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Learned Helplessness and the Acceptance of Aging


When you’re repeatedly subjected to an unpleasant or painful situation over which you seem to have no control, there comes a point past which you simply give up on the very idea that you could possibly escape your predicament. Once you learn that you’re helpless in the face of circumstances beyond your control, you could end up simply accepting what is happening to you, even when the circumstances have changed enough to offer a way out.

This was shown to happen a few decades ago in one of Martin Seligman’s famous experiments. Dogs received a mild electric shock with no way of preventing it, and even when the experiment settings changed, and the dogs did have a way to escape the shock, they simply lay down whimpering, resigned to their fate. This phenomenon, known today as learned helplessness, is exactly what it sounds like—learning that you’re helpless to change a certain situation and therefore learning to accept it as it is, no matter how bad it might be and whether it is actually true that you can’t change it—humans experience it just like dogs do, in a variety of circumstances and with a range of possible effects on their lives.

Martin Seligman also ran an experiment to demonstrate learned helplessness in people. Test subjects were asked to perform mental tasks with an annoying background noise playing. Some subjects had the power to stop the noise, while others did not; the people who had control over the noise performed better than the ones who didn’t, even though they rarely took the trouble to actually turn off the noise—an indication that simply the knowledge that they could eliminate the disturbance if they wanted to was enough to positively affect their performance. This video by the excellent Veritasium talks a bit more about learned helplessness, if you’re interested; another good one is here.

We find this relevant because learned helplessness could play a role in the pro-aging trance—or, at least, what happens in people’s minds because of the pro-aging trance is very much reminiscent of learned helplessness.

If you’re new around here and have no idea what the pro-aging trance is, it’s basically one of the main drivers of irrational opposition to rejuvenation therapies; it’s the groundless conviction that aging is a blessing in disguise and that the fact that people age to death is actually good, despite the overwhelming, blatant evidence that this is not the case. (To be fair, there are also many misconceptions and concerns—often poorly if at all addressed—that contribute to this conviction.)

It’s not a coincidence that older people have far worse health than young people, and it’s also not a coincidence that it’s far more common to die at age 80 than at age 20—the frailty and ill-health of old age increase your vulnerability to death from all causes, and as if dying wasn’t bad enough, spending the last decade or two of your life powerlessly watching as your health problems, big or small, keep piling up isn’t any better; aging wreaks terrible emotional and financial costs on you and your loved ones, and society is having an increasingly difficult time with it.

Looking at how aging is different from other negative situations can be useful to see the connection between learned helplessness and the pro-aging trance. The human and canine experiments were focused on an unpleasant situation that was happening at the time, while, for most of us, aging—or, rather, old age—is decades away and not necessarily something that affects our daily lives; while aging begins pretty much since conception, the effects of aging don’t really become debilitating or life-threatening until very late in life.

However, even though you don’t spend your entire life with worsening eyesight, diabetes, cancer, or heart disease (to name but a few), you—like everyone else on the planet—were brought up with the notions that aging is inevitable and that one day it will kill you if nothing else does it first. You’re accustomed to the thought that, as you age, you will lose your health to at least some extent, and you have an idea of what you might be like in old age—weak, hunched over, easily fatigued, and with feeble senses and, if you’re unlucky, even more serious health problems. This idea is weaved into every fiber of our society, arts, and institutions; even if you’re not exposed directly to the ailments of aging for most of your life, you are exposed to the unpleasant thought that your clock is ticking—a clock that measures not just the time you have left but also your remaining health—and that there’s no way that you could ever stop the clock.

In other words, you spend your entire life with the knowledge that your health is slowly declining, a decidedly unpleasant thing that, ultimately, you have no power to prevent. Therefore, you learn to accept it and make your peace with it, perhaps whimpering about it every now and again, like the electrocuted dogs in the original experiment, but doing nothing else about it. Once the effects of aging manifest themselves in your old age, the feeling of helplessness gets even more real, as your health problems are no longer hypothetical and your doctor can essentially only help you manage your symptoms. This overall situation has much in common with the definition of learned helplessness.

