Posts tagged ‘cognitive science’

Outcrossing and essentialism

Paul Bloom believes that we find pleasure in the essence of things. He proposes that human beings draw meaning from the origins of things, that we are essentialists who assign value to the things around us as much from their provenance as by how they look, sound, taste, smell or function.

Bloom’s ideas on art, essentialism and our sense of pleasure may explain the obsession many fanciers have with the idea of eugenically pure blooded dogs. The idea that the smallest fraction of racially impure blood in a dog’s pedigree is far worse than breeding an entire race genetically damaged (but pure blooded!) dogs has always struck me as wildly irrational.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam via Wikimedia Commons

But after listening to Bloom’s ideas on essentialism I realized that most dog fanciers see the original development of a breed as a unique and specific creative act — like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In their eyes any genetic addition to the original bloodline is tantamount to forgery. If Bloom is right, I may have different feelings about outcrossing because I see the creation of dog breeds simply as the result of a specific tendency and style in breeding. As an art movement rather than a specific work of art. This is an important difference because if we understand a breed as an art movement instead of a specific work of art, outcrossing is an acceptable way to refine individual art forms within the greater movement.

The essentialist hypothesis may also help explain why people are so intensely opinionated about breeding dogs because, according to Bloom, when we experience a thing in what we feel to be its essence, we find a deep sense of pleasure in it. And – when we believe that we have been fooled into experiencing a thing as being genuine when it is not, we feel a deep sense of revulsion. So while I see an LUA Dalmatian as a logical bit of experimentation within an art movement, those who see dog breeds as art forms are likely to view it as an abomination.

August 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm 13 comments

Is there a gene for stupid?

Maybe. Maybe not.

An article in the February 15 edition of Scientific American by Ferris Jabr reported that pharmacologist John Hepler and associates recently discovered a gene in the brains of mice that codes for a signaling protein that “significantly boosted brainpower with seemingly no negative consequences.” Jabr writes:

People have this gene, too, and it is active in the same brain area. In other words, we may have a gene in our heads that is actively making us dumber.

Hepler et al were studying the CA2 section of the hippocampus when they discovered that neurons in that area appeared to be blocked from participating in learning and memory processes when they were saturated with signaling protein RGS14.

When they bred mice who lacked the gene for RGS14 the CA2 neurons were no longer blocked and the mice exhibited some interesting differences in learning and behavior. Scientific American reports that:

The genetic tweak affected more than physiology—it changed how the mice performed on memory tests, too. The experimenters presented two identical objects to knock­out mice, which lacked the RGS14 gene, and to normal mice. Four hours and again 24 hours later, the researchers switched one of the objects with a new object. The knockout mice spent far more time exploring the new object than the normal mice did, indicating that the altered rodents had a better memory for distinguishing familiar and strange objects. Knockout mice also learned to navigate a water maze and locate a submerged platform faster than normal mice did. The scientists observed no detriments from removing the RGS14 gene.

“Why would we have a gene that makes us dumber?” asks Serena Dudek, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author of the study, which was published in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. “We don’t know. But if the gene is conserved by natural selection, there must be some reason. Intuitively, it seems there should be a downside to having this gene knocked out, but we haven’t found it so far. It may be that these mice are hallucinating, and you just can’t tell.”

And this is where I get frustrated that I don’t have unlimited access to journal articles (or an unlimited budget to buy it with) because based on what they’re saying here it sounds to me that while the gene may have something to do with spatial learning, it might also have evolved as a safety mechanism controlling neophobia – not stupidity.

I suppose that one might be able to test this by looking at the action of CA2 in young animals during different stages of development when neophobia typically ebbs and wanes, but since mice reach maturity within weeks of being born, I’m not sure they’d be viable candidates for this.

Either way, I’m sad to say that I don’t think they’ve discovered a genetic cure for stupidity.

Altered rodents

February 22, 2011 at 12:10 am 5 comments

Play and pornography

The Puppy Lingerie Bowl - Play and porn mixed up in one sick, but very amusing little package

Like pornography – while I can’t really define exactly what play is, I’m pretty sure I’ll recognize it when I see it.

