Learning from aversive experiences; the effect of timing

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                    • This chapter is still under construction / picture of fighting mice


                    • plaatje van 2 witte muizen (zie:voorraad plaatjes)

✰✰ <level 2>   This chapter relates some interesting findings from ethological observations on house mice, Mus musculus, findings that were found by coincidence.

Some of the training schedules for introduction-mice did not work as expected, not in line with the purpose of that type of training.

While figuring out how to prevent the training schedules from turning out faulty, it was found, surprisingly, that severely aversive experiences did not necessarily always result in avoidance behaviour. The same aversive experiences training schedule could produce either stereotyped and highly predictable cowards or, contrary to that, highly skilled and less predictable heroes. These two extreme and opposite phenotypes were the result of the same training pattern, always aversive and always, at every instance, ending in outright disaster and sheer panic of the trainee.


What happened was the following.

✰✰ <level 2>   In 1972 we were studying with ethological methods the behaviour of groups of 6 resident house mice, 4 brothers and 2 sisters, stemming from the same litter, in a population cage with ample space and climbing devices, ropes, cages, sawdust, a gauze roof, escape devices, food- and drink boxes, etc. See fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

Because we were aiming to find out about "stable personality characteristics", if any, in house mice, we tried to minimize the behavioural differences, stemming from learning processes. Therefore the groups of mice studied were always of the same composition and with the same upbringing and history.

In order to observe the group under different circumstances, in the first place in peaceful circumstances and in the second place while being visited by an intruder, we needed a standard social intruder-stimulus for these resident groups . And that "intruder" stimulus should be as standardized as possible in order not to introduce unnecessary and not planned variation from outside sources.

The objective of these ethological observations of resident groups of house mice was to study differences in behaviour between male house mice that could be classified as differences in "personality". We could get more reliable data on the interpersonal behaviour patterns if the stimuli from the environment under the various circumstances, would be, for the resident mice, every time the same, as much as possible. One rather uniform social stimulus could be provided by introducing for a short period of time, 5 to 10 minutes, an unfamiliar male introduction mouse that had been trained to react completely paranoia, and thus maximally stereotyped, when introduced into the group of 6 residents.

What we did to make sure that the introduction mice, 60 males from a CPB's strain, would show highly similar behaviour every time when introduced for a short period of time, was to give these mice a training beforehand until their reactions while being introduced were highly stereotyped and predictable. They were in fact made completely paranoia for being introduced into such a resident population (case "C" in the table below).

Male intruders were introduced regularly into the population-cages for some five or ten minutes. Half of the protocols were obtained while such an intruder was present in the observation cage. In order to standardize this type of stimulus on the resident mica as much as possible, the guest-mice were trained beforehand in such a way that they showed continuous avoidance behaviour when introduced. This was very easily realized in the following way: About 60 male trainees of the CPB's strain were weaned and isolated at the age of 21 days.

One or more weeks before they were needed to provide a standardized introduction stimulus, they were introduced every other or every second day into an unfamiliar observation cage, populated by a group of 6 resident mice that showed territorial aggressive behaviour towards strangers. Being outnumbered at least four to one and being on foreign territory, a trainee never had a chance to win and therefore was beaten up every time when introduced. Such a trainee -introduction was stopped as soon as the trainee showed panicky behaviour such as frequently jumping high, running around frantically, bumping into resident mice and other objects and avoiding social contact as much as possible. The trainee was never removed before such extreme behaviour was shown, which was always the case within a few minutes.

The trainees were often slightly wounded while being introduced. After five to ten days of training, these trainees immediately showed avoidance behaviour when being introduced, even when not under attack by any resident mouse at all.

The earlier social experience of these male "trainees" consisted of ordinary maternal care in a litter until the age of 21 days, during which period of time no other adult mouse was present. After being weaned at the age of 21 days, they were kept in isolation for a shorter or longer period with water and food supplied ad libitum, and subsequently they were trained as described above. So, before their training, they were kept without further social experience, apart from the first 3 weeks with their mother. They were utterly inexperienced youngsters when entering in this training schedule in order to become standardized paranoia.

There seemed, however, to be some sort of "critical training frequency", i.e. if the periods of rest in isolation between the training introductions were too long, the effect of the whole training was the opposite of what was aimed at.

                • about here: picture of fighting mice ******************

If a trainee was introduced for "training" once every week or once every second week instead of every day, he tended to put up extremely severe resistance . Such a male did not attack residents, refrained from "fleeing frantically" and appeared to "stand firm" when necessary (case "D" in the table below). For this reason, trainees who had not been "trained" for some time became worthless for providing standardized introduction stimuli.

