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Human Hibernation as a Survival Strategy

How evolutionary psychology explains chronic avoidance and depression.

Tim1357-NPS/Wikimedia Commons
Bear hibernating with cubs
Source: Tim1357-NPS/Wikimedia Commons

Winter can be a rough time of year—no matter what species you happen to be. When the weather outside is frightful, hunkering down and hibernating make complete sense as a survival strategy. “Rethinking Rumination” (Nolen-Hoeksema et al) proposes that “anhedonia, inactivity, and social withdrawal function to conserve resources and reduce action in situations where further action is futile or dangerous.”

But avoidance and isolation can cause a variety of psychological problems—particularly, in the harsh winter months, Seasonal Affective Disorder. If hiding from the dark and cold is such an obvious survival strategy, why should it make us unhappy? To answer this question, we must consider the merits of sadness as a survival strategy—and how our advanced human brains may cause this strategy to backfire.

Sadness is a complicated emotion because it has two separate, even contradictory purposes. In a social context, sadness recruits support and comfort from others. We automatically express sadness with tears, facial expressions, and body language, and we empathically recognize it in others. But paradoxically, sadness also encourages us to isolate ourselves, so we can lick our wounds and recover. These two functions—empathic outreach and isolation—are at odds, which is why sadness can be difficult to manage. A depressive may avoid social interactions while desperate for human connection, while a distraught mourner may demand to be left alone.

Human empathy and social support are, evolutionarily speaking, relatively recent adaptations. But aversion—isolation and that deadening weight of a seemingly hopeless situation—is a survival strategy found in even the most primitive organisms. In a study on territorial behavior in crickets, biologist R. D. Alexander discovered that even insects can exhibit depressive behaviors: “A cricket that has recently won a large number of fights becomes more hawkish. A cricket that has recently had a losing streak becomes more dovish… individuals who are accustomed to winning become even more likely to win, while individuals who are accustomed to losing become steadily more likely to lose” (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 81-2).

Biologist Richard Dawkins observes that when a cricket faces overwhelming odds “it may pay him, as a selfish individual, to wait in the hope that somebody will die, rather than squander what little energy he has in futile fighting” (118). Already, in the primitive insect logic of threat assessment and energy conservation, just one defeat can lead to an enduring mindset of submission and aversion.

Our closer animal relatives experience despair more painfully and poignantly. In a well-known experiment, psychologist Martin Seligman discovered how dogs respond differently to electrical shocks, depending on their ability to control their environment. Half of the dogs in his study were given a switch to press that stopped an electric shock; the others had to passively endure the pain. The next day, these animals were put into new cages divided down the middle by a short barrier—this time, the dogs could escape the shocks by jumping over the barrier to the other side of the cage.

Seligman soon discovered that the dogs who could stop the shocks in the previous day’s experiment easily learned to leap over the fence. However, “two-thirds of the dogs who had no control over the shocks the previous day just lie down whimpering, passively waiting for the punishments to stop” (Angela Duckworth, Grit, 171-2). Seligman later concluded that “mere exposure to uncontrollability is not sufficient to render an organism helpless… If the organism expects that its responses will not affect some outcome, then the likelihood of emitting such responses decreases“ (Seligman et al, “Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation,” 50).

When animals believe their efforts have meaningful consequences on their environment, they will usually fight adversity to the bitter end. But if they conclude they are powerless, they instinctively surrender and pray that the powers that be engineer friendlier circumstances. Backing down from such an external threat makes sense.

When learned powerlessness is combined with human self-awareness, the results can be crippling. We see not only external obstacles but internal, conceptual dangers. The rational, self-aware human mind is capable of identifying obstacles created by its own thinking—a troubling recurring obsession, a persistent negative mood, a habit or addiction we feel helpless to stop.

According to Niklas Törneke, when “private events, in the form of thoughts, feelings, memories, or bodily sensations, have been established as obstacles to actions that could lead to these desired consequences… removing or controlling these private phenomena is a prerequisite for engaging in actions” (Learning RFT, 227). George Kaufman’s Psychology of Shame proposes that “powerlessness threatens one’s ability to sustain courage and hope. The combination of helplessness and hopelessness is psychologically toxic for the self” (84).

The pain generated by our own out-of-control thoughts and feelings is fundamentally different from that responding to rival organisms or seasonal cold, because often these thoughts cannot be avoided or outlasted. Yet the human animal will still instinctively adopt the same primordial strategy of avoidance, isolation, resource conservation, and finally total futility—and because negative internal experiences neither conclusively terminate our existence, nor ever really go away, depressive hopelessness becomes self-reinforcing and absolute. It’s an evolutionary survival strategy that works in its intended circumstances—but quickly becomes seriously maladaptive when applied by advanced human intelligence.

And that’s why when confronted by unpredictable and seemingly insurmountable obstacles—even the ones that exist only in your mind—giving up sometimes feels like the obvious, organic solution. But it’s an obsolete strategy, developed in prehistoric conditions, never updated for modern life. Yes, embracing futility may sometimes seem perfectly natural in unpredictable circumstances—but human beings are smarter than dogs, and we’re certainly smarter than crickets. And we can choose to ignore the woeful chirping of our internal insects and apply our intelligence toward a smarter, saner way of living.

You may also be interested in my columns, "When Depression Meets OCD: Understanding Rumination," and "Creature Comforts: How Stress Rewards Unhealthy Adaptations"

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2019.

Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012.”

Read my Psychology Today blog: Triggered


Lyn Y. Abramson, Martin E. P. Seligman and John D. Teasdale. “Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1978, Vol. 87, No. 1, pg. 50.

Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1st ed. 1976, 30th Anv. Edition 2006.

Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Simon & Schuster, NY, 2016.

Gershen Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes. Springer Publishing Co., NY, 1989.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Blair E. Wisco, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. “Rethinking Rumination.” Perspectives on Psychological Science. Vol. 3, Issue 5, pp. 400 – 424.

Niklas Törneke, Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Application, Context Press, CA, 2010.

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