An article over at The Scientist where Jef Akst writes about play in “lower” animals caught my eye a while back. Akst discusses controversy over what play is and why it evolved.

There’s no broad agreement on how to define play. While most of us will agree that sprightly spaniels and rollicking retrievers are enjoying a kind of play that very much resembles the kind of recreations we humans enjoy, it can a bit more difficult to see that reflection ourselves in the actions of ‘lower’ creatures like reptiles.

Akst writes that:

During a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, biopsychologist Gordon Burghardt decided to peek in on a Nile soft-shelled turtle its keepers affectionately called “Pigface.” Pigface had been a zoo resident for more than 50 years, and Burghardt had seen him before, but this time, he noticed something a bit curious—Pigface was playing basketball.

“It was by itself,” recalls Burghardt, currently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and “it had started to knock around” a basketball provided by its keepers. The year was 1994, and play had only rarely and anecdotally been reported in animals other than mammals, but he thought that might be what Pigface was doing. The 1-meter-long turtle exuberantly pushed the ball around its aquatic enclosure, swimming through the water with ease as it batted the ball in front of it with its nose. “If you saw a dog or an otter going around batting a ball, bouncing around and chasing it, and going back and forth and doing it over and over again, we’d have no problem calling it play,” he says. “And that’s what the turtle was doing.”

Is a turtle capable of play? Is a lady bug? Is an amoeba?

What kind of mental equipment does an animal need to engage in play and how can we recognize play in animals whose lives and thoughts, whose umwelts, are universes away from ours?

Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of the biggest problems in the study of play is that there isn’t a widely accepted set of formal rules on how to define it. Not deterred by the controversial nature of the topic, Burghardt decided to create a set of criteria to recognize play behavior in non-human species.

Burghardt’s rules for play are:

  1. Play is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed.
  2. Play is spontaneous, voluntary, and/or pleasurable, and is likely done for its own sake.
  3. Play is incomplete, exaggerated, or precocious.
  4. Play is repeated but not in exactly the same way every time, as are more serious behaviors.
  5. Play is initiated when animals are well fed, healthy, and free from acute or chronic stressors.

I think it’s interesting note that play, as Burghardt defines it, seems to be exactly the kind of behavior that an emotionally-driven, goal-directed organism would engage in when it had a bit of free time to enjoy. And as I wrote in an earlier post, recent work on the emotional regulation of behavior may provide insight on how the immediate emotional reward of ‘positive’ emotions like joy, success and connection could create an innate ‘play drive’ even in very primitive animals.

In her 2009 article, What Do People Want to Feel and Why? Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Maya Tamir wrote:

The approach that views emotion regulation as instrumental proposes that what people want to feel depends on both pleasure and utility. When immediate benefits (i.e., immediate pleasure) outweigh long-term benefits (i.e., delayed pleasure derived from successful goal pursuit), people should prefer pleasant emotions. When long-term benefits outweigh immediate ones, people should prefer useful emotions.

If this is true, when we’re in pursuit of a short-term goal we should have an innate drive to do the thing that makes us feel good in the moment. And if you’re a well-fed social animal who feels safe and secure – play would be a fun, and potentially highly adaptive way, to spend that time. Play isn’t just fun, it encourages exploratory behavior. It can provide social advantages. It increases confidence and physical prowess.

And if play evolved largely or, for that matter even partly, as an adaptive way to spend free time, that might explain why we don’t see it as often in tortoises (or lady bugs) as often as we do in terriers. According to Burghardt:

These criteria may explain why play appears to be so much more common in mammalian species, than in reptiles, fish, or invertebrates, Mather says. There are few situations where cold-blooded animals are safe, comfortable, and well fed, as they must constantly deal with regulating their body temperature, avoiding predators, and finding food. Conversely, mammals are warm-blooded and often have extensive periods of parental care, which provide a safe and comfortable childhood. Cold-blooded animals in captivity, on the other hand, may find themselves in much more relaxing settings.

