Thursday, May 27, 2010

Behaviorism and Desire

We want what we want and we want it now. (Humans are better than most animals at deferring gratification, but not always and not by much.) Any deliberate manipulation of another creature's behavior requires that we become attuned to that creature's desires, and these may be almost as idiosyncratic among dogs or dolphins as among people. To paraphrase Sam the Eagle (of Muppet Caper fame), we are all weirdos. This is where behaviorism goes productively amok.

In operant conditioning, one doesn't create behavior per se, one merely increases or decreases the likelihood that a given behavior will be performed, and one does this by controlling the behavior's consequence.

Consequences fall into four categories, defined by two binary oppositions (positive/negative, reinforcement/punishment): positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. "Positive" in this context refers to the addition of some thing or force, "negative" to the removal of some thing or force. "Reinforcement" names anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated; "punishment" names anything that decreases that likelihood. More simply, reinforcement tends to the yummy and pleasing, punishment to the nasty and fearsome ("aversive" in behaviorist lingo).

So "positive reinforcement" is the introduction of something good (chocolate cake, a belly rub, a game of tug, a shoulder massage), "negative reinforcement" the removal of something bad (pressure on the bit, a parent's screaming, a scary dog or mailman): whatever I did to create either consequence, I'm more likely to repeat it. "Positive punishment," which sounds like a contradiction in terms, is the introduction of something nasty (leash jerk, skunk spray, burned fingers), while "negative punishment" is the removal of something we like (attention, bones, freedom): whatever I did to earn these consequences, I'd like to avoid repeating it.

There's a wealth of complications buried in this simple schema, but the most significant concerns the vagaries of desire. We all (human and non-human animals) like different things, and we like them with varying degrees of intensity. Our desires are fluid and changeable, shifting with experience, mood, and context. Once upon a time, I loved bananas and (very briefly) the voice of Suzanne Vega, but both now make me queasy. Conditioning wouldn't be possible if our preferences were forever fixed, but our fickleness makes us slippery subjects. And that seems very much to the good. I have learned to love Skinner only because his account of behavior remains forever incomplete; the "laws" of behaviorism, while they are powerfully, empirically predictive in the aggregate, get wonderfully complicated when they tangle with the rebelliously singular individual.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Learning to love Skinner III

What I found most remarkable in Karen Pryor's book Reaching the Animal Mind is how seamlessly and matter-of-factly she enlists the insights of behaviorism in a project of creative collaboration between species. Once they are taken out of the laboratory and into the world at large, the conditioning techniques that Skinner and others developed for scientific purposes become powerful tools for the achievement of warmer, fuzzier ends. They can help elucidate animals' integrity as individuals, and (not coincidentally) foster positive emotional bonds within and across species. Pryor's subtitle-- What Clicker Training Teaches Us About All Animals-- hints at her (sadly radical) proposition that humans can and should be in dialogue with other animals. Trainers may be more strongly inclined to listen (though many are not), but we all have as much to learn as to teach. More.

In order to describe Pryor's neat sleight of hand clearly, I first need to travel back to Behaviorist Psychology 101 for a quick primer in classical and operant conditioning. All conditioning involves the establishment of novel associations, and the two types are not in every situation distinct, but for simplicity's sake let's say that classical conditioning promotes reflexive, involuntary responses to a given stimulus, whereas operant conditioning engages a creature's will.

If I say "Pavlov," does the image of a drooling dog spring immediately to mind? Is it still there if I tell you "Don't think of a drooling dog"? If so, you are well conditioned to associate both "Pavlov" and "dog" with more or less specific representations of domestic canines, though the dog you imagine when I say "Pavlov" may be more slack-jowled and blank of expression than the one that "dog" conjures in another context. My point here is that there exists no intrinsic relationship between the word "Pavlov" or "dog" and any actual dog (or even the category of dogs), but if you are an English speaker with some knowledge of psychology, these unlike things have been paired often enough in your experience that one invokes the other without any deliberate effort on your part. That's a form of classical conditioning.

Operant conditioning asks a little more from you: intent and action. In this case the salient association is created between a behavior and a consequence. If it becomes strong enough (if the consequence follows consistently from the behavior), it takes on the flavor of a causal relationship, though the connection may be an arbitrary one. Pavlov's dog is the icon for classical conditioning; Skinner's lever-pressing rats embody operant conditioning at its most basic. Rat pushes lever, and out pops kibble. Far out. If you want to preserve the association but don't want fat rats, you can add a cue. Green light on, push lever: kibble. Green light off, push lever: nada, niente, SOL. As with the example given for classical conditioning, there's no ready-made relationship between lights, levers, and kibble. It's dreamt up by the scientist and taught to the rat, simply through temporally close, predictable association.

