SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - It Learns
At least, it hopes it does.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
Are we “better” than animals? The computer you’re reading this from says yes. Though, there’s a risk in getting drunk off superiority and losing sight of the ways we’re no better off than Snowball trotting by in his jingling collar.
How often do you look at your dog or cat, and I mean truly look at them — they’re a being, a consciousness, just like you. You both mostly want the same things from life, too. We see Snowball like a dear, eternally-stunted child and rarely as our equal in having his own desires, like affection and fear.
You aren’t so different.
Metamorphosis by Sandra Yagi
Dogs don’t just resemble us in their dislike of strangers at the door (that one might just be me), they also share our experience of trauma. Nature is the ultimate experimental scientist, it rewards and punishes behavior and those outcomes shape the actions of participants.
In his very PETA-disapproved experiment, Martin Seligman conditioned dogs to associate an electric shock with a bell. The bell rang, the shock came, repeat. The next stage of his experiment placed those shocked dogs in a cage with a divider they could jump to reach a non-torture area.
Queue bell, queue shock, queue…absolutely nothing.
Instead of escaping, the dogs laid down on their torture-floor and accepted what they felt was just another day in their miserable lives but this time, their freedom was two feet away.
Seligman discovered how to invoke depression in dogs, which is a pretty sinister claim to fame. Learned helplessness was the term he coined for accepting an undesirable state and failing to invoke the instinct of self-preservation. The shocked dogs had learned they were helpless to escape the shock in the first stage. When unshocked dogs were placed in the same torture-box, they immediately jumped the divider.
Which dog are you?
In one way or another, we are all the shocked dog. When humans learn helplessness, it’s obscured with rationalizations like “My relationships never work out” or “My boss always finds something wrong with my work” or “I always get taken advantage of eventually.”
If you’ve spent time in situations where the outcome was beyond your control, you’ve learned helplessness. Depression is a state of learned helplessness; just like the depressed dogs, the depressed person feels hopelessness and powerlessness to escape their misery.
If you learn something, you can unlearn it too. Later research found that learned helplessness isn’t so helpless at all — it’s the subconscious decision to continue framing a situation as helpless even when it isn’t that prevents overcoming it. Three factors create learned helplessness:
Was it your fault or the situation’s fault? (Example: “I put myself in this situation” vs. “Life can bring about challenges).
Was the situation temporary or permanent? (Example: “My girlfriend insulted me in that argument ” vs. “My girlfriend always insults me”).
Was the situation caused by a specific factor or a factor that exists widely in the world? (Example: “My father” vs. “men”).
Even Seligman’s shocked dogs eventually took back their freedom, though it was no Lifetime-movie-triumph. To unlearn their helplessness, researchers had to physically drag them from the torture-floor to the safe-floor, even manually moving their legs. Every dog eventually took their own steps towards escape, but some were dragged 200 times before realizing they were free.
You’re not Snowball — no one will drag you out of your misery by the jingly collar. What you have that Snowball lacks is language; I can tell you how to overcome an obstacle and you can apply that knowledge in a way no other animal can.
Or, can you? There are people who go their whole lives calling themselves human but stand, waiting to be dragged out of their personal torture-floor.
“Are we better than animals” is not a philosophical debate, but a question we answer as individuals at every choice.
There’s something about fish that makes humans scoff at their very existence. Maybe it’s that dumb, unblinking expression or their alien, underwater form, but we don’t respect fish unless they’re big enough to eat us. There’s even a common myth that fish feel no pain, which should actually make them demi-gods but instead we use that myth to make them sushi. Not only do fish feel pain, but they actually…learn (queue dramatic music).
Are you not entertained?
Fish are the slow kid in the classroom that is the animal kingdom, but it turns out the kid’s not slow at all, he’s just weird. You knew this was coming but brace yourself: fish are smart. If you’re reeling at how boring a topic fish intelligence is, you’ve clearly never seen a fish play sports. These water-weirdos cooperate, use tools, deceive, learn, and remember. What more could you ask of something with no arms or legs?
Einstein knew that fish were smart and he was sick of them being judged by their bicycling riding ability. He knew the only way to truly judge a fish was to build them a miniature home gym to train in. Enter: fish school.
Fish school clearly isn’t about expensive HD film equipment or any sense of timeliness in editing. Fish school is pure scholarship. If you want to see what are likely the most pure comments left on the internet, here you go.
When I succeed at something I’ve been failing at, I think to myself “it learns.” Yes, it sounds a little unhinged, but pure mechanics is often what you find under the pesky facade of human ego. We complicated humans with our societies are nothing but fancy animals who learn almost everything the same way our pets do.
Whether we’re unlearning our traumas or learning to limbo underwater, sometimes it seems like all of us creatures are equally but oppositely absurd and yet, we learn.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.