Animalia Repeating: A Pavlovian Account in Parts

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I.   “Learning will occur if what happens on trial does not match the expectation of the organism. . .”—Rescorla-Wagner

News of the George Zimmerman verdict broke while visiting my family in New Jersey. As jurors confirmed their not guilty verdicts, my mother murmured, “bad history repeats.” My oldest son sank his head into his hands. My middle son rose from the sofa, adjusted his jersey and went to the restroom. After about 15 minutes I knocked on the bathroom door, only to find him crying on the floor. I kneeled down, sat with him under the sink and held his hand in mine, careful to guide his head under my chin. His forehead was damp with stray tears. As his slender body gradually calmed, he wondered aloud, “Why do they hate me?” I suggested there was no “they.” There was only fear and spit and tuning forks and hungry dogs and playful rats and people who were trying against all they’ve been taught to live with other people who were trying against all they’ve been taught to live. . .we fell asleep on the cold tile that night, lulled by our own racing and circular thoughts.

II.  “The expectation on any given trial is based on the predictive value of all of the stimuli present. . .”—Rescorla-Wagner

Before walking to a newly built shopping center in Detroit, I overheard my sons: “We have to be careful. Make sure you take off your hat before we go inside the store. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Hold your arms at your sides where people can see them. Look people in the eye. Pull up your pants. Smile. Smile wide.” I wanted to interrupt and tell them they could safely and comfortably move through the world how they’d like. I stopped myself, mid-gesture, and instead added, “Please come home before dinner.”

III.  “Extinction refers to the gradual weakening of a conditioned response and results in the behavior decreasing or disappearing . . .”—Rescorla-Wagner

I genuflect at Mass, stealing fleeting glances of my sons’ hands in prayer—tender, unburdened by veins or violence, unscathed. I redirected my attention, prayed that whoever feared their black bodies would soon unlearn myth and space and threat. Hopeful, in the meantime, as every lukewarm Catholic tends, that God will keep his children free from danger. Until, of course, the priest’s strange homily reminded of Divinity’s less-than-stellar record: “God’s own son suffered and died. Let us pray.”

IV.  “In Pavlovian trials, when the bell was presented repeatedly without the presentation of food, the salivation response eventually became extinct. . .”—Rescorla-Wagner

In The Love of God and Affliction, Simone Weil, famous ascetic philosopher, posited: “Affliction causes God to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in utter darkness. . .” Her words looped as a skipping reel in my mind on the drive from church. I was nearly convinced until I read: “During this absence there is nothing to love.”

My children laughed in the backseat. It was a sweet laughter, divine, even. They were not nothing.

V.  “When a conditioned emotional response has been established for one object, is there a transfer?”—John B. Watson

In line at a suburban Target, two sisters stood in front of my son and me discussing their brother’s recent misfortune. He stopped his convertible in some Detroit neighborhood after a late-night tire blowout. As best as I could hear, their brother was assaulted and robbed while waiting for a tow. One sister remarked, “I miss Dad’s Detroit.” I didn’t want to know what that meant. I knew what that meant.

Oblivious to the conversation, my son reached to grab the conveyor belt divider, careful to excuse himself, the sister closest to him jumped in fear and pulled her wallet to her chest. The other sister comforted: “Move up here, _____. Closer to me. Away.”

VI.  “The consequences of behavior determine the probability that the behavior will occur again” –B. F. Skinner

We wake up from the bathroom floor in the middle of that July night, stiff and uncomfortable. My son, eyelids red and swollen as when he was an infant, mumbled something akin to “Thanks, Mom.” Before washing his face at the sink and feeling his way through the stock-still darkness toward his bed, he turned to me:

“Mom, do you think what happened to Trayvon could happen again?”

I searched for a way to shatter my cynicism and basic knowledge of how the human animal operates. I thought about dogs and tuning forks, mice and levers, babies and white rats and delivered what I believed truth: “Son, his murderer was acquitted which all but guarantees it will absolutely happen again.”

He nodded. We parted ways in the hallway. I promised bacon in the morning.

VII.  “I may say that the only differences I expect to see revealed between the behavior of the rat and man (aside from enormous differences of complexity) lie in the field of verbal behavior”—B.F. Skinner

Another summer and another brown body with smoke rising. This time his name is Michael. My sons are in New Jersey with family and I am in Michigan. My phone rings.

“Mom, did you see the news?”

“Yes, Son. Very sad. How are you coping?”

“I’m okay. I think I’m feeling numb or maybe stiff. Is that normal?”

“Sure, I’d call that a conditioned response, or a survival strategy. Living is hard and still very beautiful, you know? It’s complex.”

“I read that Pavlov thing you gave me last year. How do you think the dogs felt?”

“Hungry, confused, terrified, controlled, alive. But, every single time, I think those animals still felt something. That’s important, you know what I mean?”



One thought on “Animalia Repeating: A Pavlovian Account in Parts”

  1. Billie Hickey says:

    Thank you for being willing to share such a deep and personal story. It made this white girl understand yet a little bit more of my privilege and how important it is for me to challenge racism EVERY time I witness it.

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