This may also explain why dogs who’ve been rescued from severe neglect or abuse often don’t seem to understand the idea of play. Because these poor beasts have rarely, if ever, been in situations where they were safe, comfortable and well fed — they’ve never had an opportunity to learn how to play.

Another parallel between play and pornography is that both activities can sometimes incorporate a dark or disturbing side. In “Taking Play Seriously” an article published in the New York Times back in February of 2008 Robin Marantz Henig writes:

Sutton-Smith’s 1997 classic, ”The Ambiguity of Play,” reflects in its title his belief that play’s ultimate purpose can be found in its paradoxes. During his years at Columbia’s Teachers College and the University of Pennsylvania, Sutton-Smith, a psychologist and folklorist, took careful note of how play could be destabilizing, destructive or disturbing. He collected renditions of the stories children told in their imaginative or dramatic play, stories of ”being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.” Are these really the thoughts percolating inside our children? And is expressing these thoughts through play somehow good for them? Sutton-Smith called this underbelly of imaginative play part of the ”phantasmagoria,” where children’s thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations.

Why would such an enriching activity as play also be a source of so much anarchy and fear? Sutton- Smith found one possible answer by reading Stephen Jay Gould, the author and evolutionary biologist. The most highly adaptive organisms, Gould wrote, are those that embody both the positive and the negative, organisms that ”possess an opposite set of attributes usually devalued in our culture: sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability and, above all, massive redundancy.” Finely tuned specific adaptations can lead to blind alleys and extinction, he wrote; ”the key is flexibility.”

So part of the function of play appears to be to introduce variety and balance to our lives. Given that idea, the fact that play embodies a dark side doesn’t surprise me. There’s no light without dark. Contrast is interesting and it’s informative. You can’t really know what something is until you know what it is not.

Play offers animals a safe way to explore a wide range of the good/bad, gentle/violent, boring/beautiful things in their world. It’s a form of mental feedback that encourages flexible behavior.

And now coming back to the idea of the subjective, value-laden definitions we assign to play and porn – I have to say that now I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what play is…

Akst, Jef (2010). Recess The Scientist, 24 (10), 44-44

Tamir, M. (2009). What Do People Want to Feel and Why?: Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18 (2), 101-105 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01617.x

February 9, 2011 at 10:22 pm 7 comments

Dog training as gaming

Several different recent online alerts pointed me to this video from game theorist Tom Chatfield. Take a few minutes to watch his presentation and then let’s talk about how dog training is like gaming.

Modern computer games offer a stunningly wide range of carefully designed rewards. They also provide us with some really fascinating, and incredibly strong, tools to measure exactly what kinds of things people find rewarding.

Games keep us engaged largely through masterfully designed schedules of variable reinforcement. And game designers don’t just vary the timing of rewards, the value of the rewards varies greatly and smart game designers also offer different kinds of rewards including abstract things like karma and experience.

To keep our attention, a game can’t just offer rewards, it also has to offer some aspect of risk. We only stay fully engaged in a game when there is a real risk that losses (or aversives) will occur along with rewards.

Based on his work, Chatfield has come up with seven different ways that well-designed games reward our brains. His list bears a striking resemblance to the ways that I think a well-designed training program rewards our dogs’ brains.

