Learning is dependent on the ability to categorize incoming material. We can categorize information and make new categories only when we are in a state of relative calm and attentiveness. High levels of stress shut down the normal categorization ability of the brain. Children who are repeatedly exposed to overwhelming stress cannot learn as well as more protected children.
Learning is also dependent on the state of consciousness we are in when the learning occurs. Fear creates a very special state of consciousness. Fear conditioning happens very rapidly in animals and humans. A single experience is sufficient, and once established, the automatic, physical response to the object of fear is relatively permanent. People can overcome their fear response, but they really do not "unlearn." Instead, higher brain centers inhibit and control the fear response but the "emotional memory" remains. It is possible that once fear is learned, it can never be unlearned at a basic physiological level.
Whatever is learned when we are frightened gets attached to the fear "file drawer" in our minds. Whenever fear is triggered again, it is the drawer labeled "fear experiences" that is automatically accessed, and at the same time, no other file drawer can be easily accessed. When people are triggered by reminders of past trauma, they become hyperaroused, and only learning gained during past experiences of hyperarousal and danger will be available to them. If they have learned that lashing out physically at a threatening person helps to protect them, then whenever they feel threatened a sequence of automatic learned behavior will take hold, and they may lash out aggressively. If they have learned that the only way they can protect themselves is by becoming numb, they may go into a trance – dissociate - so that their conscious mind cannot feel the abuse. Later, when they are in another frightening situation, they may automatically enter such a trance, even in situations where they could take more effective action . In non- threatening situations, however, these same people may be quite capable of normal learning and behavior. Understanding this sequence of events can help us understand the apparently erratic behavior of so many children who the teacher knows can do better but who seem to sabotage themselves repeatedly.
This phenomenon can interfere with the efforts of others to help the victim. Most helping professionals can give examples of times they sit in the office with someone seeking advice on how to get out of or protect himself or herself from a dangerous situation. Together the therapist and the victim carefully formulate a strategy for self-protection. In the calm circumstances of such an interchange, the victim is in a state of mind that is conducive to learning. Unfortunately, once the victim returns to the threatening situation, he or she becomes quickly hyperaroused. In that very different state of consciousness, the information shared in the previous meeting with the therapist is not available. Under conditions of fear, the victim cannot think clearly and instead reverts to the behavior that he or she has learned in previous states of danger. Once calm is restored, the victim may never return to visit the therapist because of the shame of having failed.
Once an organism has had experiences with helplessness and a lack of control, it has difficulty learning that it has escaped from danger, even when it has successfully done so. Something happens to the organism's normal ability to learn from its experience. Recovery is possible, but not easy. Seligman and his colleagues tried various things to get their animals remotivated. They coaxed and, bribed them with treats so that they would discover that they were safe and that they could successfully escape for the confinement. But in the end, the only thing that worked was a physical demonstration of escape. The experimenters had to drag the animals across the barrier so that they could learn to terminate the shocks themselves. After dragging each animal anywhere from 25 to 200 times, the animals finally caught on, although each successive dragging required less and less force as the training progressed. The results were total and long-lasting.
In humans too, learned helplessness is hard to eradicate. It may contribute to the difficulties experienced by victims of various types of abuse when they know they are in situations of danger but are unable to escape and are unable to picture life in any other way. It has been frequently noted that battered wives often have an extremely difficult time escaping from their husbands; that prolonged captivity often results in a reluctance to leave the situation; that abused children find it difficult even as adults to leave their abusive families; that prison inmates and chronically mentally ill patients often feel safe only within institutions. But dragging people out of their "cages" is a difficult task and few helping professionals have the patience to last through two hundred potential trials, nor does the health care system any longer permit such an investment of time, effort, and money.
LeDoux, J. E. (1992). Emotion as memory: Anatomical systems underlying indelible neural trances. The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory. S. A. Christianson. Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Seligman, M. (1992). Helplessness: On depression, development and death. New York, W. H. Freeman and Co.
Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. (2013). Creating sanctuary: Toward the evolution of sane societies. New York, Routledge.