Perplexity of Rats and Dogs


I, like most people, get frustrated when working in unpredictable situations. I worked many years in construction, and even though I don’t anymore, I still oversee the occasional construction project or some other kinds of projects. Nothing drives me crazy quicker than being told wrong information which causes me to make faulty plans. If the unpredictable conditions persist, it becomes impossible to function and the work stalls.

Following is an excerpt of an essay titled Visual Presentation of Social Matters written by Michael Polanyi…

Perplexity of Rats and Dogs

Even rats and dogs cannot live in perplexity. Take three sets of rats: give one set a meal a day; give the other set the same meal only every second day; and restrict the third group to a meal on every third day. All three groups will thrive (…) But take a fourth set of rats and feed them at periods varying irregularly between one and three days and you will see the rats of this set die. They get more than the [fed only every third day] rats, yet while those prosper on their meager diet [the irregularly fed rats] perish because their organism is thrown into a state of confusion, all their reflexes of digestion are dislocated, they die of perplexity.

Dogs are more human than rats, and so the experiment by which Pavlov drove his dogs mad shows us even more closely what is wrong with ourselves. He trained a dog to expect food when a luminous circle appeared on a screen, and to recognize that no food would come when a flat ellipse with a ratio of semiaxis 2:1 was produced. The dog learned to differentiate precisely between the circle and the ellipse, showing signs of appetite when the former, not when the latter was shown. The shape of the ellipse was then approximated by stages to that of the circle (ratios of the semiaxis 3:2, 4:3 and so on) and the training of discrimination continued through the successive ellipses. The dog found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the ellipses and the circle and finally, when the ellipse was given a ratio of 9:8 he became quite uncertain in his discrimination. But Pavlov tried to educate him to the limit and continued with this experiment for three weeks. The result, however, was no improvement in the dog’s training but a total breakdown of his discriminating power. At the end he could not see the difference even between the at 2:1 ellipse and the circle. The dog’s behaviour also underwent a complete change. It began to squeal in its stand, kept wriggling about, tore off with his teeth the apparatus and bit through various tubes. In short, as Pavlov says, it fell into the condition of an acute neurosis.

This dog broke down when his powers of understanding were overstrained. They were overstrained when it became too difficult for him to distinguish between the symbols signifying food and hunger. His happiness was destroyed, not by need of supplies but by what Pavlov describes as a conflict between excitation and inhibition which its brain found too difficult to resolve.

Notice the last sentence: “His happiness was destroyed, not by need of supplies but by … a conflict between excitation and inhibition.”

pavlovs-dogs-mark-stiversIt reminds me of Proverbs 13:12…

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
But when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.

Predictability, habit, and routine are good things in life, and the best excitement is the one that comes as a result of hard work and planning. It is a battle though, and can easily be frustrated.

The best things you can do to overcome perplexity are to remove all unpredictable elements in your life as much as possible, focus on always telling the truth, and expecting the same from those around you.


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