  1. Complex games give us a way to measure our progress.  When we play a game we want to feel like we’re getting somewhere. That we’re accomplishing something. And a good game gives us a way (or better yet, several ways) to measure that. This innate need to feel that one is making progress is one of the reasons why it’s important to break a training exercise down into discrete steps and give your dog meaningful input at each one of those steps rather than just at the end of a task.
  2. A game provides players with an array of different long- and short-term goals. Making progress on smaller goals helps maintain our motivation as we work to achieving the big ones. Small successes help prevent burn-out and frustration. This is something that people commonly lose track of when they work with dogs. Humans appear to be unique in our obsession with forward thinking and planning ahead. In advanced training as well as in day-to-day life, there are times when we’re focused on a complex and/or distant end goal that our dogs simply aren’t capable of seeing. This can be a source of much interspecies miscommunication – and frustration. And it’s another reason why it’s important to break training work up into a series of discrete steps that make sense to your dog.
  3. A well-designed game rewards effort along with skill. This is another place where we commonly create confusion in our dogs. There’s a big difference between making a sincere effort that puts you into the wrong place and deliberate defiance or misbehavior. As I commonly remind my clients, being wrong is not the same as being bad – and the two absolutely should not be dealt with in the same kinds of ways.
  4. A game needs to provide players with timely, frequent and clear feedback. Do I need to clarify how this ties into dog training? I hope not. (Although this idea does tie in nicely with my recent post on goals, learning and the emotional regulation of behavior).
  5. It is vitally important that a game includes some element of surprise to bring excitement into play. Many trainers focus on the importance of surprise in using jackpot rewards to maintain a dog’s interest. While jackpots can be valuable, we also need to incorporate suprise in a less obvious way- through the use of contrast.  Contrast allows us to give the dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out. Contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference in a given situation.  It can also help show a dog which features he needs to focus on and which he can safely ignore.  This is vitally important in most complex problem solving exercises.
  6. A game provides players with windows of enhanced attention. This state of enhanced attention or being completely involved in an activity simply for its own sake is sometimes referred to as flow. When you’re in the flow state you engage all of your physical and emotional resources to act and learn. Flow is important in play because it’s a very strongly intrinsically rewarding state of mind. I believe that humans and other animals have a natural play drive because the flow in play is intrinsically rewarding. A good training exercise should provide you and your dog with these ‘windows of enhanced attention’ – and leave you both wanting more.
  7. Games are interactive. Team-mates and opponents play a vital part in games. Dogs and humans are social creatures and competition and collaboration are often more rewarding to us than cash or treats. I see this in Audie who works mostly just for the reward of interacting with me. I rarely use treats or toys when I work with him because praise, petting and the opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with me are what the boy lives for. Though he also seems to love the competitive rush he gets from chasing (and sometimes catching) squirrels and other prey.

I thought it was interesting that while Chatfield brought up the importance of risk and loss in creating a good game he left that idea off the list. We seem to be developing such a strong (and in many cases, irrational) distaste for fear, stress and other kinds of aversives in today’s world that many people seem not to be capable of seeing the important and necessary part they play in our lives. Without yin there is no yang. If we could erase all aversives from life – joy would disappear too.

A really great game is addictive (though not always in a good way). Really great dog training should be addictive too, so if you and your dog haven’t become addicted to the work you’re doing, take a few tips from game theorists and get lost in the flow.

November 4, 2010 at 5:31 pm 10 comments

Can it feel good to feel bad?

We assume that, given the choice, a sane and healthy person will always prefer feeling good over feeling bad – but recent studies indicate that sometimes we may actually  seek to feel unpleasant emotions.

Do normal, healthy people ever really want to feel angry, frightened or sad?

Before you answer that question, keep in mind that you can want something either consciously or unconsciously. In other words, you may seek to feel a specific emotion whether you realize it or not.

Historically, most research on emotion has focused on how people (and other animals) modify their feelings, not why they do it. Maya Tamir bucked this trend in a 2009 study, What Do People Want to Feel and Why? Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation  where she wrote:

People want to maximize immediate pleasure. Therefore, they want to feel pleasant emotions and avoid unpleasant ones. The emphasis on short-term pleasure has dominated research on emotion regulation. However, people also want to maximize utility. Therefore, they may also want to feel emotions that are useful (not merely pleasurable) and avoid harmful ones. The approach that views emotion regulation as instrumental proposes that what people want to feel depends on both pleasure and utility. When immediate benefits (i.e., immediate pleasure) outweigh long-term benefits (i.e., delayed pleasure derived from successful goal pursuit), people should prefer pleasant emotions. When long-term benefits outweigh immediate ones, people should prefer useful emotions.

