Friday, April 17, 2015

Behavior Analysis and Behavioral Neuroscience

Behavior analysis—the science of adaptive behavior—focuses on behavior as a subject matter in its own right, not as an index of cognitive events, and is, thus, not dualistic. Behavior analysis incorporates several laws of learning discovered by researchers using single-subject experimental designs. I argue that behavior analysis can provide neuroscientists with an experimental and a theoretical framework within which to investigate the neural bases of behaviors, including those that are usually described in cognitive terms ... It is behavior, not cognitive events, which is important for organisms—human and nonhuman—both evolutionarily and in their own lifetimes. Behavior interacts with and adapts to the (i.e., is selected by the) environment; and the nervous system has evolved to support that interaction. Behavior analysis, as a science of behavior in its own right, and not as an indicator of inferred cognitive structures or processes, is best positioned to parsimoniously explain that interaction. Neuroscientists require a cogent theory of behavior to support their search for the neurophysiological correlates of behavior. Thus, behavior analysis can offer both an experimental model based on single-subject research and an elegant theory of behavior that can provide neurophysiologists a non-dualistic road map for understanding the neurophysical correlates of adaptive behavior. more

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Unreliable Research: Trouble at the Lab

“I see a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace ... Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed ... The idea that the same experiments always get the same results, no matter who performs them, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to objective truth. If a systematic campaign of replication does not lead to the same results, then either the original research is flawed (as the replicators claim) or the replications are (as many of the original researchers on priming contend). Either way, something is awry. more

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Older People Can Learn to Spend Less Time Sitting Down

Retirement may be more golden if less of it is spent in a resting position. Yet older adults spend an average of 8.5 waking hours a day sitting or lying down, according to TABS study leader Dori Rosenberg, PhD, MPH, an assistant scientific investigator at Group Health Research Institute ... "We're not sure whether older people can improve their health by reducing the time they spend sitting," Dr. Rosenberg said. "To prove that, we need randomized trials--and none have been done yet in older adults." As a first step toward such a trial, she conducted the TABS study, which showed that it was feasible to coach adults aged 60 and older to spend less time sitting: an average of 27 minutes less per day ... In the TABS study, health coaches talked by phone with each participant five times during eight weeks. The coaches used motivational interviewing to engage participants in setting personalized goals to sit less by standing and moving more--and to take more breaks from sitting throughout the day. Participants tracked how much they thought they were sitting. And at baseline, midway through the study, and at its end, participants used two devices for a week to measure how much they were sitting. They also received charts showing feedback from these measurements. Participants found the feedback charts most helpful, followed by the coaching phone calls. "The feedback was like a reward for standing up and moving," Mr. Alexander said. more

Monday, April 13, 2015

Science and Medicine Have '"Publication Pollution" Problem

The scientific community is facing a ‘pollution problem’ in academic publishing, one that poses a serious threat to the “trustworthiness, utility, and value of science and medicine,” according to one of the country’s leading medical ethicists. Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Ethics in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, shares these and other observations in a commentary publishing April 3 in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. "The pollution of science and medicine by plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing is corroding the reliability of research," writes Dr. Caplan. "Yet neither the leadership nor those who rely on the truth of science and medicine are sounding the alarm loudly or moving to fix the problem with appropriate energy." more

Thursday, April 09, 2015

My Bedtime Friend: A Complete Bedtime Solution for Children

My Bedtime Friend promises to be a safe and fun bedtime solution for children that teaches children their bedtime schedule and keeps them on schedule year round using positive reinforcement ... The first part of My Bedtime Friend is a super soft, cuddly and durable plush toy that indicates to children that it's either bedtime or wake-up time ... The second part of this project is the Bedtime Game. It's the key to My Bedtime Friend's success because it gives children the reason why to stay in their bed. It's a reward chart in the form of a board game. It uses a fixed interval reward system that reinforces the desired bedtime schedule and conditions it to become a learned behavior. Suzanne Lane Hittel used her BA in Psychology and background in behavior to develop a reward system based on B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning. more

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Scientists Create Artificial Link Between Unrelated "Memories"

The ability to learn associations between events is critical for survival, but it has not been clear how different pieces of information stored in memory may be linked together by populations of neurons. In a study published April 2nd in Cell Reports, synchronous activation of distinct neuronal ensembles caused mice to artificially associate the memory of a foot shock with the unrelated memory of exploring a safe environment, triggering an increase in fear-related behavior when the mice were re-exposed to the non-threatening environment. The findings suggest that co-activated cell ensembles become wired together to link two distinct memories that were previously stored independently in the brain. more

Monday, April 06, 2015

Defending Darwin

I’m often asked what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?” ... We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion. more

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Countdown to March Ratness at the Science Museum of Virginia

