Em­brace Your In­ner Rat

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - JOE FER­GU­SON, PhD PhD Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­ogy, Field­ing Univer­sity MBA, Whar­ton School of Busi­ness

It is im­por­tant to rec­og­nize and em­brace your in­ner lab­o­ra­tory an­i­mal so that you can bet­ter in­flu­ence your own be­hav­ior once you de­cide what you want to do. Rats are par­tic­u­larly good for con­di­tion­ing ex­per­i­ments be­cause they ex­hibit com­plex in­nate be­hav­ior and they are un­con­tam­i­nated by cul­ture or by think­ing. These rat fea­tures al­lowed psy­chol­o­gists to de­ter­mine the math­e­mat­i­cal rules of pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment half a cen­tury be­fore the neu­ral mech­a­nism of con­di­tion­ing was prop­erly un­der­stood. You es­tab­lish a re­in­force­ment sched­ule for your­self when you learn to play golf or quit smok­ing, master a new sub­ject, re­cover from an ad­dic­tion or over­come a fear. You are re­con­di­tion­ing your­self in­ten­tion­ally all the time; or try­ing to with­out ex­actly know­ing the rules. You are try­ing to em­brace your in­ner rat.

Tar­gets for be­hav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion are not so clear when we are talk­ing about in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships, per­sonal as­pi­ra­tions, kids, par­ents, sex­u­al­ity, love, money, re­tire­ment, se­cu­rity, at­tach­ment or ex­is­ten­tial angst. Con­trary to the strict be­hav­ior­ists, hu­mans have ex­tremely com­plex lan­guage and sym­bolic in­stincts that are ge­net­i­cally coded and lit­er­ally em­bod­ied in the wet­ware of our brains and vo­cal cords. Speech is one prod­uct of this sys­tem and think­ing is another. Ev­ery­thing we think, say and do is con­di­tioned on this foun­da­tion by our cul­ture, lan­guage and sit­u­a­tion. This is the es­sen­tial post­mod­ern in­sight and it is also the key to coun­sel­ing and psy­chother­apy. From a suf­fi­cient dis­tance many of our strong­est be­liefs turn out to be quite ar­bi­trary, es­pe­cially the dys­func­tional ones that are caus­ing you grief. Cul­ture and lan­guage de­fine who we think we are and what we think is go­ing on, in­clud­ing the prob­lems we think we have and their so­lu­tions. This is why cer­tain kinds of think­ing and talk­ing can be es­pe­cially help­ful.

De­pres­sion and anx­i­ety re­flect your be­lief that your sit­u­a­tion is dan­ger­ous and hope­less, that ev­ery­thing is a big deal, and that this is never go­ing to change. None of these things is ac­tu­ally as true as it seems when you are de­pressed or anx­ious, and this in­sight it­self pro­vides im­me­di­ate re­lief from de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. This in­sight needs to be re­in­forced. Trust me. Call me.

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