If this is true, when we’re in pursuit of a short-term goal we should just unconsciously seek to do the thing that makes us feel good in the moment. But when we’re chasing a goal that represents delayed reward we should seek the emotional state that is best suited to achieving that goal, even if it is an unpleasant emotion.

Tamir decided that situations where it would be most adaptive for people to seek to feel unpleasant emotions would provide the strongest test of her theory, because in these cases the immediate reward offered by pleasure would diametrically oppose the negative emotion favored by utility. She decided to test whether it was adaptive to feel angry when pursuing confrontational goals. Participants were asked to engage in anger-inducing activities before they played a confrontational game. Tamir found that this group who did this performed measurably better at the game than a control group who did not. She also observed that engaging in the same anger-inducing activities did not enhance participants’ performance in a separate nonconfrontational game.

After she found that anger could help a person achieve a confrontational goal she conducted a second test to find out whether people would seek to feel angry when they were told that they were preparing to engage in confrontational activities. Even though most participants stated that they expected anger-inducing activities to be unpleasant, they still actively preferred to engage in them when they were told that they were going to participate  in the confrontational game. Participants did not seek to engage in the same anger-inducing activities when they were told that they’d participate in a nonconfrontational game.

Feelings of fear should enhance performance in escape and avoidance activities, so another group of participants were told they’d be playing a computer game where their goal would be to avoid various threats. These subjects preferred to engage in fear-inducing activities before playing, and according to Tamir, “the more participants expected an activity to make them afraid, the more they wanted to engage in it before playing the threatening game.”

Though others have stated that negative emotions are the only ones that drive behavior, Tamir proposed that happiness should make us feel more cooperative. She tested this by telling some participants that they’d be engaging in negotiation activities with collaborative goals. These subjects displayed a marked preference to engage in  happiness-inducing activities before negotiating.

Tamir’s results are fascinating but we don’t (and can’t) always consciously choose how we want to feel because feelings related to expectations operate largely within unconscious mental processes. So how do we know which emotion will be the most useful in helping us achieve a given goal? Tamir thinks that we learn this with experience and she implies that context is important in this type of learning.

No one knows exactly how emotion affects behavior. The most widely accepted view is that emotion directly causes behavior, but some recent studies have proposed that rather than triggering behavior directly, conscious and unconscious emotions drive behavior through positive and negative feedback loops.

In an article published in Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2007, Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, C. Nathan DeWall and Liqing Zhang state that:

Conscious emotion commands attention and stimulates analysis, learning, and adaptation, often occurring in the aftermath of behavior and its outcomes. It may occasionally have a direct effect on behavior (for good or ill), but directly driving behavior is not its main function. Automatic affective responses can preserve the lessons and information from previous emotional experiences. The combination of previous emotional outcomes and current affect also contributes to making people start anticipating emotional outcomes — and to choose their actions according to the emotions they expect will ensue.

They go on to state that if positive and negative feedback loops are important in the emotional regulation of behavior, the anticipation of an emotion may be more important than the actual emotion. When we feel the way we expected to feel about an event our past learning is reinforced by the correlation. When we don’t feel the way we expected to, the emotional contrast causes us to update our mental database. If this is true, emotional expectations play a vital part of the learning process.

Baumeister et al.’s ideas on the role of our expectation of emotions in learning ties in well with Tamir’s theory of emotional priming. If we seek an unpleasant emotional state like anger or fear with the expectation that it will help us achieve a delayed goal, we may either be rewarded by a feeling of success when we achieve the goal or punished by the feeling of frustration when we don’t. While most of this expecting, comparing, rewarding and punishing goes on underneath our conscious intellectual radar, it still plays a key role in learning.

If emotional expectancies play a foundational role in how we perceive and understand the world, experiencing unpleasant emotions is a vital – and unavoidable – part of learning. It’s not just good to feel bad, it is absolutely and completely necessary to.

With the best of intentions, people often seek to protect their children, pets and other loved ones from any experience associated with negative emotions. We should, perhaps, reassess our goals in this area. If “negative” emotions are vital in controlling how complex animals (like people and dogs) achieve our goals, these “negative” emotions aren’t just necessary and adaptive – they are also (at least in some cases), the emotions that we prefer to feel in a given situation.

