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.