Learned helplessness vs. learn drive

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Loss of learn drive with age

The claim that we lose the learn drive with age is dangerous. We accept the fact that students get gradually less passionate about learning. This perpetuates the parasitic myth that learning is hard, school is boring, and that these facts should be accepted like death and taxes. We are supposed to hate school as much as we hate our jobs. We are supposed to grin-and-bear it! This myth is stealing youth from the young generation and the love of life from millions of people. The effects of lost learn drive do their damage deep into adulthood.

It is a matter of time when the world can see the folly behind unhappy schooling. We will recover! Roman Empire was not that fortunate. Humanity tends to optimize itself into dead corners. It happened to many extinct human civilizations. Anyone who is tempted to say I exaggerate should look at the mental health of students, e.g. as expressed by the school shooting epidemic, or psychiatric problems experienced by students (see also: ADHD epidemic).

We are too smart to let this dangerous course derail progress. We know too much, and knowledge dissemination is too efficient now. Keep spreading the word, or my optimism will be as good as that of pacifists before the first world war!

The school system is inherently dangerous as it includes a number of mechanisms that extinguish novelty seeking, kill the love of learning, and stifle young passions with consequences that my extend to the end of life.

When studying depression, scientists employ the concept of learned helplessness. They use rats and a forced swim test to explore it. When rats are closed in a tub of water with no route of escape, they tend to swim around for several minutes in search of an exit. After a while they give up. In repeated tests, they tend to swim less and less. They learn the situation is beyond their control and there is no point in trying. The timing of such tests may determine the extent of long-term consequences, e.g. in the function of the amygdala, which may result in depression in adolescence. The rule of the thumb is that the lower the age of abuse, the longer the extent of the consequences. A milder form of such adaptation is what students experience in a classroom. A healthy, 5 year old will violently oppose boredom. Exposed to schooling and monodrone lecturing, the kid disciplined into sitting still in a bench will gradually behave like a rat in a forced swim test. Apathy will set it. The kid will experience behavioral shutdown. Schooling becomes a form of training where tolerance of the absence of novelty is trained into the young brain. This is the opposite what educators should aim at. We should strive at keeping kids impatient and rebellious. Give them the sense of entitlement for knowledge. Boredom should be intolerable. Knowledge can be a form of entertainment, and school should be fun. Entitlement to fun is nothing wrong!

Neural withering

Learned helplessness is at the core of the adverse classroom conditioning. However, in addition, schooling creates a perfect storm of other adverse conditions, of which violations of sleep hygiene and exposure to stress are most important. Those in turn entail a chain of wide-ranging consequences such as depression, obesity, addictions, risk-taking, aggression, cruelty, etc. This is a perfect storm for inducing neural withering. Young brains are conditioned in a bath of hormones that stifle neurogenesis and promote unfortunate synaptic pruning. This is a type of conditioning that is aimed against the penalties of helplessness. This conditioning results in extinction of behaviors targeted at exploration. This is a formula for setting an apathetic brain in stone. When kids leave school, their brains are set for life of conformity and unhappiness. In that light, it is surprising that some kids are still able to thrive. I explain elsewhere what makes for a model of a happy student. However, that model will suit only a few. There is also a rebellious student who tends to ignore the system and survive ok.

In the conveyor belt of mass education, most of students get the short end of the stick.

Learned helplessness at school

There are many ways brains adapt to the environment.

When you travel to a mountain resort and return to a big city, you are probably instantly struck with the unhealthy smell of a polluted metropolis. If you know a thing or two about the impact of pollution on longevity, this can be a horrifying feeling. Within minutes though, you stop sensing the difference and may happily return to your routine. This phenomenon is called an olfactory fatigue, and the underlying process is based on neural adaptation. Neural adaptation may have many forms. It may be instant and it may re-shape your brain over the period of months and years.

If you take on narcotic drugs, you will quickly develop tolerance that will call for higher doses. Tolerance has many aspects. It is based on metabolic adaptations, receptor downregulations, neurological changes, behavioral adaptations, and more.

Concentration camp survivors employed a whole range of psychological defenses to cope with the horrors of the camp. To a mere mortal, a day in Auschwitz may seem like an unbearable experience that no human mind could survive undamaged. However, camp survivors often returned to normal lives with seemingly limited scars.

There are many aspects of biological desensitization and habituation. They form natural regulatory and defence mechanisms in nearly all aspects of human physiology. In school setting, those defenses can be dangerous and can change a student's brain for life.

The whole host of adaptations at molecular, cellular, and network levels will result in helping a student develop a tolerance for low arousal, low novelty, and low inflow of valuable knowledge. This is how the learn drive gets extinguished. Those "well adapted" students might be classified by a teacher as focused, patient, and well-behaved. These kids are perfect for the classroom setting and they do indeed focus better and learn better at the moment and on demand (see: Dangers of being a Straight A student). However, their dulled craving for novelty and diminished learn drive take a long-term toll. Intellectual curiosity may be diminished and creativity extinguished. Some of those changes may leave a long-term imprint on personality. Reversal and recovery should be possible but may never be complete. Some of the human potential is lost in the process for ever.

Schoolchildren in German painting by Eugène-François de Block, 1866

Figure: Schoolchildren in German painting by Eugène-François de Block, 1866 (source: Wikipedia)

Educators keep forgetting that focus and creativity stand in opposition and a great mind needs both in the right proportion. In the chapter on Natural creativity cycle, I show that the best segregator of the two is the circadian cycle, which naturally harnesses rampant creativity and channels it into focused productive problem solving.

Learned helplessness is the mechanism by which students gain classroom focus at the cost of creativity. In the process, they gradually lose their learn drive.