This is new, cutting edge, work so it may or may not hold up under further scrutiny, but it is certainly food for thought.

October 24, 2010 at 4:53 pm 6 comments

Defying the laws of behavioral physics

I’ve blogged here before about Daniel Pink’s ideas on motivation and how they may relate to dog training. Here’s an excellent video from RSAnimation on Pink’s thesis that treats, financial incentives and other extrinsic rewards are demotivating in tasks that require even rudimentary conceptual efforts.

If we believe that dogs are capable of rudimentary cognitive skills, perhaps it’s time for dog trainers and behaviorists to throw the narrow, outmoded obsession with Skinner’s quadrants – and all the hype and confrontation associated with them – into the recycling bin.

July 20, 2010 at 7:16 am 5 comments

The Other Thing

Audie has learned how to match items on command.

The ability to categorize, to sort things out based on the kinds of features they share, is fundamental to  perception, learning, and judgment. The ability to sort things into various mental categories allows animals to store perceptual and conceptual information in an efficient and adaptive way. Without the ability to categorize, every object and every event would be perceived as unique and it would be impossible for animals to generalize and learn. reports on research being done at Harvard on canine cognition:

Scientists are also drawn to dogs because of their unique history growing up in the same environment as people, and they hope to learn whether domestication has led to dogs that think and act more like their masters – or whether we just think they have human traits.

“Here’s this species we live with. Everyone has their views about how smart they are. No doubt we are overinterpreting – and in some cases underinterpreting,” said Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor who has long studied cognition in cottontop tamarin monkeys and who heads the new lab. “To what extent is an animal that’s really been bred to be with humans capable of some of the same psychological mechanisms?”

Can dogs understand such abstract concepts as “same,” for example? Or, can dogs be patient? To answer such canine conundrums, Hauser is recruiting both purebreds and mutts and running them through simple tests. In return, they earn tasty treats.

Based on a few decades of experience I’ll vouch for the fact that dogs (like kids) can most certainly learn to be patient.  I’m also convinced now that dogs – at least some of them – are capable of understanding the concept of sameness.  In fact, for a while now I’ve been working on teaching young Audie to demonstrate that he can do it.

The video below is a brief demonstration of his skills in this area.

*&%$ sound didn’t come though. Oh well.

The only hep I give him is the cue ‘other one’ and praise and petting when he comes back with the correct item. The first item is a roll of purple vetwrap; the second one is a plastic kennel cup; the third is a work glove; the fourth a plastic bottle full of water; and the fifth one – when he starts to get bored and needs a bit of help – is a metal spoon. Bad trainer. I should have used that in the second or third rep because it’s not his favorite thing to pick up. The big correction he gets for making a mistake that last time is me laughing and calling him a goon, then telling him to try again. He gets it right on the second try.

As you can see, Audie is consistently able to correctly identify which item in a small group is the ‘same’ as the one I’m holding.

I couldn’t find detailed information on the studies being done at Harvard but based on the blurb posted at it appears that researchers are taking green dogs and testing them to see if they naturally and intuitively grasp the idea of  sameness as it applies to how abstract symbols and photos can represent real world objects.  If this is really how they’re going about it then I think they need a sharp smack on the bottom with a newspaper.

Given the fact that human beings spend years of time teaching basic concepts like ‘same’ and ‘different’ to our own children, it makes no sense to expect a naïve dog to understand abstract symbolism at the first go.

I used shoes to introduce Audie to the idea of sameness. The OddMan has a thing for shoes. He loves to carry them around the house and has a rather inconvenient habit of leaving them in odd places. Shoes come in pairs so I started by showing him a pair of matching shoes, handing one to him to hold (i.e. fetch), then taking it from him, pointing to the matching shoe and telling him ‘fetch, get the other one’. The main tools I used were a trained retrieve, directional cues and overlaying.