What’s interesting about learned helplessness is that, once you’ve learned that you’re helpless, you hold that conviction even when you’re no longer really helpless and could exercise control over whatever negative circumstances you’re facing; learned helplessness blinds you to any opportunity to improve your situation. With aging, the situation is different because, up until very recently, you were helpless. While tweaking your lifestyle and diet might yield some benefits, you couldn’t stop or reverse aging; there were no options that you were blind to, and there was nothing that you could do about it in the foreseeable future. In such a world, learned helplessness acted as a useful psychological defense mechanism that helped to keep the thought of aging out of your mind—there’s no point making yourself more miserable by dwelling on that which you cannot change.

This moment in history is somewhat awkward, because while it is still technically true that you can’t avoid aging, it is also true that our current scientific understanding of aging puts us in an unprecedented situation in which bona-fide rejuvenation therapies to fully undo aging might be on the horizon; in a best-case scenario, they are just a few decades away. While it’s not yet set in stone that aging will soon (or ever) be history, in the current circumstances, the notion that aging is inevitable, unchangeable, and cannot be fought in any way might throw a spanner in the works of the scientists working on rejuvenation if enough people keep believing that this is a losing battle.

This spanner could manifest as a lack of sufficient financial and political support for the necessary research in such a way that rejuvenation therapies, even if possible in principle, might never see the light of day. The spanner might even be thrown in your own works, as you might be tempted to use your conviction that you can’t escape aging as an excuse to justify self-destructive behavior—say, smoking—that might lead you to barely miss the rejuvenation train.

With a bit of a stretch, you could say that humanity as a whole suffers from learned helplessness about aging; over the course of millennia, it has learned that its fate is to be wiped out by aging if by nothing else, as nothing could be done about it. Worse still, humanity has learned to consider this belief a sign of wisdom, and now that an opportunity to turn the tables is finally in sight, a great many members of our species might miss the opportunity if we keep believing that we are helpless before aging.

It really doesn’t help that humanity has been fooled time and again by more-or-less honest attempts to achieve rejuvenation, which have always utterly failed (simply because they didn’t rely on a solid understanding of aging—dog testicle shots aren’t exactly the greatest anti-aging treatment); on top of learned helplessness, there’s also the fact that nobody wants to get their hopes up only to be hit by burning disappointment a few decades down the road. It’s understandable if people think that present-day optimism about the feasibility of defeating aging is nothing but the umpteenth instance of crying wolf.

So, here is humanity, largely convinced to be powerless to stop aging, skeptical of any claims to the contrary, and often busy defending, sugarcoating, and justifying aging in a sort of global Stockholm syndrome that we employ to manage the terror that, under any other circumstances, we would all feel at the thought of losing our health and life. The electrocuted dogs in Seligman’s experiment did not take action to avoid the shock, even when they could, did not unlearn their helplessness, and did not really realize that they had a choice until they were shown how they could exercise that choice; it might be that humanity, too, will need to be shown a concrete alternative to aging before accepting that one might even exist, and with some human trials underway or currently running, this might happen soon. In the meanwhile, we would all benefit from keeping in mind how our own psychology might get in the way of a future where humanity is free from the diseases of aging.

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About the author
Nicola Bagalà

Nicola Bagalà

Nicola is a bit of a jack of all trades—a holder of an M.Sc. in mathematics; an amateur programmer; a hobbyist at novel writing, piano and art; and, of course, a passionate life extensionist. After his interest in the science of undoing aging arose in 2011, he gradually shifted from quiet supporter to active advocate in 2015, first launching his advocacy blog Rejuvenaction (now replaced by Too Many Things) before eventually joining LEAF, where he produced the YouTube show LifeXtenShow. These years in the field sparked an interest in molecular biology, which he actively studies. Other subjects he loves to discuss to no end are cosmology, artificial intelligence, and many others—far too many for a currently normal lifespan, which is one of the reasons he’s into life extension.
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