Kids in a container

John Taylor Gatto is a world famous critic of compulsory schooling. He was an award-winning teacher who quit in 1991 in protest against the way "school made him hurt children".

Gatto uses a dramatic example to illustrate the operations of a school system. For fleas to be trained for a flea circus, their spirit needs to be broken first. A simple formula for breaking the will of a flea is to put it in a glass container with a lid. Each time a flea jumps, it hits the transparent ceiling. After a while, fleas stop jumping. Their will is broken via learned helplessness. They cannot stop hitting the barrier, so they stop jumping.

Gatto, who spend 3 decades as a teacher, felt like he was hired to act as a lid on a container from which kids are supposed to learn never to escape.

Learned helplessness at daycare

The same scary process may already begin in daycare where kids learn to overcome separation anxiety "disorder". Separation anxiety is a normal instinctive reaction to the absence of the primary caregiver, esp. in the natural breastfeeding window. That window is not your textbook 6 months. It might be as long as 3-5 years. We just never seem to see it in modern world that intervenes even in that most intimate process. As a population, we have no idea that natural weaning may take that many years! We need to look at hunter-gatherer societies to find the truth. When late weaning happens in the western world, it is seen as an aberration. Even a sexual aberration.

Behavioral therapy can overcome separation anxiety to a degree. Kids can naturally overcome separation at their circadian prime. They cope much worse before sleep or at prime feeding time. In daycare, however, a 2 year old copes with separation anxiety primary by learned helplessness. Tons of self-help books have been written on how to gently separate a child from his mother at that stage, and they all prove that is it possible (in a healthy child). Except, this is always harmful. Raymond Moore warns that the earlier you institutionalize your kid, the earlier it will institutionalize you.

The second layer of learned helplessness comes with discipline. Child freedoms are limited and tolerance to limits on freedom is increased. Ideally, the kid should have a wide cognitive space opened to its explorations. The borders of that space should be set firmly at areas that entail danger to life or health of the child, well-being of others, property, etc. Children must obey the rules and obeyance must be consistently enforced along the principles of efficient conditioning. However, rules are costly. They use resources in learning, execution, confusion, violations, inconsistencies, stress, etc. It is easier to keep fewer rules. If rules are innumerous, they can be clearer and stronger. Rules should be adapted to cognitive capacities of a child and introduced slowly. Running a kid through a narrow gauntlet of rules is possible, but the narrower the channel the more conformity training is required. Conformity is largely based on learned helplessness. A child may disobey a loving parent, but may easily be pushed into submission when faced with an unwelcoming face of a supervisor or peer pressure. Hence the "magic" of daycare (see: Learning acceleration via stress).

Instead, I advocate large behavioral spaces. A securely attached caregiver is only needed for reassurance while exploration proceeds unimpeded. A caregiver should seem invisible and intervene only in extreme situations (e.g. when child safety is compromised). Whereas a kid under parental supervision may explore the world, investigate, play, and have fun. The same toddler in daycare may be engaged in a battle for survival. Battling other kids. Disobeying orders. Submitting to the authority. Following a rigid schedule that does not match interests or the circadian cycle, wrongly timed learning, wrongly timed running, wrongly timed compulsory napping, and even limits on the freedom of the bladder and the bowel!

Child's optimum nap time depends on the natural waking time. If natural waking is gone, the optimum nap time may be gone too, and naps may compound the mess in the sleep cycle. Some kids do not want to nap. Others might refuse to nap in day care for factors that are hard to comprehend to caregiver with 10-20 others subjects to take care of.

The bigger the cognitive space the lesser the need for adaptations that will limit future explorations. The bigger the space the bigger the rewards from explorations via the novelty seeking guidance system. Most parents love well-disciplined kids who obey orders, follow the rules, and minimize disruption. This is achieved well at daycare and this is often met with delight. However, those procedures limit exploratory nature of the young brain and may also result in worse long-term outcomes. All parents should be aware that less discipline may be good for a thriving brain. The term "spoilt brat" should be retained solely for kids who violate the basic rules of decency. Otherwise, let your kid be spoilt until its brain is strong enough to become a model citizen. This process may take three decades!

Your brain is great!

My writing about learned helplessness may sound a bit dramatic or even depressing. I hope it is taken to heart by parents and teachers. However, if you strive at high creative achievement, and recognize some stories or symptoms in yourself, this is not the time to slow down and look for your own limitations. I write elsewhere about the magic extent of the adaptive powers of the human brain. With hard work you can restore a great deal of your learn drive, creativity, or zest for brainwork. Some of the potential might have been lost. Lost brain connection will never be the same. However, for the brain, where one door closes, another opens. Lost skills get compensated in new areas. Personality changes can make you suitable for new and different occupations. It is conceivable that things we consider "bad for the brain" may actually turn your life for the better in some circumstances. Do not slow down.

Summary: School and learn drive

  • Compulsory schooling suppresses the learn drive
  • Most kids adapt to the compulsion of schooling via learned helplessness
  • Classroom focus is maximized by suppression of creativity via learned helplessness
  • Learned helplessness may lead to problems such as depression, obesity, addictions, risk-taking, aggression, bullying, cruelty, etc.
  • As experience shapes the brain, inaction in the wake of learned helplessness, is bound to stunt cognitive abilities of children
  • Learned helplessness begins with forceful weaning (natural weaning may take 3-4 years)
  • Learned helplessness continues in daycare with a rigid regiment of rules enforced by strangers
  • Large behavioral spaces with fewer rules are beneficial in cognitive development
  • Unrestrained development of personality may take three decades. Accelerating that process limits human cognitive powers