After showing Audie this just a few times he seemed to grasp the idea that when I held up a shoe and said “other one” I wanted him to pick up the matching one and hand it to me.

From there we added distance to the game. Instead of asking him to hand me a shoe right at my feet, I put the matching one a few feet away. Bit by bit I increased distance – then we added difficulty. Starting with them up close, I put two different shoes next to each other and asked him to get ‘the other one.’ I had to coach him a bit at first, but he picked up this idea pretty quickly too. Once he did, we put distance and difficulty together – and I had a dog who would go find me the matching shoe I wanted on command. Gloves and slippers were an easy step from there.

It took a bit longer to teach him that the concept also applied items like tools, water bottles, metal spoons etc., but as you can see in the video, he certainly appears to understand the idea now. Audie still isn’t very good at matching items when he’s distracted, and he seems to get bored with the exercise fairly quickly (typically after 3 to 5 repetitions).

Instead of expecting a young, naïve dog to intuitively grasp the idea of ‘sameness’ I used a step by step process to teach  him what it meant. And I think that I got pretty amazing results.

March 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm 27 comments


Daniel Pink via TED.

Watch the whole thing. Pink’s thesis is that treats, financial incentives and other extrinsic rewards are demotivating in tasks that require even rudimentary conceptual effort.  In the video he says “Too many organizations are making their decisions and policies about talent and people using assumptions that are outdated, unexamined and rooted more in folklore than in science.”

I agree with Pink that a broad paradigm shift about ideas on motivation is needed in our homes, schools and workplaces. The world of dog training has been at least as widely afflicted as the human world, but sadly, I don’t think that popular dog trainers who publicize their methods as fact-based and scientific will be jumping on this particular bandwagon…

February 12, 2010 at 12:16 pm 21 comments

Happy – or Just Hyper?

It annoys me when someone sees a spastically out of control dog and gushes about how “happy” he looks. I’ve always suspected that this kind of hyperactive, mindless behavior didn’t represent happiness and now it looks like science is there to back me up.

A recent article in Slate Magazine on our growing obsession with the internet provides insights on the important difference between happy and hyper — and why it’s important to find a balance between the two.

Way back in the dawn of cognitive science (1954), psychologist James Olds made a fortuitous mistake when he stuck an electrode in the wrong part of a lab rat’s brain. Olds and his team were surprised to discover that after they applied a low voltage current to the electrode, the rat became obsessed with getting more shocks to his brain.

Slate’s Emily Yoffe writes:

Olds eventually discovered that if the probe was put in the brain’s lateral hypothalamus and the rats were allowed to press a lever and stimulate their own electrodes, they would press until they collapsed.

Olds, and everyone else, assumed he’d found the brain’s pleasure center (some scientists still think so). Later experiments done on humans confirmed that people will neglect almost everything—their personal hygiene, their family commitments—in order to keep getting that buzz.

While others were convinced that Olds had inadvertently found the brain’s pleasure center, Estonian affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp wasn’t convinced. Panksepp noticed that when their hypothalmi were stimulated the rats didn’t look like they were experiencing bliss. Instead of ecstatic, he described the rats’ behavior as “excessively excited, even crazed.”

After Panksepp’s work convinced him that the region in question was not the pleasure center, he knew he needed a new name for it. After much debate he settled on the term “seeking”.

Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.” It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It’s why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

Dopamine drives the seeking system. When they’re aroused, the dopamine circuits in our brains put us in the seeking state where we feel eager and aroused. The sense of arousal makes us want more and drives us to find more stimulation to keep pumping dopamine into our brains.

Professor Kent Berridge from the University of Michigan has also done a lot of research on the ‘pleasure center’ and, like Panksepp, has come to the conclusion that Olds didn’t find it.  In fact, Berridge’s work has identified two different feedback systems in the brain: “wanting” and “liking”.  Wanting is another name for Panksepp’s seeking system, and it arises in the same part of the brain activated by stimulant drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. Berridge believes that the liking system, which is stimulated by the same areas as opiate drugs, is the brain’s pleasure center.