The Rat Basketball Association is preparing for the March Ratness tip off on Friday, April 3 at 11am at the Science Museum of Virginia. New this year, the RBA tournament will test new-school skills against the traditional tactics of the veteran players. The whiskered players will represent the final four teams of their college compatriots as they go head to head, pitting lay ups against the full body dunk. Which technique will come out on top? Will the rats’ tournament accurately predict the men’s NCAA champion? Find out! “The rats have been training all year long for March Ratness,” says Noah Haden, Educator and Rat Trainer, Science Museum of Virginia. “We use classical and operant conditioning techniques to enable our rodent friends the ability to enjoy the game of basketball – and we enjoy watching them, too!” more

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Pavlov, Comfort Food and Family

You’ve had a bad day. Your boss was a jerk and you were yelled at by an irate customer. Back at home, you feel lonely and down in the dumps. You’re hungry, or maybe not so much, but all you can think about is one thing—(insert your favorite comfort food here) ... According to University of Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel, comfort foods “are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children,” and our attraction to these dishes is based on whether we had a good relationship with the person who first prepared them ... Gabriel says this behavior is “straight-up classical conditioning,” the type of unconscious learning discovered by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who found that he could condition dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell after repeated pairings with food. Similarly, we turn to certain foods in times of stress or insecurity because those dishes unconsciously remind us of the positive relationship we had to the person who introduced them to us, according to the study. more

Friday, March 27, 2015

P-Value Ban: Small Step for a Journal, Giant Leap for Science

Last month a scientific journal — Basic and Applied Social Psychology — announced that it won’t publish papers that mention the unmentionable P value. No longer will the journal permit published papers to report the P value’s use in the process of “null hypothesis testing,” which psychologists and scientists in many other fields routinely rely on. Anyone embarking on a research career soon gets infected with this method. When you want to test to see whether a food additive causes cancer, or a medicine cures a disease, you assume that it doesn’t — the null hypothesis — and then do an experiment comparing the drug or medicine with a placebo, or another drug, or whatever. If more people survive with the medicine than with the placebo, maybe the medicine works. Or maybe that result was a fluke — the luck of the draw. P values supposedly tell you whether the difference you saw was luck or reality. Except that they don’t. P value calculations tell you only the probability of seeing a result at least as big as what you saw if there is no real effect. more

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Behavioral Momentum: Modeling Chimp Behavior with Newton's Second Law of Motion

To simulate chimp behavior, scientists created a computer model based on equations normally used to describe the movement of atoms and molecules in a confined space. An interdisciplinary research team has turned to the physical laws that govern matter to explore one facet of the question of climate change: how the animals will cluster and travel through their territory as the terrain they share with other members of their species shrinks ... The key equation the simulation employed was Newton's Second Law of Motion, which states that Acceleration = Force/Mass. Chimps were the masses in the equation, while the forces consisted of attraction to food and repulsion from other chimps. By assigning values to each force and determining the distance at which the forces would begin to affect the chimps, the team was able to simulate the direction and speed at which animals would move in relationship to food and to each other. more

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Gaming Can Motivate You

Gamification works because our responses to games are deeply hard-wired into our psychology. Game design techniques can activate our innate desires to recognize patterns, solve puzzles, master challenges, collaborate with others, and be in the drivers’ seat when experiencing the world around us. They can also create a safe space for experimentation and learning. After all, why not try something new when you know that even if you fail, you’ll get another life? The surface dimension of gamification is motivation through rewards: Earn some points, top the leaderboard, get a badge, win a prize and repeat. Behaviorists such as the legendary B F Skinner called this operant conditioning, and it does work … to a point. If there’s really no point to the points, users lose interest. That’s apparently what happened to marketing-driven Samsung Nation, one of the most prominent early gamification examples. Today it’s nowhere to be found on the Samsung website. Shallow gamification can even be harmful, if it’s used to manipulate people toward results that aren’t truly in their interest, or if it suggests that rewards are the only reason to do otherwise intrinsically engaging activities. The systems that avoid these pitfalls take games seriously. In a good game, the points and the leaderboards aren’t what really matter; the true reward is the journey. Gamification systems that emphasize progression, provide well designed informational feedback, and look for ways to surprise and delight their players can remain engaging for the long haul. more

Thursday, March 19, 2015

This App Pays You in Bitcoin Based on the Intensity of Your Workout

If the 21st-century tabloid celebrity has taught us anything, it’s that having a hot body can pay off. Now, a tech studio has interpreted that modern-day lesson quite literally, in the form of an app that rewards you with Bitcoin, based on how hard you work on the treadmill. The technology, cleverly named Fitcoin, is the creation of Chaotic Moon Studios, an Austin-based design company that’s known for pulling stunts during the city’s annual South by Southwest festival ... When you sync your band to the Fitcoin app and start your workout, it’ll automatically begin recording the length of your activity and the level of your heart rate. The algorithm within the app then triangulates those stats to determine how much energy you’re expending, and ultimately, how much that’s worth in Bitcoin. more

