Parsing a Sneeze

August 29, 2009 at 6:01 pm 1 comment

In The Feeling of What Happens Antonio Damasio writes, “We are about as effective at stopping an emotion as we are at preventing a sneeze.”  Like sneezes, emotional states are induced through classical conditioning processes where an innate, involuntary behavior (like an emotion or a reflex) becomes associated with a specific event or context. Their basis in these involuntary processes helps explain why emotional reactions are unpredictable and difficult to control.

In his book, Damasio introduces us to a man with extensive damage to his temporal lobes, hippocampus and amygdula.  “David” suffers from some of the most severe learning and memory deficits ever recorded – he is unable to learn anynew fact. Despite this and in spite of the fact that he’s surrounded by people he is completely unable to recognize, David displays consistent preferences and avoidances in his day-to-day interactions with staff and patients.  Intrigued by David’s behavior, Damasio designed a good guy/bad guy experiment to examine how David might develop these preferences under controlled circumstances:

Over a period of a week, we were able to engage David, under entirely controlled circumstances, in three distinct types of human interaction. One type of interaction was with someone who was extremely pleasant and welcoming and who always rewarded David whether he requested something or not (this was the good guy). Another interaction involved somebody who was emotionally neutral and who engaged David in activities that were neither pleasant nor unpleasant (this was the neutral guy). A third type of interaction involved an individual whose manner was brusque, who would say no to any request, and who engaged David in a very tedious psychological task designed to bring boredom to a saint (this was the bad guy).

After the week of controlled conditioning David was not able to recognize any of the ‘guys’ from photographs or in person.  Yet, when he was presented with photographs of them and asked questions regarding hypothetical situations such as “Which one of these people would you ask for help?”  or “Who is your friend,” David chose the ‘good guy’ over 80% of the time. While David’s conscious mind may no longer be equipped to give him an overt reason to recognize, much less choose, one person over another, he is still able to learn to correctly choose the person most likely to react positively with him with an accuracy far exceeding that of pure chance.

So it appears that we can develop preferences and aversions in a completely unconscious manner.  This is fascinating and it may help explain why two- and four-legged creatures so often react in apparently inexplicable ways. While we are aware of the emotions we feel, we sometimes have no idea why we feel them. And this can make emotional reactions incredibly difficult to control – even for us allegedly big-brained humans. Because our emotions can be rooted in factors as diverse as previous experiences, health and our base line emotional state – and because many of these factors lie outside our conscious control – our emotions don’t always make sense to us.  Or to those around us.

Dogs with emotion-based problems like fear of thunderstorms, fear-based aggression and separation anxiety are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate. The dog has no idea why it’s behaving the way it does. He’s much like David, classically conditioned to react to a situation – and utterly unaware of why he behaves the way he does.

This is why the popular idea of ‘psychoanalyzing dogs’ – collecting obsessively detailed case histories in an effort to discover exactly what events in the dog’s past led to the development of it’s emotion-based problems – drives me crazy.  Because these kinds of problems arise from classical conditioning processes – there is likely no single event or simple chain of events that led to the dog’s problem. And, like David, the dog likely has absolutely no idea why he feels the way he does.

Trying to analyze the basis of an emotionally-based behavior problem in a non-verbal species like a dog makes no sense.  It’s like parsing a sneeze.

Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs. Tags: , .

New Kid on the Block I Did a Terrible Thing

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. John T.  |  August 30, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    We got our husky shepherd mix when she was eleven months old. My wife and kids had decided she was an attractive dog with an equally attractive personallity.
    She, however, showed no affection for me at all for a long time. As time wore on it became clear she disliked men. She would avoid a man wearing boots at all cost. She also did wierd things, like the time she took a dump right on top of a hand drill I left out when doing a home renovation. When she was upset she would chew up a piece of my wife’s clothing-we called that comfort food.
    At age six she is a wonderful, affectionate dog. She listens and is eager to please, but she is not likely to go near a male human she doesn’t know.

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Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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