Sunday, December 4, 2011

Befriending the unconscious mind II

In my last post I made a distinction between analytical and associative logic as one way of separating out the primary modes of thought favored by the conscious and unconscious mind. (Depending on your level of comfort ascribing "thought" to the unconscious mind, you might substitute "modes of response" in that sentence, but my own definition is pretty expansive.) However, the distinction between analysis and association is not absolute, and it gets particularly fuzzy when we contrast classical conditioning and operant conditioning. The question of whether the unconscious mind "analyzes" a given situation (and how effectively it does so relative to the conscious mind) here elbows its way to the fore.

A much simplified review: classical conditioning is Pavlov, and operant conditioning is Skinner. In the first case, an initially neutral (i.e. affectively meaningless) stimulus is paired closely with an "unconditioned" (i.e. intrinsically meaningful) stimulus often and consistently enough that it becomes meaningful even in isolation. Unless a dog is temperamentally nervous, she is unlikely to have any strong primary response to the sound of a bell. Unless she is sick, full, or finicky, however, she will almost invariably respond to the presence of food, by salivating, pricking her ears, widening her eyes, etc. As Pavlov discovered, if the sound of a bell is repeatedly paired with the arrival of food, it will soon provoke many of the same reflexive responses that food does, even in food's absence. (These responses will often extinguish if the association is not periodically maintained -- though threatening associations are more resilient than positive ones -- but there are interesting and somewhat counterintuitive laws governing the effectual timing of that maintenance. More on that another day.)

Operant conditioning involves willed (or, if you won't go so far, voluntary) behavior. In this case, some specific action by the animal repeatedly and consistently provokes a change in her environment; if that change is meaningful to the animal, she will alter her behavior accordingly. Thus the Skinner box: rat presses lever, food pellet arrives, rat presses lever again with same result, and rat soon becomes a lever-pressing fiend. A fat lever-pressing fiend. Time to add a complication, in the form of a "green" light: only when the light is on will food pellets be available at press of lever. When the light is off, the rat can press for all she's worth but press in vain. The rat soon stops pressing the lever in the absence of light.

At what point (if any) in that sequence does analysis enter in? At what point does a rat or dog or human begin to perceive "coincidence" (the predictable proximity of two previously unrelated things or events) as a relationship of cause and effect? And is that perception most potent (most behavior-altering) at a conscious or unconscious level?

Even in the case of the planet's Great Brains (i.e. humans), it appears that the unconscious gets there first and most decisively. "Gut feelings" whisper to the frontal cortex the conclusions that older, deeper structures have already drawn -- and in many cases already prompted our bodies to act upon. Gerd Gigerenzer has done some incisive research into this dynamic, and his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious is one of the best introductions I've found. I'd also highly recommend Timothy Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, which beautifully assimilates contemporary research with earlier descriptions of the relationship between conscious and unconscious thought. But among books written for the lay reader, Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error: Emotions, Reason, and the Human Brain remains the most coherent (if necessarily speculative) revision of the "top-down" model of human decision making that I've read, and it's a good place to go if you're ready to dig into the physiological bases of cognition (insofar as these are intelligible to us, which isn't yet very far). His "somatic marker" hypothesis turns the idea that the consciously reasoning mind is in command of the lowly body pretty much literally on its head.

Image by SubVerse Clothing

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Befriending the unconscious mind I

What does it mean in practice to treat the unconscious mind with greater respect? It means setting aside many of the strategies that the conscious mind tends to favor (e.g. reasoning, browbeating, and harassment) when it bumps up against inconvenient and recalcitrant desires. It also means setting aside most physical forms of coercion, while embracing strategies of containment. Most crucially, it means forging an alliance with "animal" vitality, whether your own or your dog's. Hunger (in its broadest sense) is the mainspring of life -- if you can harness its power, you'll flourish and so will your dog.

The unconscious mind works by associative rather than analytic logic; it constructs links between things and events that are spatially or temporally close. The more often two things coincide or appear in proximity (one right next to or one right after the other), the stronger the link between them generally becomes. However, as will become important to a later discussion of punishment, there are circumstances that can exaggerate the strength of a link even if it is made only once.

