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Some simple psychological models


Internal restraints are heavily based in the perception of control. An excellent model of the formation and nature of some of these restraints is Seligman’s concept of learned helplessness.102

learned helplessness

Lessons in which helplessness is learned are among the most damaging for any living creature. An experiment done with dogs demonstrates what happens. Dogs exposed to uncontrollable shock will, after a time, give up trying to get away. They lie helplessly and make no further attempt to escape. Even when placed in a different situation where they could escape, they don't even try. What happens with these dogs has been repeated in similar experiments with humans. The response in people is basically the same.

When a human is faced with an uncontrollable situation, fear, anxiety or frustration develops depending on the intensity of the unavoidable negative stimuli. As attempts to control the situation fail, the person learns that control is impossible and depression sets in. Punishment will now be taken indefinitely, with no further attempt to escape. Once one learns he is helpless, no further effort will be wasted in trying to control the situation. When later confronted with other problems, there is a tendency to generalize the prior lessons of helplessness by giving up more easily. Even if the problem is accidentally solved, a person who has learned he is helpless is unlikely to be able to make the cause and effect connection. His ability to learn has been diminished.

One particularly relevant experiment was done with inner city schoolchildren.103 The children were chosen because their teachers considered them, due to their consistent failure, incapable of learning to read English. However, in just a few hours, the experimenters taught them to read complete paragraphs of Chinese characters. They didn't know they were learning to read. They didn”t know it was wasted effort. They thought they were just associating symbols with words. Since they learned so rapidly it is obvious they were intelligent enough. Evidently they had learned they were incompetent, powerless, to learn to read. As long as they didn’t know they were doing the impossible, they didn’t know the effort was wasted. They could and did learn to read.

Learned helplessness restricts choices. For instance, if a child learns he is incapable of reading, he will give up even trying to read. Because he gives up trying, he will probably never learn to read. Any option in life which requires reading is simply not chosen. It is “known to be” “unobtainable” and wasted effort. He will also feel inadequate around those who can read and may use it as proof of general incompetence.

It must be remembered that the restriction in choice is not due to any innate incompetence, it is due to learned helplessness. It is past experience.

The powerful effect of learned helplessness in everyone is demonstrated by hypnosis. When a subject is hypnotized, the part of the mind that knows what is possible and what is not is “asleep.” In such circumstances, everyone is capable of doing the impossible. For instance, childhood memories can be recalled in great detail, people can make their bodies rigid enough to be laid out between two chairs and then support a heavy person sitting on them, they can change their heart rate and skin temperature and they can walk on hot coals without getting burned.

Learned helplessness clearly limits choice and, in limiting choice, sets the stage for chronic frustration.

a model of the human mind

In the simple model presented here, the mind can be thought of as consisting of two parts: the conscious and the subconscious. The subconscious mind can be thought of as a library or data bank containing everything a person has learned and an automatic system for acting on that information. The conscious mind can be thought of as a control center in contact with diverse areas of the subconscious. It is in the conscious mind that analysis is done and decisions are made.

The conscious mind can deal with only a limited amount of information at a time. However, information is continually processed and acted on outside of conscious focus, in the subconscious.

A good example of the relationship and actions of the conscious and subconscious minds is the learning of complex behavior. When learning to type, a person must consciously consider each particular letter to type, its location and perhaps how hard to tap the keys. With learning, however, this process becomes subconscious. A word is seen and “automatically” entered with no conscious attention paid to the location of the keys, the amount of pressure to exert or even the particular letters making up a word. This is normal human learning, the grouping of skill and detail together as a subconscious response pattern. This frees the conscious mind of repetitive detail.

Just as in typing, in the normal course of life most of our action is based upon prior learning and we respond with “pre programmed” precision to external stimuli. We hear a ringing sound and without thought we go to the door or the telephone, making the distinction without conscious comparison or trial and error. It has long since been thought through. It has long since been learned.