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Behavioral Economics: Chimpanzees Will Travel Farther for Preferred Foods

Just as humans will travel to their favorite restaurant, chimpanzees will travel a farther distance for preferred food sources in non-wild habitats, according to a new study from scientists at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo that publishes on March 17 in the journal PeerJ ... In order to receive a food reward, the chimpanzees had to collect tokens, or small lengths of PVC pipe, from a single location. The chimpanzees could then exchange the tokens with researchers at one of two locations - a close location with a carrot reward or a far location(s) with a grape reward. By the third phase (30 sessions per phase), as a group, the chimpanzees preferred to travel further in order to get the better food item (grapes). more

Monday, March 16, 2015

Scientists Crack Piece of Neural Code for Learning, Memory

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction: researchers slice a brain into thin little sections and, just by measuring the properties of specific neurons, they can determine what an organism learned before it died. In fact, this sort of mind reading has become a reality. In work published in Nature, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) describe how postmortem brain slices can be "read" to determine how a rat was trained to behave in response to specific sounds. The work provides one of the first examples of how specific changes in the activity of individual neurons encode particular acts of learning and memory in the brain. more

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Older Adults See Better Following Behavioral Training

Significant improvements in vision in older adults are likely to result after a week of behavioral intervention, restoring age-related decline in contrast sensitivity, new research has found ... Participants were trained over a period of seven days using a forced-choice orientation-discrimination task with stimuli that modified its contrast with multiple levels of additive noise. The improvements in contrast sensitivity among older adults were so significant that their performance was not statistically different from that of younger adults before training, said Andersen. Equally impressive improvements occurred in visual acuity as well in both groups. more

Monday, March 09, 2015

Do Animals Have Consciousness?

There’s a rat in a cage with two sides: one bright and one dark. One of the rat’s survival mechanisms is to favor the dark side and avoid the bright side at all costs. But when the rat goes into the dark side of the cage, it gets shocked. After a few shocks coincide with its favorite habitat situation, it remains on the bright side despite its lifelong instincts. Is the rat now afraid of the dark, or is he simply trained to avoid it? If the rat were a human, he’d probably tell us he’s afraid of the shocks in the darkness, which shows the ability to feel emotions ... The animal consciousness debate has higher stakes than a simple desire to know whether Fido or Fluffy has feelings. It affects how scientists think about and conduct their research on non-human animals, and whether researchers should or should not make assumptions about their subjects’ consciousness while doing their experiments. One side believes scientists must separate the mechanisms that detect and respond to threats from those that create conscious feelings of fear, while the other believes these mechanisms are one and the same. more

Friday, March 06, 2015

APA to Publish "Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice"

The American Psychological Association has announced that it will publish the online journal Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice® beginning this month. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice is a multidisciplinary journal committed to increasing the communication between behavior analysis and psychology, as well as providing up-to-date reports on current developments within the field. The journal will publish original research, applied research, results of clinical work, theoretical and conceptual articles, reviews of the discipline, descriptions of programs and curricular developments, and research in organization and the community. Its areas of interest include clinical behavior analysis, behavior therapy, behavioral consultation, organizational behavior management and human performance technology. more

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

How to Be a Better Spouse

Before you get married, everyone tells you that marriage takes work. I never really believed it until my husband and I landed in therapy after four years, two kids and one seismically stressful cross-country move. Turns out you really can't just flip the switch to autopilot and trust love to take care of itself; you have to devote actual time and effort to understanding and appreciating your spouse. Anyone who is married knows that's not always a simple feat. Here's what relationship research (and a touch of game theory) tells us about how to become a better spouse. more

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Diet Research Built on a House of Cards

The next time a headline about diet and disease catches your eye, check the fine print of the study. If it is based on a food questionnaire — and there's a good chance it will be — then the conclusions should be handled with caution.That's because people don't tell the truth, not even to scientists. Scientists know this. Research has proven it. It's been an awkward problem in nutrition science for more than 40 years. And that's long enough, according to an international group of nutrition researchers. They've launched a campaign to end the use of one of the most common research tools in nutrition science. "All of these studies, if they are based on self-report estimates of energy intake, really don't contain scientifically meaningful information," said David Allison, a prominent obesity researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and lead author on a report signed by 45 scientists from around the world. This matters, the expert group warned, because the flawed data could result in public health policies that are not science-based, but built on a "house of cards," Allison said. "We're talking about hundreds if not thousands of papers published every year." more

Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Debunked Autism Treatment Fads Persist

