Understanding Experiential Learning as Situated Learning in EAP


To anthropomorphize – is the human ability to experience sentience and agency in another being (or object). It is the ability to sense another “self” in the one she meets. If she loses that ability, she gets disconnected from her own context, her own environment (including anyone being or object within it). Then everyone becomes objects – and the possibility to intersubjectivity (meetings between subjects/individuals) disappears. The ability to have shared experiences disappear. When this happens, you lose your personhood, and you are not able to grant personhood to someone else, regardless of if this being is a human, a horse, a computer.

To be able to anthropomorphize is to have the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is the ability to understand that they have another perspective, come from somewhere else, share the same world as you do, on a physical level, but lives in another world, their world, their umwelt. No matter if it is a human, a horse (and yes, or a computer).

Regarding the computer, we know and intellectually understand that a computer IS an object, but it does not stop us from many times treating it as if it is an agent, with its own will. We have a relationship with our computer (many of us), we get angry at it, impatient with it, frustrated with it – or happy with it – but for now – I will leave our human relationships with computers outside of this post).

When a human wants to understand a horse – she needs to, in some sense become a horse. But also not. She needs to see the horse, and to her best ability enter his world, his umwelt, and see that world, with his eyes. We humans can only do this to some extent, and the further we go into doing that, the greater the risk is that we do not see him, the horse, but that we see ourselves. To be able to do it – you need to know yourself (your so called boundaries – which is only a way for me to say “me” – I am my boundaries) – and you need to blur them – the boundaries – so you can enter another self’s, the horse’s world/umwelt, which could be put as – you partly need to become a horse. This – you do NOT become by trying to become a horse, this is the maintaining of you, of your boundaries. But it also is. It sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

I can do this when I am not afraid. Afraid of what is going to happen to me. If I am afraid of that, I can’t see anything else but my own fear. This has nothing to do with fear of horses, this has to do with fear of being annihilated and my inability to place that fear into the past. But that fear is also internalized, so basically, I am afraid of myself (or my own feelings). That is why I work so hard with grounding, so my fear won’t overtake me.

A client’s ability to anthropomorphizes is what we work with in EAP. We want them to show us, and work with, their world, their context, their inner experiences.

We call it experiential learning – and one simplified definition of experiential learning is “learning by doing”. And the doing part plays a huge role. It supports memory retrieval and encoding, it helps with connecting mind with body, it helps with mentalizing and perspective taking, it helps with the understanding of projections and so on. But experiential learning is also a situated learning. It is not only about the doing, it is very much about the world/the umwelt of someone, where the doing takes part. A person’s world/umwelt is an extension of themselves, it is their bubble, the environment they move with them, take with them, have around them, wherever they are.

It comes out, it is shown, noticeable, their umwelt/world/bubble, more in the environment they actually live in, so every person is not only embodied, but also “emplaced”. I think therapy makes it easier to see this emplacement also with some perspective. The framework of therapy removes you from your world as a client, to some extent. It puts you in another “bubble” – with another person. But with experiential/situated learning – a client gets the chance to show this world to someone else, and to have a witness to it (or several, horses, a therapist an EP=Equine Professional).

When you have been severely abused by another person, if you have experienced interpersonal trauma, you have experienced this ability to anthropomorphize when it has been disrupted. Someone has treated you as a soulless, inanimate object. You have been put in a situation (several) where your agency has been taken away from you. That will create fear in you. You will lose your ability to feel safe with other human beings. And with yourself. If creates a desire to run away from both other people and yourself.

The ugly part of it is that when another human being treats you as an object, you will question your own worth, your own subjectivity. And the risk is high that you either start to treat other people as objects, or yourself, or both. Your whole understanding of people’s worlds/umwelts, boundaries (as in being them in their world/bubble, seeing things with their eyes) – gets messed up. You will get “perspective confused”, boundary confused and even identity confused. You might even question if you actually are a human, a person.

EAP gives a client the possibility to show their world to the therapist. The client will show as much of that world as she feels safe to show. And she will take part in showing that world – as much as she feels safe to do. A client will show things they are not aware of showing, but they will also “hold back”. It is never as simple as – what the client shows – is what is the whole story. The therapist’s responsibility is also to make sure that no more of the story comes out than the client is able to handle, in the moment. Opening up and starting to show your world, is a stepwise process. The more you show, the less filtered you will show it.

EAP is a VERY potent therapy. In the wrong hands, it will mess people up. The more severe the trauma a person comes with (including here the complications of attachment trauma), the more skillful the therapist must be.
It isn’t the horses per se that are making the therapy more effective or better. It is the combined possibility of all that experiential/situated learning is bringing with it.