The subconscious has limitations. It is not capable of reasoning. It can only recall what has been learned. It can only repeat decisions already made in the past by the conscious mind. For example, if an experienced typist comes across a rarely or never before typed symbol, the subconscious can’t handle it. It “notifies” the conscious mind of the situation. The conscious mind, with its attention now focused on the problem, will use its own particular skills to analyze and solve it. Should the rare symbol appear often, it will be learned, meaning the subconscious will begin dealing with it automatically.

As has been shown, there is communication between the two parts of the mind. In learning, information and behavior patterns are transmitted from the conscious mind to the subconscious. The subconscious, on its part, notifies the conscious mind when an automatic learned response is unavailable, when a decision must be made.

The subconscious also communicates with the conscious mind by generating emotion.


Emotion can be considered to serve two purposes. It draws conscious attention to a situation and prepares the body for expected action. For instance, driving a car, a learned behavior, is done almost entirely automatically. When driving a familiar route, such as a daily drive to work, little conscious attention is paid to the actual driving. The subconscious handles most of the details. Little thought is given to adjusting speed, breaking or making turns. Conscious attention is likely to be focused elsewhere, perhaps planning the day or listening to the radio.

Now imagine a driver’s response should a car begin swerving in front of him threatening to run him off the road. The response is a rush of adrenaline, an instantaneous increase in heart rate, an increase in blood pressure and the tensing of various muscles. The subconscious has made a judgment of danger and, in a most dramatic way, gotten the attention of the conscious mind. It has also done much more. It has prepared the body to deal with the situation. Whatever the conscious, reasoning mind decides to do, the body is already prepared to respond quickly.

Emotions are not based in the reasoning part of the mind. They do not normally respond to direct conscious control. For instance, in the driving example, the driver uses the subconscious judgment of danger and preparation for action (fear) to focus attention on the problem and respond efficiently, to take evasive action. When the danger is passed, the subconscious returns the body to its normal state. The heart slows, blood pressure lowers and breathing slows down. The conscious mind’s job is to analyze and react on the information provided by the subconscious. A direct attempt by the conscious mind to “get rid of” the emotion, in this case fear, would be doing away with a source of information and preparedness. It would be like closing one’s eyes. Emotions are a special form of awareness and preparation based on that awareness.

As long as there is proper two way communication between the conscious and subconscious, any emotional state is either “rationally” appropriate or, as new information is processed, becomes so. Take, for example, a person who is intimidated by computers. He may have learned this fear from others who are also intimidated by computers or perhaps from prior experience with a programming class he failed. Imagine he is told by his boss that the office he works in is to be computerized and everyone must learn word processing. As he attends class, something within the range of two extremes is likely to happen. At one extreme, he would meet with great success in learning to use a computer and wonder how he ever got by without one. At the other, he would be confronted with frustrating, embarrassing or humiliating failure. In the first case, as it becomes clear that a computer makes things easier instead of harder, his emotional response to the thought of using a computer approaches gratitude. The fear response dissipates entirely. In the context of his experience, his emotional state is entirely “rational.” In the second scenario, fear and intimidation increase. On the basis of his personal experience, the emotional response is still “rational.” Emotional response has nothing to do with cold, impartial logic. There is no “what one should feel.” Emotions are subconscious judgments based on one’s own past experience. They are also the best conclusions one could arrive at in the context of one’s past experience.

Human adaptability is very much based on proper communication between the conscious and subconscious minds. Proper communication gives flexibility of response and allows the two separate sets of skills and resources in the subconscious and the conscious minds to work together. This allows emotional responses to “automatically” have a high degree of correspondence with the needs of a current situation.

When something prevents information from being passed to the subconscious for storage, or prevents information from being retrieved, we call it a learning disorder. When someone’s conscious mind is not aware of emotional states or doesn’t provide accurate feedback to the subconscious we may, depending on the severity, label that person mentally ill.