eThoughts : April 1, 2010: Extinction

There’s more to extinction than dinosaurs. In terms of Pavlovian or Skinnerian psychology, extinction is the apparent loss of associations between stimuli that had previously been learned. You know, repeatedly ring a bell and put down food and a dog will eventually associate the ringing bell with food and begin drooling at the sound of the bell. Or, if one repeatedly gives a child candy when the child cries, they will associate crying (displeasure) with receiving candy. The person giving the candy will form an association between that “gift” and the fact that the crying has stopped. Extinction occurs if those associations are no longer in play. Keep ringing the bell without presenting any food or quit giving candy to soothe displeasure and there goes the associations.

Obviously, learning is not the same as wisdom. A case in point is when fear-based behaviors are learned after forming an association with a negative stimulus. Think post-traumatic stress disorder for instance (there is a good article in the April, 2010 copy of Scientific American about PTSD, fear, neurology, and extinction that clearly spawned the basis for this muse). In the case of PTSD, there is both heightened and muted attention, though out of sync, as in exaggerated startle responses sometimes and dissociated or flat-lined responses at other times. The point is we have to have a method to alleviate the associations that were formed, however powerful those associations are, when those associations are impairing us. And we have to have both heightened and muted attentions, though in proper context.

Certainly we are better able to pick up signals when we have very clear contrasts or distinctions—quiet one stimuli and another can become clear. But if one is in an ongoing state of heightened awareness, one’s sympathetic nervous system is on constant alert. That’s not so good for relaxation. On the other hand, if one is in a constant state of muted attention, one can get hit by a steamroller and never know it’s coming. That’s not so good for living.

One of the passageways between heightened and muted attention is extinction (also systematic desensitization and shaping). Sometimes the formation of an association between one kind of stimulus and another is beyond our control. Getting raped or molested can be decidedly beyond a person’s control. One has to mute attention to survive sometimes. Grief, in any form, is a heightened association of loss. The problem is that being raped or molested or grieving are, thankfully, transient events. But for our mind/body, there can be a lingering effect. Sometimes this lingering effect is a good thing. Once bitten, twice shy. Sometimes that lingering sense is not so good. Twice shy, life passes by.

Once again, we find that duality may provide important contrasts, but duality is not all of reality. We need the portals between duality—now we have a trinary reality, the contrasts and the portal between them. But that threefold reality doesn’t include the one doing the journeying—so we are likely talking about at least a fourfold or quadrinary reality.

In any case, an important tool for moving about the landscape of reality, both subjective and objective components, is extinction—the ability to quiet the associations that are formed whether with or without our consent. Want to know something about beauty? Quiet fear. Want to know something about joy? Quiet misery. Want to know something about love? Quiet rejection. This isn’t to say one can just bumble about smiling like an idiot and acting like the only reality is a singular one—love or beauty or joy. It may be true on some very deep level, but those components are not so obviously present in a war zone, or in a rape or molestation, or in the midst of a divorce, or in grieving. We cannot dodge the struggle by cleaving to only one facet of our lives. The successful will learn how to find the portals and how to traverse the paradoxical landscapes in which we reside. And they will use tools such as extinction appropriately. And if we are lucky, we will learn to use those tools with the support of others. Imagine a life without the hell of being trapped or the promise of a heaven that seems so elusive and far beyond our station. Imagine being able to traverse a universe of awareness appropriately, playing the right notes in the right time. Imagine that song. Imagine us doing it together. Imagine that orchestra. Yes, there will be songs of anguish as well as songs of love—but at least there will be songs instead of the present cacophony that seems to so pervade and mark our presence.

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