The unconscious mind has stronger ties to the past than to the future, but its first allegiance is to the present. It's very difficult to fob it off with promises, no matter how sincere. "I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a little self-control today" tends not to be persuasive when there's a juicy hamburger (or whatever floats your Pavlovian boat) sitting there under your nose. If, however, you have managed to make self-control itself intrinsically rewarding -- if you have associated it often enough and in a variety of circumstances with strong and immediate payoffs -- you have some leverage. There are marker-trained dogs who will fetch whole hot dogs and deliver them unmolested to their owners' hands... in return for a 1/4-inch cube of hot dog. This takes some work.

Image by Marc Greisinger.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Force of habit

At its most effective, training is primarily about the creation of new habits, habits of association and habits of behavior. In some cases, we're trying to create a small piece of order where disorder currently reigns; in others, we're unhappy with established order and would like to build something more pleasing in its place. The second instance is the "old dogs, new tricks" challenge (though it could apply to a five-month-old puppy or a five-year-old child). For obvious reasons, this invariably requires more time and focused attention than if we start from a state of relative innocence and pliability. (I'm setting aside for now the question of native limits, only looking to discern the behavioral laws that govern the "free ground" where we can play and change.) If ingrained habits were easily dismantled, they wouldn't have so much potential to support us.

Habit enlists the power of inertia, for good or ill. However much the fact may offend our vanity as reasoning creatures, the vast majority of our habits "are created" without our conscious intent. As for humans, so for other animals. The unconscious mind is tenacious and indefatigable (sleep is for sissies!) in its quest to make just enough comparative sense of incoming stimuli to determine how we should act in order to get what we want and avoid what we don't. (How is this like or unlike a situation I've seen five or five thousand times before?) What it lacks in nuance it more than makes up in speed and confidence. If the unconscious mind has lit upon a strategy it really likes -- and likes more every time it repeats it, familiarity in this case breeding affection -- the conscious mind is generally left to mop up after the fact. (Oh, I totally meant to do that, and here are twenty reasons why...) Or to boast about its superior refinement and sophistication. Indeed, in the case of humans, the conscious mind sometimes seems as tireless in the task of self-glorification as the unconscious mind is in the humbler but more critical task of self-maintenance.

We might have a great deal more success in creating new habits and dismantling old ones if we had more respect for the unconscious mind, if we treated it with the courtesy and forbearance that elders should always command from the young. That upstart frontal cortex flatters itself that it knows what's best, but it can't get anything done on its own. It needs the collaboration of older and more resilient structures. It can only lead -- if it leads at all -- by encouraging consensus. Consciously adopted habits are one form that consensus can take.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What it is

In the nine months -- count 'em! -- since I last posted here, my attention has been absorbed by other projects, including the drafting of a memoir that's now more or less at rest. I'm ready to recommit myself to the questions I've been using this blog to explore, but I now think they might best be split. I'd like to establish a clearer focus here on training, and dig only as far into the science and philosophy of cognition as seems immediately useful. I'm putting together a second blog that I'll use as an arena for broader exploration of the overlap between human and non-human minds, also for wild tangents and miscellany.

Forty posts in, I'm finally able to state the premise of this blog: animal training requires self-training. No matter the species I'm working with, if I want to communicate clearly with an animal and persuade him to ally his will with my own, I will need to become more self-aware and self-controlled, more skilled in the signals I send and more attuned to those I receive. By the same token, I can only ask as much of another animal as I'm willing to put in myself. So "as good as I wanna be" makes reference to all the ways that my desire to improve my own behavior might be constrained: laziness, fear, conflicting desires, sheer cussedness. There might be other constraints on my ability to improve my behavior, some of them absolute, others elastic. But I won't discover those constraints except by testing and maybe redrawing the limits of my desire. Just as I won't discover the outer limits of Barley's or Kili's or Pazzo's abilities except by expanding my knowledge of what drives each of them and inventing new ways to channel it productively (i.e., in mutually agreeable directions).