Wanting and liking work together to control our mammalian sense of motivation. Wanting inspires us to act and liking creates a sense of fulfillment or consummation that lets us stop seeking. If liking wasn’t around to shut off seeking, we’d seek obsessively until we died. These kinds of responses are highly maladaptive.

But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. “The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore.

When the wanting/seeking and liking circuits fall out of balance, bad things happen. When the seeking circuit is cut off by destroying dopamine receptors, laboratory animals starve themselves to death because they’ve lost all desire to satiate themselves with food. When their seeking circuits are overloaded by flooding their brains with dopamine, animals seek madly for food, but get no pleasure from eating it.

Our brains don’t just seek concrete things like food and sex. Mammals seek novelty because bursts of dopamine are emitted in the wake of unexpected rewards. They also seek information, though some kinds of information appear to affect the system more intensely than others.

The system is also activated by particular types of cues that a reward is coming. In order to have the maximum effect, the cues should be small, discrete, specific—like the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. Panksepp says a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food: This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking system into hyperactivity. Berridge says the “ding” announcing a new e-mail or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news (Twitter, anyone?), making us want more. These information nuggets may be as uniquely potent for humans as a Froot Loop to a rat. When you give a rat a minuscule dose of sugar, it engenders “a panting appetite,” Berridge says—a powerful and not necessarily pleasant state.

And so at last we come back to that hyperactive, treat- or toy-obsessed dog. Over-treating, over-rewarding, over-luring and over-cuing dogs is a disturbingly common mistake in dog training today. As trainers become obsessed with “dog-friendly” training methods and keeping dogs in a constant state of happiness, they seem to have forgotten the importance of balance.

Healthy, intelligent animals need to move back and forth between the pleasure states of seeking and liking.  The yang of seeking must be balanced by the yin of wanting or the mind will spin out of control in dysfunctional feedback loops of dissatisfaction or obsession instead of being fulfilled by the strong, intrinsic rewards of fulfillment.

December 30, 2009 at 6:06 am Leave a comment

Dingoes May Get The Point

But they don’t see what you mean…

In September of this year Animal Cognition published a study on how the dingo’s ability to understand human gestural cues compares to the skills of domestic dogs and wolves. A poster summarizing the study is available at this link.

In a nutshell, Smith and Litchfield state that others have demonstrated that domestic dogs are very good at correctly interpreting a wide range of human gestural cues.  Dogs are far better at these kinds of tasks than apes or wild wolves.  Human-raised wolves perform better than wild wolves, but not nearly as well as dogs.

This led many to wonder if dogs acquired their unique ability to understand humans during the process of domestication.

Dingoes evolved from village dogs, but they’ve lived as a separate, free-ranging species for 3500–5000 years.  Smith and Litchfield believed that the dingo’s unique evolutionary heritage could make them an interesting subject to assess the potential effect of domestication on human-canine communication.  So they tested seven tame, captive dingoes to see how their performance on a series of nine object choice exercises would compare to that of dogs, wild wolves and human-raised wolves.

Generally speaking, the dingoes did better than wolves, but not as well as dogs.  The gaze cue tests provided some of the most interesting results, dogs consistently excel at interpreting human gaze cues.  Dingoes apparently don’t.  

I didn’t have access to the full text of the study, but I think it would be interesting to see how the tabulated results compared to similar work that’s been done with apes; and with domestic versus wild wolves.

Smith and Litchfield’s work appears to support the idea that domestic dogs acquired their unique ability to understand human gestural cues during the process of domestication.  The fact that gaze is the first area where these skills appear to have deteriorated may reflect that this was a skill that developed later — or it may just be that since wild dingoes generally avoid close contact with humans, they no longer needed these skills so they were no longer selected for in the dingo gene pool.  Maintaining the ability to interpret hand, arm and body gestures (which, unlike gaze cues, are visible at a distance) may still provide advantages to dingoes in avoiding danger from humans and to scavenge food from them.

Zip, who is not a dingo, meets and follows my gaze

December 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm 5 comments

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