By manipulating only the "training-frequency" or "resting-in-isolation period", trainees could be transformed from inexperienced males into either "fearful fleeing males" or into "skilled fighters", the opposite.

It should be remembered that neither type of trainee was ever allowed to win a fight. During every introduction in their training period they had to fight against heavy odds. "Skilled fighters" simply managed to hold out and fight back now and then without continuously "running for their lives".

With the above described procedure trainees became either more skilled in fighting or more fearful than unexperienced males. Furthermore, inexperienced males varied more in their reaction patterns than did either of the two classes of trainees. This made sense, because the training was aimed at reducing the variation in behaviour in the first place.

Once a male had become a "skilled fighter" (case "D" in the table below), it was very difficult to turn him back into a "fearful fleer" again (case "C" in the table below). To achieve this required a very harsh and frequent training schedule with more intense (longer) beatings and short resting periods (initially a couple of hours), but even so he would never again reach the same old reliable predicability as a "fearful fleer". The skill of fighting could apparently only be suppressed with difficulty for a limited period of time once it had been learned. The acquisition of skills apparently is very much a one way process that can hardly be undone or reversed.

In order to find out more about this phenomenon, out of a total amount of 60 trainees, some 20 males were on purpose turned into "skilled fighters". Once we had obtained the hang of it, we could easily produce either standardized cowards or heroic fighters.

Apparently the type of (always aversive) experience in question can lead to different learning processes, depending on the input frequency of the experience. The one direction in the learning spiral leads to intensive avoidance reactions, the other direction leads to increasing skill in offering resistance.

What also should be noted, is that both learning effects were strongly "cumulative". A fearful fleeer would show panicky behaviour ever earlier, even in still peaceful circumstances and at the other side of the scale a "hero" would put up resistance better and better after more training sessions, until it would take an avalanche of attacks by various opponents simultaneously to bring him finally to full fledged fleeing behaviour. Evidently we are dealing here with vicious spirals in two opposite directions. And these vicious learning spirals can reverse into one another, thus reversing the effect of the experiences. However, this phenomenon is far from symmetric. Acquiring skills is more stable than acquiring stereotyped avoidance reflexes.

A possible explanation of this phenomenon may be found in the influence of fearful experiences on the hormone production. Fear reduces the testosterone-level and with it probably the tendency to put up resistance when provoked (Bermond, 1977); long training intervals allow the hormone level to return to normal, but when the intervals between the fearful experiences are too short, the effects accumulate. Eleftheriou and Church demonstrated this for mice (1968), and Rose(1972) for Rhesus monkeys.

Thus the pattern in time of experiences appears to be of great importance for the eventual effect of the experience! Besides, individual mice differed in their "critical digestion-time" for this type of experience. Some males of this CPB's strain became "fighters" after three-day training intervals, whereas others remained reliable "fleeers" after five-day training intervals. So, for inexperienced males of the CPB's strain this "critical digestion time" varied between two and six days.

If males had grown up in more "natural" circumstances, i.e. in a social group, they varied greatly in their reactions when introduced into a strange "group" as described above. In general males with a background of "normal" social experience were rather well able to hold out against such an avalanche of territorial aggression. Apparently such a "normal" social history provided ample opportunity for these mice to "digest" their aggressive encounters in such a way that they became skilled in dealing with agonistic social situations as with most other situations that could be considered "normal" for these mice.


✰✰ <level 2>  

1) Male mice can easily be trained in such a way that they perform a uniform type of avoidance behaviour when introduced into a strange environment, inhabited by resident mice.

2) The training that is required for turning an inexperienced male into such a stereotyped "coward" is almost the same as the training needed to turn him into a "hero". The only difference is that in the former training schedule less "digestion time" is available for every experience than in the latter.

3) This "critical digestion time" or "recovery period" varies somewhat between individuals

4) The acquisition of skills is very much a one way process that can hardly be undone or reversed.

