Thursday, July 22, 2010

Behaviorism and the Queen of Diamonds

The sinister overtones that many hear in the phrase "behavior modification" arise from the perception that it necessarily describes the coldly clinical manipulation of one creature by another. The efficacy of classical and operant conditioning rests on our ability to generate involuntary responses to selected stimuli, a process that appears suspiciously like brainwashing. If someone acquires the power to circumvent my conscious intent, to play upon my more or less submerged desires without my reason's consent, what am I but a puppet?

It's no real consolation to observe that
, under the scrutiny of neuroscientists, the whole phenomenon of willed action begins to appear less and less substantial and may prove no more than a sustained delusion: it's a necessary delusion, indispensable to our sense of mental coherence. The related delusion that we might more productively dispense with is the conviction that reason rules (or should rule) our behavior. It leads us to assume that we should seek change in ourselves and others through the careful application of logic, when the truth of our experience (and increasingly of scientific study) is that emotions have infinitely more suasive power than reasons do. Or, as Pascal noted, the heart has its own reasons, to which reason must give sway.

Maybe the general mistrust of behaviorism actually speaks to an intuition in this direction and a general anxiety around the mixing of "cold" logic with "warm" feeling: someone with the power to stimulate my most primal emotions (joy, fear, desire, disgust, etc.) may well abuse it if he regards me through the lens of reason as a mere object for the accomplishment of his ends.

This is jumbled and something I need to work through at much greater length (you see my faith in reason perseveres!), but I do know that my emotional entanglement with my training "subjects" is the sine qua non of my use of behaviorist methods.

Not that emotional entanglement is any guarantor of virtuous ends. (The Manchurian Candidate supplies a case in point.) Sigh. I'll have to try to catch this tiger by a different toe.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sweet little lunatic III

I wouldn't say my push to adopt "Zeke" was totally reckless, but in the mix of confused motives that drove me to overcome my family's skepticism, there was more than a dash of hubris. After seeing the remarkable headway that Barley and Kili had made in a few short weeks of clicker training, and after making noticeable progress with dogs at the shelter who appeared at first glance much more "behaviorally challenged" than Zeke, I had become smitten not only with a handsome pup but also with my nascent abilities as a trainer.

Even the most rational of us may be susceptible sometimes to magical thinking, and I have never been particularly rational when it comes to my relationship with non-human animals. All my life, I have entertained the fantasy that I could learn to speak with dogs, dolphins, eagles, wombats, elephants, and others (though my social ambitions have never extended as far as cockroaches or tapeworms). Clicker training looked to me like the golden key to the peaceable kingdom. Once we understood each other, we could all live together in perfect harmony, the naked and the furry, the crawling and the winged.

I had conveniently forgotten that the glorious web of interspecies relationships includes significant and not so peaceable distinctions like the one dividing predators from prey. In my enchantment with the prospect of mutual understanding, I had forgotten that, if you suddenly learned to speak "dog," one of the things you'd likely hear from your adorably hyper new adolescent kelpie mix is, "CAT!! MUST GET CAT!! AAAARGH!! CAT TOO HIGH! MUST VAULT OFF WINDOW SILL!! AARGH!! TRY AGAIN! FOILED AGAIN! TRY BETTER! NEVER GIVE UP! NEVER SURRENDER!!" I think that's a pretty accurate account of Zeke's internal monologue the first time he got loose in a room with Hops. We soon discovered that his antipathy for cats and squirrels was so strong that he would attack any trees or furniture that had once given his enemy safe harbor. (Pete has since wrapped protective chicken wire around the "criminal" fir and cedar in our back yard.)

Thus I learned yet again the value of humility. That old Greek lesson never seems to stick: keep your head down if you don't want the gods to notice and bop you one. Welcome to the great cosmic game of whack-a-mole!

On the upside, Zeke found his new name. "Pazzo" is Italian for crazy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Oh, joy!

The most unexpected-- and persuasive-- outcome of my early clicker training sessions with Barley was the obvious pleasure she took from the process. She had never guessed that I could be such a source of fun. Of course, I had also suddenly become a generous dispenser of treats, but the tiny morsels of processed lamb or turkey I doled out soon became icing on the click. (Mmm. Memories of my grandmother's beagle, Bruce, whose St. Paddy's Day birthday we celebrated with towering "cakes" of marshmallow-studded Alpo.)

Scientific study of animal behavior has only recently begun to allow for the relevance of emotional states to the process of learning. Again, this reluctance arises in part from epistemological rigor, a respect for the limits of empirical investigation and the impossibility of our directly apprehending any other creature's subjective experience-- the "black box" problem-- and in part (perhaps in the main) from a reflexive and unscientific impulse to distance ourselves from "mere beasts." I've just begun reading Jaak Panksepp's Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions and its first chapter summarizes most lucidly the history of the struggle to marry psychology with neuroscience, which struggle has been made more difficult by the refusal on the part of people on both sides of the divide to acknowledge and make better scientific use of the significant overlap (the structural and functional homologies) between the brains of humans and those of their mammalian cousins.

Even if Panksepp succeeds in legitimizing the scientific description of emotion in animals, it will likely be mediated by functional MRI or its future technological offspring: "Ah, there's the blood flow pattern we'd expect to see when a dog's ears and posture perk up, its (never 'his' or 'her') mouth opens slightly, and the speed of its response accelerates!" But no algorithm, however subtle and comprehensive, will ever name "joy" as well as "joy" does. Panksepp, very much to his credit, emphasizes the importance of folding non-scientific vocabulary into scientific accounts of emotion for the sake of clarity and (strange to say) accuracy.

If science were not so grand in its claims, if its practitioners more readily acknowledged the necessary gaps in its description of reality, I would not get so resentful of the ways that "objectivity" sometimes interferes with perception, so exasperated with the willful blindness and obtuseness that characterize much scientific research, especially when sentient beings are the objects of study. As I said earlier, I only became a fan of Skinner's methods when I put them into extra-scientific, personal practice-- and thereby corrupted them. If I want to be most effective as a trainer, I need to see the animal I'm training, not as a jumble of quantifiable properties and behaviors, but as a fluidly perceiving and feeling being whose mysterious intelligence is momentarily entangled with my own.

By lucky accident or divine symmetry, all creatures appear to learn best when they enjoy the learning. If it were not so, I would reconcile myself once and for all to being a crummy trainer, just to keep Barley smiling.