Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Joy of Escape

Shelter, London Blitz (public domain)
I’m not talking about a trip to Hawaii here.  Escaping a big negative is a powerful reward, one that can be accompanied by powerful emotions.  My community’s "One Book" selection this year is Rebecca Solnitt’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (which I thought was excellent, by the way; 2009, Viking).  Solnitt quotes a young woman describing her feelings of relief after making it to a shelter and surviving a bomb during the World War II London Blitz:  "It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experienced such pure and flawless happiness" (p. 103).  She was not alone.

For most of us, the joys of escape come on a much smaller scale in less tragic circumstances.  When I read this passage, I flashed back to a sensation I’d experienced years ago.  I was a commuter cyclist for decades, but the statistics eventually caught up with me and I got hit by a car, fracturing my back as well as suffering many minor injuries.  The accident occurred during a stressful time in my life and, weirdly, even during the immediate aftermath, I had a feeling of liberation from those other problems.  I’d escaped from them--albeit not in a way I would have chosen--and could simply appreciate being taken care of and working on recovering. My bicycling had been punished pretty strongly by this powerful negative consequence, but when I recovered, I did eventually get back to it. 

1 comment:

  1. Negative reinforcement, or escape from aversive or unpleasant stimuli, is believed to be the motivating event behind many clinical disorders in people. Use of intoxicating drugs (legal, illegal, and medically prescribed) to escape unhappy life circumstances is well known. Aggressive, disruptive, and bizarre behaviors to escape demands or undesired social stimulation are less widely recognized, but are a set of problems that behavior analysts have built a track record in treating effectively. A particularly interesting form of self-perpetuating escape is seen in phobias. If a person develops a phobia towards a harmless object (e.g., spiders) or situation (e.g., enclosed spaces) he will often go through elaborate steps to avoid that object or situation. Ironically, his success in avoiding these feared objects will negatively reinforce his avoidance behavior and also prevent him from being exposed to the object long enough to extinguish his fear and realize that it is, indeed, harmless.