EAP is extremely complex, with so many variables intermingling and affecting each other. Each of these variables need to be explored and researched. I will just name a few of them:

• The therapist’s, and the EP’s relationship with the horses and how the horses respond to them in their interactions
• The environment the EAP takes place in – and what it lends itself to become for the client – when the client is sharing his world/umwelt with the EAP team.
• Movement and direction. Moving with, moving forward with, walking side by side
• Outdoors
• The EP’s ability to be a bridge. (Horse-Horse, Horse-Human as in Client-Horse, EP-Horse, Therapist-Horse, Horse World-Human world, EP-Therapist)
• Framing, Context
• Etc, etc…

It is the therapist doing the therapeutic work, the horses, the EP, the environment, the movement, the outdoors – all of it – is the context, the bridge, the path forward, the pages to put a story on – the frame for the client to show (and tell, reflect on) their story in – that is the experiential part, the situated part, which the EP is a part of – but also to some extent – is the mediator of (which includes responsibility for the horse’s welfare and everyone’s (physical) safety). It could be seen as the therapist handling a bunch, many, many tools, to the client and inviting, saying, here – “I invite you to show me, to dare to explore it, to be curious at your own world”. That is in itself an empowering of the client. Which probably will feel scary for the client.

A person’s world, how a person shows up in THE world, is part of their extended self. We are all embodied (even if some of us can’t experience that (fully), we are all emplaced, we all exist in a context, and we are reaching out into that context, partly becoming part of it. And the environment responds back. Which is why we see “selfs” in it – which is why we anthropomorphize. The situatedness, the context we exist in – is very important to us. (Not understanding that is also part of the whole of humanities disconnection from nature, we forget we are nature).

Helping people understanding themselves also entails helping them become embodied, emplaced – having a frame, existing in a context. That – I think – is much easier when we work with inviting “environment” and “context” into the therapeutic frame. With beings included in it.

Embodiment also comes from movement, perception of the world. Having C-PTSD means you have disowned your body – and I think some people has disowned their place to. They are basically totally displaced – and then they only have one place to live in – and that is in their heads.

Why? Because being in your body is too overwhelming. I know there are a lot of theories saying that when you go into a total “freeze” or shut-down (the lion just about to eat the antelope picture that is used in many trauma trainings) – and you numb out. That is not my experience. Either you go away in your head, you are not there. Or you experience yourself being in your body – though out it all, with no ability to escape (in my case that is done by different parts doing different things, I think, to preserve “sanity”). This is where dissociation comes in – separating things from each other.

“More precisely, in extreme circumstances victims experience the body as being “too much their own”. They have a sense of over-presence, or in cognitive terms, their sense of body-ownership is too strong. In effect, not only do victims completely identify with their body, but also they are reduced solely to their body “the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else beside that.”

The main consequence of this reduction is that he individual identifies the body as the source of intolerable suffering and pain: “Body=Pain=Death”” (Ataria 2018).

So, to understand these clients – they need to be given the possibility to show (problematize, solve etc) their internal worlds to the therapist – so they can become both embodied and emplaced again. So they can start to live their own lives (again). The struggle is daring to go there. If not done, there will be no true symptom relief – if done – it feels like risking death. You know it will be painful, and you question if you are going to survive it. Knowing also – that If you do not go there, you will live a numbed-out sleep-walker’s life, like a robot (like an object). Which certainly is not pain-free either (especially not since your internal life has a way of penetrating into even a robot’s life, with flashbacks, nigh mares, triggers, overwhelming emotions etc).

As a client, I can do EAP, where I would never be able to do more explicit “somatically” focused therapies – that would be too threatening. But just talking would not work either – since then I would just stay in my head.

As a client, I can do EAP, where I would never be able to do more explicit “somatically” focused therapies – that would be too threatening. But just talking would not work either – since then I would just stay in my head.
This is me – thinking out loud – sharing some of my thoughts, in this moment, on a very, very complex matter. I wanted to add some of the aspects of what the perspective of situated learning could mean, or add, in our understanding of the complexity of EAP. I am coming to this both as an EP and as a client in EAP, with my own experiences of it, as well as a Cognitive Science student. My thinking this time was sparked by my therapist asking me what it was that made it possible for me to go into EAP (that first time, many years ago), having basically zero trust in people. My dilemma then was that I did want to show her my world, but I also did not dare to show much, so the horses mad it easier, I could hide behind them (literally at times!), but they also made it harder – because I needed to trust her and her team with showing them my world. And to be honest, I haven’t shown her all parts of it yet, now it is not so much a trust issue as it is me now being more present in my own life, and having to go into that world, so I can deal with the impact it has on my world today, is absolutely terrifying. Now it is more about trusting myself, than trusting her.

I am not sure I make sense to anyone but myself. And I know I am cramming a lot of different stuff into this text, each one of them deserving a post of their own. This is also the topics I am diving into in my master’s thesis – which I am struggling with to finish up, there are so many pieces of EAP to look at! Wish me luck!

Text and picture are copyright protected © Katarina Felicia Lundgren, MiMer Centre, Live the Change, 2020

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Friday, 12 July 2024