For Every Action

February 6, 2010 at 10:20 pm 14 comments

There is a not necessarily equal and typically 10% faster reaction. At least neurophysiologically speaking.

The February 3, 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B includes an interesting article. In The quick and the dead: when reaction beats intention; Andrew Welchman, James Stanley, Malte R. Schomers, R. Chris Miall and Heinrich H. Bülthoff (Welchman et al.) write about the different neurophysiological pathways followed by intentional acts and reactions.

The mythology of the American West is shaped by liquor and Hollywood (Brown 1995). Inspired at least by the latter, the Nobel laureate Niels Bohr considered why, during a gunfight, the man who drew first was the one to get shot. He suggested that the intentional act of drawing and shooting is slower to execute than the reactive action in response (Cline 1987), an idea grounded in the everyday trade-off between stimulus-driven behaviour and intentional, planned actions.

Welchman et al. didn’t actually study gunslingers, they studied identical movement sequences in conditions where participants either chose to initiate the movements themselves or reacted to an opponent. Their work demonstrated that reactive movements were, on average, 10% faster than intentional movements.

They propose that this occurs because intentional and reactive sequences follow different processing routes in the cortex. After all, a system capable of producing quicker movements in response to threats in the environment makes perfect evolutionary sense.

This is nifty stuff – but what’s it got to do with dog training?

Well… no matter what the nice sales brochure tells you, a four-week course will not magically turn you into a real dog trainer (especially when that course also covers sales, business operation and franchise rules).

Dog training isn’t a rote task (like being a census taker) that you can pick up in a few days – it’s an art. And like classical guitar or dressage, it takes years to master it.

As Welchman et al. conveniently point out, an inexperienced handler has to rely on those relatively slow intentional movements when he works with a dog. While this may only be 10% slower than the reactive movements an experienced trainer relies on – that 10 % can mean the difference between a bite and a crisis averted.

With experience, arts like dog training or sumo wrestling get mapped into the fast, implicit pathways in the brain and they go from being skills we work very hard to acquire to becoming an integral part of who we are. The work is transformed into an autotelic experience.

There are three stages in this process – learning, practicing and mastering.

In the learning stage we need to explicitly parse out actions in our mind as we perform them and our work is almost entirely intentional. In this phase our skills tend to be slow, unnatural and awkward. We know where we want to be, we just don’t know how to get there.

In the practicing phase our actions come naturally, but we aren’t explicitly aware of what we’re doing. This is the “I know when I have it right but I can’t explain why” phase. Running on fast, implicit pathways our skills are quick and natural – but the parts of our brains that allow us to explain what we’re doing can’t keep up with them yet. As William James put it; “We are aware then of nothing between the conception and the execution … We think the act, and it is done; and that is all that introspection tells us of the matter.”

As we master a skill, we hone our actions and our mental processes. Eventually, we reach a stage where the work and our awareness of it meld.  Our intentional and reactive processes work together to put is in a state of flow. And the real beauty of this stage is that the chase never ends. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes; “You can approach it. You can home in on it. You can get really, really, really close to it. But like Cezanne, you can never touch it. Mastery is impossible to realize fully.”

I feel sorry for dog trainers who graduate from corporate training programs thinking they’ve been given all the tools they need to pursue a successful career. Being a dog trainer is the kind of career that should take over your mind, your heart – your very being. Like being a writer, it’s not a job where you’re likely to make a lot of money or get a lot of recognition. You need to do it because you love it. And you need to be willing to spend a decade or more working just to begin to master it. You should to it because being and working with dogs is something that’s so deeply and strongly and intensely etched into your soul that you cannot imagine doing anything else.

And worst of all, like Cezanne, you need to realize that being as good at it as you really want and need to be is an illusive target that you’ll never truly achieve.

My really crappy photoshop Cezanne imitation

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

Small Wonder Buzzkill

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Pooch Professor  |  February 7, 2010 at 10:41 am

    I love Csikszentmihalyi’s work. “Finding Flow” is my fave of his; I re-read it about every 3 months. Still working through “The Evolving Self.”

    I have always wondered how in the world having four weeks of “mastery” could make you good at anything. Where dog training got the reputation for being “so easy, a caveman could do it” is beyond me. Maybe when the “dog training is nothing but plugging in operant quadrants” folks started coming on the scene…

    Making it all about operant conditioning does boil it down to something that looks easy. But, Dog, how much they miss that way! Though it is only 10 years, I am so thankful for my richer tapestry of experience. I do not envy the newbies with their shiny new BB franchises or diplomas from ABC (complete with 10, yes, 10, whopping HOURS of hands-on work with dogs and spotty mentoring with an area trainer, who, thanks to less-than-stellar sleuthing by ABC employees, is often not the type of trainer the student expected).

    Combine that booty with lots of ideologial hoo-ha about inhumane tools and a righteous disgust at certain TV personalities, and VOILA! You have, well, a very unprepared person showing up at your house who is actually probably afraid of your dog.

    To quote a TV icon, “That’s craptacular!”

