THEORY: Operant Conditioning in Dollhouse?

by admin on August 6, 2008 · 8 comments

Operant Conditioning in Dollhouse?

One of the more surreal clips from the Dollhouse trailer shows Echo and her pals slipping into coffin-like chambers, where they go to fall asleep. But who in their right mind sleeps in a coffin? It would appear that coffins are not only reserved for the dead in Dollhouse, as with twisted logic the zombie-like “actives” de-activate, perhaps exposing themselves to more consciousness than they do during their waking hours.

B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning Chamber with baby inside

But why coffins? Surely there must be some symbolism behind that? What is Whedon trying to convey when we see ‘scientific specimens’ being drained of all life? Perhaps the biggest real-world parallel comes from the famous American Psychologist, B.F. Skinner, the father of the Operant Conditioning Chamber. A device used to study the behaviour of subjects (including his own child) whilst conditioning their responses.

In Dollhouse, the coffin-like sleeping chambers could be another way for Adelle and her team to deny the actives of any contact with the outside (or inside) world, containing them even in their sleep..especially in their sleep. The nature vs nurture debate argues that on the one hand we are influenced by our surroundings, whilst on the other-hand we are the products of nature. It could be argued that sleeping exhibits both extremes, as we are in a natural state where through our dreams we can be who we want to be without the restrictions of our environment, yet we are also open to the subconscious activity buzzing around us.

With that in mind, it seems possible that the Dollhouse management are concerned about what the actives are exposed to even whilst they sleep. To be distracted too soon could be like a premature birth..the dolls too active..too eager to see the world for what it really is.

Food for thought, perhaps.

wiesengrund August 6, 2008 at 8:39 pm

I think Whedon explictly stated that the beds are not only coffins, but also something very soft, more like a womb. the symbolism will be quite layered and twisted, i guess.

Roco August 6, 2008 at 9:02 pm

Interesting. It does seem like the beds/coffins are not in themselves uncomfortable. They might even be quite pleasant.

It does seem to be a rather conflicted device. One that serves a seemingly normal purpose, yet, as you say, comes with layers of intent.

I like the womb metaphor..representative, perhaps, of the actives being ‘re-born’ every time they go to sleep.

EDIT: I suppose there is also the direct reference to dolls being put away once a child has finished playing with them..

Alex February 1, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Interesting take – i’m actually inclined to agree on both points.
The echo box is very reminiscent of the skinner box, but also the idea of it being womb like. In the trailer Echo curls up into the fetal position whilst in the box – so maybe it is ment to be like the womb, everytime they leave they are reborn.

Josh Pritchard April 30, 2009 at 12:44 am

Just wanted to drop a note to let you know that the operant conditioning chamber was not used with human subjects. The picture of the baby is an invention of Skinner’s to provide his children with a clean happy safe environment in which to grow up. I’m glad you are aware of Skinner’s contribution to science — but did want to clear up that the operant chamber was not something used to study his children, but rather for his scientific inquiry into the behavior of animals….

Regina Claypool-Frey April 30, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Ditto what Josh said above.

Aircribs and Skinner boxes, aka operant chambers, are two separate things to two different purposes. The baby is in an Aircrib, and here’s a little info piece about the Aircrib.

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