However little we might like to believe that we resemble rats, humans are subject to the same tendency to perceive causal relationships where none may exist. Like all animals, we seek coherence and control in a stubbornly chaotic world. Nothing undermines our well being more disastrously than a sense of helplessness, so we are apt to exaggerate our agency and influence. Sports fans seem especially susceptible to delusions of this kind: when I am watching my beloved San Diego Chargers on television, a thousand or more miles from the field of action, I become temporarily (absurdly) convinced that my shouted "Come on, D!" or my failure to wear my Quentin Jammer jersey could make or break my team's chances at victory. Athletes themselves take superstitious behavior to comical extremes, baseball pitchers to an art. This is where the line between classical and operant conditioning begins to blur: when a stimulus (or set of stimuli) triggers us to act automatically, even compulsively, will and intent disappear from the mix.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Behavior modification in the theater

I'm not an actor, but I sometimes play one onstage. It's a humbling task-- especially for anyone who's accustomed to exercising creative control.

The process of submitting one's mind, body, and voice to someone else's words and someone else's vision makes this erstwhile playwright and director a little testy; I've often caught myself in rehearsals speaking out above my pay grade (the expression is entirely euphemistic in the context of the "semi-professional" company I've been working with for the last year). When I'm in the throes of some urgent insight, I seem unable to honor the principle of divided labor that helps to keep peace in a room full of contending minds and egos. The next time I direct, I hope I will show better patience than I have in the past with actors who are unhelpfully helpful! As with teaching, I sometimes have the guilty thought: please God, don't let me get a student/actor like me! (i.e. total pain in the ass)

The irony (or maybe the gift) in the present situation is that I am playing a character who could also use a horse pill of humility. On Thursday we opened a production of David Auburn's Proof, a tale of love, madness, and math. Catherine, the protagonist, appears to have inherited her father's prodigious talent with numbers, but she fears that this legacy might be entwined with another: Dad went nuts, and the fact that Catherine is celebrating her 25th birthday in the company of his ghost doesn't bode well for her own sanity. Maybe an adorably self-effacing, drum-playing mathematician named Harold Dobbs can tether her to the here and now, but only if she can trust him with the closely guarded secret of her genius. She's written a groundbreaking proof regarding prime numbers (Auburn is artfully vague on the particulars). Will he believe it's hers?

Catherine's mistrust (of other people, of her own mind) is her most formidable antagonist; my character only rises to the level of an irritant, but a supremely irritating irritant she is! I play Claire, the older sister, who only knows Catherine well enough to know everything she needs: downtime, vegetarian chili, and a move to New York.

The image is an Ulam spiral. Numbers can blow your mind, no matter how strong your grip on sanity.

Friday, May 21, 2010

First Bassoon II

Pete is a tender soul, and nowhere is he more tender than in his regard for Barley. Whatever his misgivings about the prospect of minority status in our home (Humans 2, Beasts 3), he could not deny her royal bunkness a wrassling mate.

We set Barley up on a series of blind dates at three different shelters over the course of a weekend. Her conspicuous indifference to all of the dogs that Pete and I found alluring or endearing made a mockery of my contention that she craved canine company. Our matchmaking project seemed a bust, until we returned to the private, no-kill shelter where we had adopted her sixteen months earlier. On a hunch, the woman helping us brought in a dog who had languished there for a couple of months, "Poppy."

This big, ungainly clown of a dog promptly threw herself at Peter's feet and peed into the air. She appeared desperate to please us, but her insecurity had the unfortunate quality of a self-fulfilling prophecy: she was so pessimistic about her ability to win our hearts that she made herself a wiggling pest. An outstretched hand was immediately bathed in kisses; every sudden noise and movement made her eyes bug and her tail dip. This shaggy bundle of nerves could not, we thought, be at a further remove from the Bunk, so resplendent in her self-assurance. But Poppy's story touched us: she was Barley's age and had lived all her life with a couple who had no complaints about her behavior. It seemed they just didn't like her well enough to sustain the trouble of keeping her. Little wonder she was awash in self-doubt. We thought the least we could do was introduce her to Barley, whose taste in dogs clearly diverged from ours.

