Part 3 : The History of Exposure Therapy: Hans Eysenck and Learned Behavior
Hans Eysenck was yet another British psychologist who explored behavior therapy beginning in the 1950's, and who wrote a damning article in 1952 about the ineffectiveness of psychotherapy. As Freud envisioned it, a psychotherapist could take the process of psychotherapy and deduce the facts from it, rather than studying what the facts actually were. I am staggered by the traces of this that still affect the practice of therapy in the 21st century. I have vague memories of reading about behavior therapy in social studies class, and the fear that people would be reduced to laboratory rats conditioned to do tasks for food. But there is something immensely liberating in the idea that our symptoms are in part a "learned behavior" which is unadaptive, and which can be unlearned.
It's as if we are running our own little laboratory within our own mind every time we have an obsessive thought, feel intense anxiety, and then apply a compulsion that reduces the anxiety quickly, but then rebounds in the long term.
In 1960, his article, Personality and Behaviour Therapy(Proc R Soc Med. 1960 July; 53(7): 504–508), he explores the uses of BT in "neuroses," a term not as popular as it once was. He cites the study from 1920 about "little Albert," an 11 month old boy who was conditioned to fear rats because whenever he reached for the animal, the experimenter would make a loud noise. This of course is probably where my vague uneasiness comes from, since freaking out small children is not acceptable. These early studies may be the roots of the discomfort many current therapists have about Exposure and Response Therapy, but it is worth stepping back from the old history and consider the even older history of Freudian psychoanalysis which brought a whole tradition of showing patients ink blots, asking what they saw, and building elaborate theories of their personality based on a puddle of ink.
The point that really stuck with me was Eysenck's description of avoidance--if Albert could've been exposed to a white rat for a long period of time, without the loud noise, the fear could be undone, but as he ironically puts it, "Little Albert is a free agent," and is going to avoid even the chance of encountering a white rat, thereby never getting a chance to break free of the fear. If we are willing to risk feeling the initial fear liberty is possible. I know that it feels as if we face the fear every day, we do things we don't want to do, and yet the OCD persists.
This is a frustrating and painful place to be in. I make a phone call, and it actually goes ok, but by the next time I'm anxious again as if I'd never done it before. It's taken me a long time to comprehend that I've had much more practice avoiding phone calls than making them, and what we practice tends to get better. Slogging through the anxiousness of the initial surge of fear without my compulsions sucks, but persistence in practicing strengthens the possibility of getting better.