So I start from the assumption that we're all only and always as good as we wanna be. I want to see what's possible from there.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In scientific circles

I think the mirror test demonstrates, at the point where its popularity as a measure of self-consciousness intersects with its inadequacy, the tendency of scientific investigation to wander into tautology when it treats the phenomena of sentience. It requires great care and imagination to conceive an experiment that will yield some verifiable external measure of an internal process, and when someone succeeds as elegantly as the originator of the mirror test, there's a strong temptation among those who credit the significance of the results to "move forward," to avoid any needless backtracking (e.g. to the definitional boundaries of the phenomenon under scrutiny).
     Thus the question of whether an animal possesses self-awareness elides irresistibly with the question of whether he can, with the help of a well-placed polka dot, make a connection between his kinesthetic or proprioceptive sense and an alien image that (bizarrely) coordinates with it; in the absence of any similarly compelling measure, the mirror test becomes definitive for hundreds of scientists who go on to paint scores of unsuspecting animals in their sleep. Will a parrot pass or fail? A tamarin? A zebra? As Frans de Waal observes, "for better or worse, this test has remained the gold standard of self-identity."
     Even the test's critics seem to accept its foundational terms: if, they say, an orangutan who touches a spot on his forehead really understood the image in the mirror as a representation of his own body, then the conditions for self-awareness would be met. But, they argue, he probably just likes to poke at his face. Or he learns to do so because it makes humans grimace in that weird way that means more dates and sunflower seeds.
     Again, methodological limitations lead us to chase our tails: the mirror test measures the capacity for self-consciousness because... we don't have a better test. Or a more complete one. Hell, I don't know what it means to be self-conscious! Do you?
     My feeling, one I'd like to develop into a well-reasoned conviction (so goes the trajectory of my mental life), is that there ought to be a kind of intellectual affirmative action in the direction of granting non-human animals manifold intelligence and complex consciousness. We ought to assume they're endowed with great riches of thought and feeling until they prove otherwise, though we ought not to assume that their thoughts and feelings trace the same patterns as ours. I have some sympathy for Marc Hauser, despite his faults and all the damage he's done to the cause of anthropomorphology, because a bias in favor of non-human intelligence remains so rare, while the bias against almost defines "respectable" research.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Self-consciousness without mirrors

There's a question I want to dig into a little further before I arrange another rendezvous between Hamlet and Burrhus (Frederic Skinner), a question regarding self-consciousness. This is one of innumerable capacities ascribed until recently only to humans. Various experiments with mirrors and paint have widened the circle of self-conscious creatures just a little bit, to include apes and magpies (!) among a few others, but I think the assumption that underlies the research may be too restrictive to allow a full description of the phenomenon. While it may be difficult or impossible to demonstrate under scientific controls (this is clearly a case in which observation itself may distort the nature and behavior of what we observe), informal study argues strongly for the emergence of "personality" in many social species who (pronoun used advisedly) fail the mirror test. Canis familiaris, to take one salient example.
     What if one accumulates (even if unwittingly) a distinct and precious identity, an identity one is motivated to defend (even if reflexively)? Mightn't this constitute a kind of self-consciousness, whether or not the self is pinched off from consciousness and set out as an object for one's contemplation and deliberate manipulation? I think anyone who has ever observed the wounding of a dog's pride or a cat's dignity must admit the possibility.
     The counterexample of the octopus also supports a more expansive definition of self-consciousness. Experiments performed using HDTV suggest that, however intelligent, an octopus has no personality: that is, it demonstrates the patterns of behavior that we generally attribute to personality, but these patterns are extremely short-lived. An octopus that is extroverted and aggressive one day may be terribly timid the next. (Wonderful that the subject of this research was Octopus tetricus: vulgarly, the "gloomy" octopus.)
     If the range of an animal's behavior (and the probability of any specific response to a stimulus) were determined simply by a passive stockpiling of experience and not by any active sense of internal coherence - of individual integrity - one would not expect to see such wild variations in the robustness of behavioral patterns among species.
     **There's another experiment, performed back in 2008, that hints at a canine capacity for self-consciousness. Austrian researchers trained a pair of border collies to sit and shake on cue, then measured the time it took for the behaviors to extinguish when they received no reinforcement. The salient data came from a comparison between "control" trials, wherein one of the dogs worked alone, and trials wherein the two dogs worked side by side but only one received reinforcement. Behaviors extinguished significantly more quickly in the second case (and the unrewarded dog showed many more visible signs of frustration). Discussion of the research has focused primarily on the question of whether this demonstrates that dogs have a sense of "fairness," but it certainly suggests that they have a vigorous sense of "me" distinct from "him," a protective self-regard that might amount to a form of ego.