  • 2. SmartDogs  |  February 7, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I just ordered “Finding Flow” based on your comment. I was browsing through Csikszentmihalyi’s books last night on Amazon trying to decide which to order, thanks for the recommendation!

  • 3. Basia  |  February 7, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Good timing of this post, as I’ve just been reading the book ‘Why don’t students like school’, by Neil Willingham. If you read about or spend time teaching or learning, some of the ideas will be familiar, but I found it to be a good and interesting book. In a few of the chapters he addresses some of the reasons why practice is important, including the idea that a process that takes considerable working memory when first learned can become automated with sufficient repetition, freeing up finite working memory for more advanced work (he does also address more and less effective ways to build up enough repetitions, without damaging motivation). Also that critical thinking and insight and the ‘higher order’ thinking skills associated with expertise in a field _build upon_ and come from deep and wide previous knowledge — they can not necessarily simply be ‘taught’ as abstract skills to beginning students in a subject, nor can they really be effectively used in the absence of deeply remembered and understood content. Learning can be more or less efficient but there aren’t really any magic substitutes for time, experience, and good-quality practice.

  • 4. Pooch Professor  |  February 7, 2010 at 11:14 am

    I like “Finding Flow” best because it is easier and more compelling to read than the first book, I think. And it’s short, so you can go back to it often.

    Intrinsic motivation hasalways fascinated me, and I wonder why more people simply don’t have it. Is it that they don’t have it, and never will, or is it like a muscle that has atrophied from lack of use?

    I once heard a community leader (wish I could remember who it was) talking to a group of students from typically lower-class areas who generally drop out of school. What this guy said really made sense to me. He said, “Become a producer, instead of a consumer.” And I really started to look at motivation, and success, in a different way.

    So many people are content to merely consume life, passively waiting for that elusive happiness, or success, or whatever. But it’s the PRODUCTION that matters…it’s in the production that happiness lies.

    How do we inspire consumers to become producers?

  • 5. SmartDogs  |  February 7, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Daniel Pink touches on this in later chapters of “Drive:The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” where he talks about the difference between people who have “born with it” or “work for it” mindsets. He thinks that BWI’s are created by over-reliance on extrinsic rewards in homes, schools and workplaces. They think that you either have it or you don’t – so making extra effort isn’t worth – well, the effort. WFI’s understand that effort can be its own reward.

    There’s tons more – the book is very good and touches on a lot of themes I think you’d appreciate.

  • 6. Pooch Professor  |  February 7, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks! Just put it on my library request list!

  • 7. Viatecio  |  February 7, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I’ll have to put the book on my to-read list. Never heard of it, but it sounds like it’s worth a read.

    In an act of utter desperation for a job, I applied at a local big box pet store as an associate/pet trainer. Among other things I was told that made me blow a gasket (and I had to conceal it and look oh-so-polite during the interview, of which I blogged a whole essay’s worth) was that their ‘class’ to become a trainer is about 2 weeks, which is spent with the regional training manager and doing homework and bookwork. After that, I’d be allowed to roam the floor as a know-it-all cookie-pusher promoting happy thoughts and headcollars. (Because, you see, anyone who chooses to use those evil training collars in class must sign a waiver releasing the store from any damages they might cause!)

    I guess I didn’t make a good impression with them when I explained that I used balance in my training. I never heard back from them, and frankly I’m glad for it. The time I spent learning everything I have is worth more to me than the money I would earn pushing something learned in 2 weeks.

  • 8. Rob McMillin  |  February 8, 2010 at 11:50 am


  • 9. SmartDogs  |  February 8, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I was just going to reply: &%$+@ – but…

    If it’s impossible to reach something – does it exist?

  • 10. Rob McMillin  |  February 8, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    If it’s impossible to reach something – does it exist?

    Zero. 1/x takes you to infinity for x=0, but you can integrate the hell out of it for some value arbitrarily close to zero to get the natural logarithm function. (See also, Zeno’s Paradoxes.) Limit functions are chock-full of wonderful seeming incongruities like that.

  • 11. SmartDogs  |  February 8, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    I *heart* integral calculus.

  • 12. Mandozouki  |  February 8, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    This made me think of my reaction a year ago, when a Blue Heron took off from the stream right next to us on a trail ride and my mare, Holly, spooked. I quickly, smoothly, and without emotion, put one hand down in the power position and did a one rein stop with the other, then I got nervous, then I realized what I had done and felt good about it. I had been practicing that reaction recently, visualizing it repeatedly just while doing other things, and when I needed it, it just happened. I’m sure if I had thought about what to do I would have been slower and jerked on Holly.

  • 13. Ed  |  February 9, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    You know what else this has to do with dog training? Reactive dogs with bad habits often do those things because it feels right. Between instinct and a history of success, dogs can build a strong reliance on things they really shouldn’t do. Trying to understand their particular “groove” can help redirect before they head down that path.

  • 14. SmartDogs  |  February 9, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    I agree. I think that learning phases in complex mammals like dogs probably follows similar pathways.

    This is why training is so important. If it’s done correctly it will eventually map behavior into strong, habitual pathways. IMO just waiting for a dog to decide to do what you want him to and then rewarding him for it will rarely, if ever, reach this point.

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