Behaviour of male mice during introductions in a resident population
Previous Experience Ability to withstand attacks from residents Variance in behaviour during introduction
Grown up in a "normal" social setting (A) Good Very large
Isolated from the third week on (B) Modest Large
Same, but introduced with short time intervals (Cowards) (C) Nihil Very small
Same, and introduced with long time intervals (Heroes) (D) Very good Small


✰✰ <level 2>   What is most striking about these relatively simple and straightforward experimental results is that it did not depend at all on the outcome of the agonistic encounters what was the result of the experience of the mice. Whether it was a terrible experience or a success experience apparently did not matter very much. All experiences were effectively controlled for invariably ending in personal disaster and agony. The only differences between the introduction encounters were how much time it took before the introduced male mouse was beaten up and ended up in fearfull fleeing behavior. With the "cowards" that only took a few seconds to a few minutes. With the "heroes" that would take quite a while longer, up to several, 5 to 10, minutes. And cowards would tend to become ever more stereotyped cowards after repeated training whereas heroes would become more and more heroic with time and with accumulating experiences, no matter how aversive they all were.

So, the results of the learning processes did result in quite opposite phenotypes, in either "always frightfully fleeing at first sight and only showing panicky and ineffective escape attempts", or in "skilled fighters". The latter would also always end up in a negative and aversive social experience, being beaten up, but only so after skilled and prolonged escape maneuvers including occasional and well dosed agonistic responses, resulting in winning more time. What also was a clear difference was that the "panicky fleeing" pattern did not result in the acquisition of a detailed map of the terrain whereas the "skilled resistance" pattern quickly resulted in detailed and obvious awareness of all useful details of the setting in question. Such knowledge of the terrain made ducking away and exploiting local barriers and passages a lot easier for the introduced mouse and made it more difficult for the group of resident mice to restore order in the deme.

Basically, these findings are at variance with classic behaviorist learning paradigms. It took the experimenter a couple of years, searching the ethological and the behaviorist literature, before an explanation emerged. And that explanation did not emerge from existing learning psychological literature, but from novel insights from a completely different area of psychological research, labeled as phenomenology. At the time the above experimental findings seemed to defy any available type of learning theory theorizing in existence. In another article on this Wiki by Popko van der Molen and Carola van Dijk (1990) it is shown how this new approach resulted in a novel learning paradigm that at the same time could bridge the old controversy between behaviorist theorizing and humanistic psychological approaches.

This Cognition Energy Learning model (CEL) explains how individuals make optimum use of available surplus energy and time by automatically selecting such experiences as fit best in the individual's already existing behavioral repertory. The CEL explains how the individual, by virtue of the organization of emotions and motivations, also automatically selects periods of rest and recovery after bouts of experience. The CEL predicts how the quality of the processing of experiences into skills primarily depends on the possibility for the individual to achieve a suitable rhythm of alternations between telic (goal directed) and paratelic (goal-free) meta-motivational states. And the latter meta-motivational states only can emerge after sufficient(ly long) periods of rest and recovery have past.

Indeed, the CEL predicts that it is not so much the emotional quality and coloring of the separate experiences that determines the outcome of the series of experiences, but rather the intermediate periods of rest and recovery in between. That implies that the timing of the experiences and the timing of the recovery periods in between far more determine the outcome in terms of habits and skills than does the incidental emotional coloring, loss or victory, of the experiences itself.

Behaviorist principles of behavioral organization and the concomitant reactive models of learning then appear to be describing a special set of cases in learning processes. And on the other hand Humanistic psychological models of learning and development describe another set of cases in learning processes. Both describe a different set of learning events, but the CEL predicts and describes them all.

Concluding that "timing" of experiences and of recovery periods is of the essence implies also that we can derive very effective tools from this CEL model, tools that can be utilized for repair and for growth. The CEL can in that way help to put an end to the old controversy between behaviorism and humanistic psychology. In fact, the CEL can provide us with a better theoretical basis for humanistic psychological thinking.

Application and further reading

✰✰ <level 2>   The above described experiments with house mice, Mus musculus, triggered the design of the CEL, Cognition Energy Learning model and that model in turn is the basis for many articles on this Wiki. The article The evolutionary stability of a bi-stable system of emotions and motivations in species with an open-ended capacity for learning was one of the first articles about the utilization of Reversal Theory for designing a novel and more broadly applicable theory of learning, published in 1985 and 1986 in international scientific periodicals.

The article Striving, Playing and Learning is another early publication of this novel approach to learning processes, presented at scientific congresses in 1978 and 1981. In 1991 more detailed models of the CEL were presented at a Reversal Theory congress in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. See the articles on this Wiki: Towards a Cognition-Energy-Learning Model (C.E.L.) (1 and 2), and Energy and Strokes: how the quality of relationships influences the process of learning and individual development.

All these articles were spin offs of the puzzling findings with the introduction mice that we described above in this article.

The unpublished article on "using the CEL to solve an old controversy between behaviorist theories and humanistic psychological theories" describes another useful application of the CEL.