The moment Poppy entered the room where Barley waited, she catalyzed an exothermic chemical reaction: Little Miss Aloof went immediately into Mad Rabbit mode, spinning and cavorting, drawing the dog who'd appeared so anxious five minutes earlier into a bouncing chase over and around the (thankfully well worn) furniture. The two of them were as gleeful as best buddies reunited after a long, regretted absence. They chased, wrestled, and rolled 'til they were both spent, then collapsed panting on the rug, side by side.

And that was that. "Poppy" was a good name for the clown in our new girl, but we thought it might be good to emphasize what was beautiful and steady. Her gorgeous blue merle coat has the same depth of shading you can find in igneous rock, so we decided to name her after a volcano: Kilimanjaro. It suits her in her more majestic moods, and "Kili" can be worn comfortably around the house.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

First Bassoon

Kili won't play second fiddle, so...

A year after Hops joined us, I began to muse "idly" about what it might be like to have another dog in the family. Pete was wise to my daydreaming by now; he knew how quickly I could build a foundation under any castle suspended in the air-- as long as it had an animal peeking from one of its high towers.

Pets are supposed in some quarters to be substitutes for children, but for me that equation is the wrong way round. Somehow my wires got crossed early in life (probably by my grandmother's brilliantly mischievous beagle, Bruce) and my nascent maternal urges fixed on non-human objects. Sort of a reverse imprinting phenomenon. Some years ago, a medical issue forced me to take measure of my desire to have kids-- I had the choice between a major, invasive surgery that might preserve my fertility, and a much simpler but more radical surgery (a laparoscopic hysterectomy) that would certainly destroy it. Pete and I did a lot of soul searching before opting for the hysterectomy. (It felt like a joint decision, though I knew I held the trump card: my body!)

A good friend of ours distilled the question nicely. Ideally, he wisely said, parenthood is a calling. If it's not yours, the world will not miss the children you never had. (Though the same may not be true of grandparents-in-waiting.) What I knew was that my "aww" reflex had never really kicked in for baby humans the way it did for a variety of other more or less helpless creatures. I trusted that this would change if I ever became pregnant (I'd been told countless tales of conversion), but I did not want it to change. At a level deeper than reason can touch, I knew long ago that I was destined to become a crazy dog lady.

That's an ambiguous designation. Am I a crazy "dog lady" or a "crazy dog" lady? Since our adoption of Kili, the answer seems to be "Both."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Learning to Love Skinner II

Last summer, after I'd finished a year-long "visit" with the theatre department of a nearby college and determined that academic games weren't the games I wanted to play anymore, I returned to passions I'd long neglected-- for animals and for minds. Combine the two, and you have my undivided attention. I read almost indiscriminately through the lay literature on ethology and animal cognition, hopping here and there and everywhere: Clive Wynne, Mark Bekoff, Donald Griffin, Temple Grandin, Marc Hauser, Robert Sapolsky, etc.

One book I found especially congenial is Franz de Waal's The Ape and the Sushi Master. It seems ridiculous to me that anyone should have to argue for the existence of culture among non-human animals, but because the necessity exists, I'm glad de Waal is around to meet it. He's just able to contain his impatience with his scientific colleagues' irrational terror of anthropomorphism, but he does not shy from pointing out the absurdity of supposing that our capacities for empathy, learning, planning, and creative problem solving arrived from the clear evolutionary blue. Of course it's important to exercise due caution when we try to describe the experience of creatures whose physiology differs markedly from our own, but the significant overlap between my physiology and that of a dog (a not so random example) strongly suggests a significant overlap between our internal experiences. Any refusal to acknowledge this must make a hash of evolutionary theory and its rather ruthless principles of conservation.

The stupidity of denying what we share with "beasts" would infuriate me less if it were consistently maintained as an epistemological problem. This, I think, was Skinner's contention: the tools of science cannot reach interior states. We must confine scientific description to what is directly observable. As an honest assessment of real limits, this kind of rigor is utterly inoffensive. Mark Bekoff says much the same thing: "Feelings do not fit under a microscope." But I think this is where Skinner might have got himself such a lousy reputation among humanists, by his insistence that one should train the same lens on (thinking! feeling!) human subjects as on (reflex-driven! soulless!) rats. His indifference as a scientist to the magnificent embroideries that people sew into the fabric of their observable behavior (everything Freud and Jung pored over and reworked in ever more florid patterns) did not compromise his intellectual project, constrained as it was.

