pathway, that is, keeping it active by exercising control.

The flow of encountering a Threat

The beauty of this mechanism is that, initially, it allows time for defensive behaviors and passivity is only activated when control is not detected. Learning control is vital, life experience is vital, allowing dogs to cope with life and with stressors in THEIR ways is vital.

Questions to consider

Why would default passivity (LH) be important for survival?