Seligman (1975) argued that the research on learned helplessness provides a model for clinical depression. For example, there is evidence that helplessness is involved in the relationship between alcohol dependence and depression (Sitharthan, Hough, Sitharthan, & Kavanagh, 2001). More generally, thousands of people each year are diagnosed as depressive. These individuals show insomnia, report feeling tired, often say that life is not worth living, have difficulty performing routine tasks, and may be suicidal. Clinical depression is severe, long lasting, and is not easily traced to a recent environmental experience.
Seligman (1975) has suggested that the behavior of helpless dogs may be relevant to the origin and treatment of clinical depression. Depression may arise when a person has a history of inescapable abuse. This could occur when a parent, spouse, or caretaker unreasonably and severely mistreats a child, partner, or elderly person. In other writings, Seligman and his co-workers have pointed out that, although animal experiments may shed light on human depression, there are differences (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Peterson & Seligman, 1984). For the most part, Seligman points to differences that occur because of human verbal behavior. That is, a person may talk about his or her problems and attribute them to either internal or external causes. When people say that their difficulties are caused by internal factors (e.g., "I am a failure"), these responses could function as discriminative stimuli for giving up (as in rule-governed behavior in chap. 11).
In terms of treatment, research on learned helplessness has practical importance. When helpless dogs are forced to make a response that escapes the electric shocks, they eventually begin to make the escape response on their own (i.e., a dog that fails to jump the barrier is forcibly guided across it). Based on this finding, Seligman has suggested that depressed individuals should be placed in situations in which they cannot fail. In this manner, the person may eventually learn to emit appropriate responses in the presence of aversive events.
Seligman has also suggested how to prevent learned helplessness and depression. A person who has already learned to escape from punitive control may be "immunized" from the effects of inescapable aversive events. Such an effect is suggested by experiments where animals initially learn to some response (e.g., wheel running) to escape electric shocks. That is, the animals first learn an effective escape response to negative reinforcement contingencies. Next, the animals are exposed to the typical learned helplessness procedures of inescapable shocks. Finally, the subjects are tested in a situation where a new response produces escape from shocks (e.g., switching sides in a shuttle box). The typical effect of pre-exposure to escape is that this experience blocks the learned helplessness usually brought on by inescapable aversive stimulation (Maier & Seligman, 1976; Williams & Lierle, 1986).
In addition to behavioral treatments (i.e., arranging for success or immunization), neuroscience research is currently underway using Seligman's procedures to induce learned helplessness in animals. The basic idea is to examine the possible interrelationships between brain chemistry and depression with the hope of finding neurochemical regulators of human depression. For example, dopamine (a neurotransmitter) seems to play a role in the depression caused by learned helplessness (Besson, Privat, Eschalier, & Fialip, 1999; Takamori, Yoshida, & Okuyama, 2001). Drugs that target the dopaminergic systems eventually may be helpful in the treatment of clinical depression, especially when combined with behavioral treatments focused on overcoming and preventing learned helplessness.
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