But a scientist who takes the limitations of his discipline and makes them a dividing line between his own richly mysterious, ineluctably individual life and the supposedly simple, mechanical, disposable lives of his subjects has made a grave logical (and potentially moral) error. He wouldn't dare say of other people, "Well, they tell me they feel things, but I can't ever know for sure," though he has no more direct access to their emotions than he has to his dog's. He might argue (sloppily) that language itself makes the difference. Then it is up to him to learn a language not his own. A dog will tell him when it feels joy or pain
-- and use consistent, empirically distinct signals to do it-- but only if he cares to listen.

De Waal comments helpfully on the many subtle ways that methodological inadequacies get misread as inadequacies in the subjects of our study: our inability or reluctance to recreate circumstances meaningful to the animals we're observing often results in their fatal lack of interest in the silly tasks we set them to do (fatal to any accurate assessment of their cognitive gifts).

I couldn't imagine how a concern with animals' peculiar (yet familiar) inner lives would entwine with dry, mechanical behaviorism, until I stumbled on Karen Pryor's latest book, Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals. The title prominently featured both of my favorite words, and "training" also caught my eye. Our two dogs owed most of the gradual improvements in their manners to the predations of time; they were nearing official status as "seniors," with their eighth birthdays fast approaching. Both had mellowed beautifully, and we'd long since learned to find most of their "misbehavior" charming. Still I wondered whether we might reach a better mutual understanding about paper scraps (which Kili eats compulsively from the street and the dining table) and the dangers posed by cars (if Barley makes eye contact with a friendly-looking driver, she'll run right up, tail wagging).

Reaching the Animal Mind offers both an engaging narrative of Pryor's long experience as a trainer (of dolphins, horses, dogs, people, and fish, among others) and a primer in the principles and methods of what has come popularly to be known as "clicker training" (though it may not involve a clicker in many instances). Finally, it gestures out toward current research in neuroscience that helps explain the method's remarkable efficacy.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Learning to love Skinner


I wouldn't have guessed a year ago that I would be singing the praises of B.F. Skinner and behaviorism. Back in 2007, I had written the study guide for a local production of Martin McDonagh's play The Pillowman and included an article on the psychology of child-rearing. My research took me a little deeper than the popular clich├ęs of rats in mazes and babies in boxes. I knew that Skinner's "air crib" was built for comfort and relaxation, not as an experimental torture chamber for his daughters. Contrary to the sinister popular mythology, both grew up healthy and perfectly sane.

My aversion to Skinner was philosophical and temperamental. What could be more dry and reductive, I thought, than a scrupulous and obsessive focus on physical behavior? What perceptual lens was more likely to blur or destroy the vital distinction between creature and machine?

I'd spent more than a decade practicing, studying, and teaching theatre; I'd devoted myself to the excavation of inner lives. Tangled motives, fevered passions, and impossible dreams: these were my bread, butter, and jam (apricot). Behaviorism waved a dismissive hand at all of it. The men in white coats did their quiet work-- essential fluids out, formaldehyde in-- until the gloriously irreducible mess of human (and animal!) sentience could be contained in neat rows of data. They were undertakers who supplied their own corpses.

But if you want to see true mastery in the art of rubber-gloved bloodletting, you need to read some contemporary theatre criticism. The more theoretical the instruments of analysis, the more sanitary the violence they perform (and the more freakishly unrecognizable the body on the chilled table). By the time I took a new look at behaviorism, I no longer imagined that "the humanities" had any special claim on "humane" modes of curiosity. Whatever tenderness and humility had once characterized their engagement with the ineffable-- well, it had all got effed up, as far as I could see.

Not the pun you think...

Hops is short for Hopkins, after Gerard Manley Hopkins, who found divinity in the motley and impure.







Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things--
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced-- fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Our pack (brood? herd? exaltation?) has evolved on the model of "punctuated equilibrium" over the last eight years. Every time things reach a state of relative calm and predictability, we introduce a new variable into the mix. When Barley was eight months old, we knew we weren't yet ready for another dog but thought she'd enjoy a companion more constant and less baffling than her human charges. Well, I thought so. Pete's and my marriage is constructed around a mostly creative tension between my reckless optimism and his crusty "realism." That's what he calls it. As I often perceive it, I propose and he disposes. But the truth is not quite so simple.