The communication struggles of children with autism spectrum disorder can drive parents and educators to try anything to understand their thoughts, needs and wants. Unfortunately, specialists in psychology and communication disorders do not always communicate the latest science so well. These factors make the autism community especially vulnerable to interventions and "therapies" that have been thoroughly discredited, says Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.  "Hope is a great thing, I'm a strong believer in it," Lilienfeld says. "But the false hope buoyed by discredited therapies can be cruel, and it may prevent people from trying an intervention that actually could deliver benefits." Lilienfeld is lead author of a commentary, "The persistence of fad interventions in the face of negative scientific evidence: Facilitated communication for autism as a case example," recently published by the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention. Co-authors of the commentary are Julia Marshall (also from Emory) and psychologists James Todd (from Eastern Michigan University), and Howard Shane (director of the Autism Language Program at Boston Children's Hospital). more

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Google Builds An AI That Can Learn And Master Video Games via Operant Conditioning

Google has built an artificial intelligence system that can learn – and become amazing at – video games all on its own, given no commands but a simple instruction to play titles. The project, detailed by Bloomberg, is the result of research from the London-based DeepMind AI startup Google acquired in a deal last year, and involves 49 games from the Atari 2600 that likely provided the first video game experience for many of those reading this. While this is an amazing announcement for so many reasons, the most impressive part might be that the AI not only matched wits with human players in most cases, but actually went above and beyond the best scores of expert meat-based players in 29 of the 49 games it learned ... Next up for the arcade AI is mastering the Doom-era 3D virtual worlds, which should help the AI edge closer to mastering similar tasks in the real world, like driving a car. And there’s one more detail here that may keep you up at night: Google trained the AI to get better at the Atari games it mastered using a virtual take on operant conditioning – ‘rewarding’ the computer for successful behavior the way you might a dog. more

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Meet Rudy, The Dog Who Is Being Raised With Science

Rudy the staghound gets to enjoy a lot of the things that many pets do: trips to the beach, playtime at the dog park, napping on the couch. But Rudy's adventures and home life are examined a lot more closely than those of an ordinary pet, because he's being raised with science... [We] checked his preference for positive reinforcement. Research has shown that dogs tend to prefer food, then petting, then verbal praise and human company (see: Behavioural Processes and the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior). [It also shows] that dogs can learn good or bad behaviors from observing each other (see: Applied Animal Behaviour Science and Developmental Psychobiology), so there is great value in having an older 'model' dog to demonstrate good behaviors to a new or young dog. Rudy loves play with a tug toy and food as first choice reinforcers, and we're fortunate to have a very experienced friend with an exemplary Doberman dog named Kade with whom we catch up with regularly. Kade acts in part almost like a guiding chaperone for Rudy on lovely off leash walk adventures, helping us set Rudy up for successful situations (like returning when called) that we can reinforce positively. more

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dogs Can Tell Happy or Angry Human Faces

If you ever get the impression that your dog can "tell" whether you look content or annoyed, you may be onto something. Dogs may indeed be able to discriminate between happy and angry human faces, according to a new study. Researchers trained a group of 11 dogs to distinguish between images of the same person making either a happy or an angry face. During the training stage, each dog was shown only the upper half or the lower half of the person's face. The investigators then tested the pups' ability to discriminate between human facial expressions by showing them different images from the ones used in training. The dogs were shown either the other half of the face used in the training stage, the other halves of people's faces not used in training, a face that was the same half as the training face but from a different person, or the left half of the face used in the training stage. more


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Psychiatry Has Earned Its Stigma

Has there ever been a medical specialty as beleaguered as psychiatry? Since the profession’s founding in 1844, the doctors of the soul have had to contend with suspicions that they do not know what mental illness is, what type their patients might have, or what they should do about it—in other words, that they are doctors who do not practice real medicine... It’s not just diagnostic uncertainty or therapeutic disasters that cast suspicion on the profession. It’s also the bred-in-the-bone American conviction that no one should tell us who we are. For that is what psychiatrists (and the rest of us in the mental-health professions) do, no matter whether we want to or not. To say you know what mental health and illness are is to say you know how life should go, and what we should do when it goes otherwise. You’d better know what to do when you’ve made a grievous error in those weighty matters, or at the very least, how to ask for forgiveness. And you’d better hope that, apologies offered, you can give the public a reason to believe that at long last you know what you are doing. his is the unenviable task that Jeffrey Lieberman, past president of the APA, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University’s medical school, chief of psychiatry at its hospital, and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, has taken on in his book Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry. “Psychiatry has earned its stigma,” he writes at the outset, and its practitioners must “own up to our long history of mistakes.” Otherwise it will remain “the black sheep of the medical family, scorned by physicians and patients alike.” more