Saturday, February 11, 2012

Have we outgrown our vocabulary?

A couple of weeks ago now, Professor Jesús Rosales-Ruiz (of the Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas) gave an esoteric but fascinating talk on the disappearing distinction between respondent (a.k.a. classical) and operant conditioning. By tracing the history of the terms and describing the difficulties that contemporary researchers often encounter when trying to apply them with any consistency, he exposed their contingency and fragility: while they have been extremely useful as springboards to the investigation of how we learn, they may prove not to have any real substance. They might even have brought us far enough that we can safely discard them (and move forward more easily without their dead weight). Wittgenstein once noted how many stubborn philosophical problems are in fact problems of vocabulary; we are sometimes slow to recognize when we've exhausted our terms.

But dying words (and the concepts or categories they name) have something left to teach. By looking closely at their definitional foundations, and then taking note of their specific failures vis-à-vis reality, we can identify some of the perceptual biases that made them so appealing in the first place. The lay distinction between "respondent" and "operant" has always hinged on the question of whether or not a response to a given stimulus (or set of stimuli) is voluntary, whether or not it can be brought under conscious control. But as Jesús described in his talk, even during Skinner's time, the erosion of that distinction was already underway, as physiological responses that had been considered perfectly autonomic (such as blood pressure) were brought through biofeedback under conscious control. More recently (and provocatively), challenges have come from the opposite direction, as individual cells have been observed in response patterns that mimic operant conditioning. As Jesús noted, anytime that relationships between contingencies (in the environment and behavior) grow measurably more consistent, learning is taking place. Our loyalty to the terms "respondent" (or "classical") and "operant" may obscure the complex but unified realities of that process.

Among the phenomena resistant to any simple respondent/operant dichotomy has been the tendency of certain behaviors to wander from unconscious to conscious and back to unconscious "control." We're all familiar with this dynamic as it applies to our assimilation of complex skills. The famous four stages of competence trace the general pattern, from unconscious incompetence (we don't know we can't do something), to conscious incompetence (we know we can't do it), to conscious competence (we can do it with great mental effort and focus), to unconscious competence (we can do it without effort and without conscious focus). If I'm a skilled driver, or soccer player, or surgeon, as long as the given challenge falls within the range of what is well-known to me and therefore predictable, the relationship between the contingencies of the environment and the contingencies of my behavior may be so consistent as to appear reflexive, and I will hardly have the sense that I am making a voluntary decision at any juncture. Only novelty is likely to wake me from the dream of competence and force me back into a state of conscious engagement.

"Respondent" and "operant," like "unconscious" and "conscious," may only describe different modes of energetic expenditure. The brain is a highly economical organ, a regular Bartleby when it comes to the heavy lifting required for conscious thought. ("I would prefer not to.") That said, it is much more active at an unconscious level than we generally give it credit for being.

Image by Jolyon.

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