I'd never had a cat or thought I'd want one. With a few memorable exceptions, I had always found them more irritating than engaging. (There's a reason junior high girls get labeled "catty.") But I'd been hearing from friends that dogs and cats could live together in perfect harmony, even become great friends, if they met early enough in their lives not to notice their differences. At eight months, Barley had already developed a noticeable prejudice against the proposition that cats were people too (she charged them when we encountered them on our walks), but I hoped her young mind (and my old one) remained pliant enough to accommodate a small feline's reality.

Even the county shelter folks get admirably creative around here. When Barley and I were at the nearest dog park one day, an enormous RV pulled into the parking lot, full of animals in need of homes. Where better to find a ready bunch of demonstrated suckers? If it had required any real initiative on my part, I might not have pursued my peaceable kingdom fantasy into the realm of the actual for months, if at all. Cats in the abstract still didn't appeal to me much. But here Barley and I had only to climb a couple of metal steps into a shelter that had come right to us. I walked her (on a very short leash) down a row of cages, thinking that all the hissing and cowering probably didn't bode well for her ability to make friends across the species barrier. Then up to the bars of one cage came a curious little calico, bold as you please. She chirped at Barley, who was momentarily nonplussed but in the next moment sprang up for a closer look, planting both paws on the cage before I could catch her. The kitten took only a half step back and chirped some more. She seemed fascinated. I was charmed. Barley? She had a light in her eyes that I chose to interpret as a desire to know this unaccountably confident creature, not to eat her.

As I drove back home with Barley, I began to assemble my pitch to Pete, but I quickly realized that the kitten could speak much more eloquently for herself. I only told him, "There's someone Barley and I really think you should meet." He was intrigued enough (and indulgent enough of my stubborn fancies) to get in the car and let me drive him back to the park. My work was done. Pete had lived with cats before; he didn't share Barley's and my native mistrust. (I still get freaked sometimes when staring into Hops' alien, snake-slit eyes.) So there was nothing to keep him from falling fast and hard for the patchwork little bundle of impudence who trilled at us from her cage. "Well? Whaddya think?" I asked.

"She's a sweetie," he said. "What should we call her?"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wild Streak II


We'll probably never know for sure. Nic Papalia, who advocates for the maligned dingo back in Australia, didn't think I was crazy when I sent him pictures-- Barley could be a twin to his own lovely (and mordantly named) Lindy.

Nic's dingo gallery

On the one hand, even given the existence of a black market in endangered dingoes, it's really hard to imagine one showing up in a shelter on this side of the Pacific. On the other, Barley performs the part so persuasively-- from her prehensile front claws to the white tip of her tail, from her contortionist's flexibility to her regal independence from human opinion-- that we've never been able entirely to dismiss the possibility. We could send a sample from the lining of her cheeky cheek off to a man at the University of New South Wales who performs genetic testing for conservation purposes, but we'd rather live with this golden dollop of mystery. Barley is our day glow.

The Wiggles sing a dingo tango.

I miss Steve Irwin.

Wild Streak

Our first dog-- first in time, first in line, first in our hearts-- is Barley. Pete and I "rescued" her from a local shelter when she was twelve weeks old, but that's a generous spin on the facts, a rosy way to describe irresistible puppy lust. We came, we saw, we were conquered.

From that very early age, Barley displayed an almost preternatural composure and self-assurance. While a litter of Rottie pups rolled and sprawled and squealed all around her, she sat straight and silent and gave each of us a look that said: Well? Do you want to go through the motions of considering other dogs, or can we cut right to the chase? So to speak.

We went through the motions-- we even put off meeting with her until we had seen a couple of other dogs that actually needed rescuing. But when we could deny our fate no longer, the gal who was helping us led this foxy little miss (absurdly misnamed Angel) into the "getting acquainted" room where we waited on a secondhand couch. She (the foxy pup, not the shelter worker) hopped up between me and Pete and settled into a perfect sphinx pose, with her pristine white paws draped over the cushion's edge.

Done deal. She knew it. We knew it.

They told us "Angel" was a husky-lab-boxer mix, and we had no reason to doubt it until four or five years later, when my grandmother sent me a photo of a New Guinea Singing Dog. Which led me to look at their better known cousins, Australian dingoes. I'd seen images of desert dingoes before and noted only a passing resemblance with our Barley. But when I finally encountered pictures and video of alpine dingoes, my jaw dropped. Could it be?