Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What Standardized Testing and Schools Could Learn from Target

The dream of automated learning is even older than computers themselves. In 1924 an educational psychology professor named Sidney Pressey built a mechanical teaching machine that supplied questions, along with the correct answers, when a button was pressed. B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist, also introduced a teaching machine in 1954, a clunky thing that looked like a typewriter. He claimed some of the very same benefits for it that you hear from ed-tech entrepreneurs to this day—allowing every student to move at his own pace, supplying immediate feedback, improving motivation...Today, besides the Knewton-powered products, other adaptive software is sold by Dreambox, Scholastic, and Khan Academy, a nonprofit. Most work more or less the same way. They introduce concepts with text, video or animations, ask students to respond in the form of quick short-answer or multiple-choice questions, give them increasingly broad hints when they get stuck, and choose what concept to bring in next based on the student’s responses. What the “adaptive” part means is that the specific selection of questions and order of content presented to each student will vary according to the students’ responses. You take a quick diagnostic test or start off with a medium-hard question. If you get it right, you proceed to harder questions; flub it and you get easier questions. As a result, each student’s path and pace through the material is slightly different...[These] platform[s] and those like it could reduce the need for high-stakes tests. “Knewton allows for much more gentle, passive data collection via ongoing formative assessment in homework/classwork,” he told me in an online chat. “We can predict your score on a bunch of these high stakes tests anyway, lessening the need for so many of them.” “Formative assessment” refers to the feedback that is part of nearly any teaching and learning scenario, such as when a teacher calls on the class during the lecture, or when a student is studying vocabulary with flash cards and flips the card over to see the right answer. It’s opposed to summative assessment, which “sums up” learning at the end of a period of time, ranging from a unit test to a graduation exam. more

Thursday, January 22, 2015

We Lie About What We Eat, And It's Messing Up Science

How many peanuts did you snack on last week? If you don't remember, you're not alone. We humans are notoriously bad at remembering exactly what and how much we ate. And if there's one pattern to our errors, it's that we underestimate — unintentionally and otherwise. And yet, for decades, researchers who want to amass large quantities of data about how much Americans eat and exercise have had to rely on individuals to self-report this information. These self-reported data on diet and exercise have long been called flawed. But a paper published Tuesday in the International Journal of Obesity goes one step further. The authors, led by David Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, write, "[The data] are so poor as measures of actual [energy intake] and [physical activity energy expenditure] that they no longer have a justifiable place in scientific research." more

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Internet of Me

The so-called “internet of things” has been the talk of the technology world for years now. Consumer electronics firms are exploring ways of connecting all manner of personal and household objects to the internet, thereby extending their functionality...Despite the rush to connect all our household objects to the internet, there is an even more important technical trend which has appeared in the past year or so – the internet of me. Instead of just wanting to hook up our home appliances to the internet, we have started to take our bodies and brains online.In recent times we have seen more and more apps applying the logic of behaviourism. Based on the heavily criticised methods once developed by B F Skinner, these apps alternate rewards and punishment to reinforce positive behaviour. One such example is the GymPact. Users of this app specify how many times a week they intend to go to the gym. In the event of them missing a session, which is easily found out through the GPS, they need to pay $5. This money is then shared equally among those who have followed their individually set goals. A more extreme version of this is Pavlok. To break bad habits, this app sends out electric shocks. Or as the slogan goes: “the habit changing device that shocks you”. If you bite your nails, oversleep, or procrastinate you will be handed out a punishment. The app is marketed as a personal coach on your wrist. These apps do not just shape our behaviour so that we will become more productive people. They also promise to make us healthier and happier. more

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Measurement: Friend or Foe?

It seems that the world is becoming obsessed with measurement. We are measuring steps, heart rate, calories, sleep—you name it and there is a device to measure it. People are going to waste a lot of time and money on measurement because, for many, it won’t change a thing. It seems that everyone believes the old adage “What gets measured gets done.” Of course that is wrong. Just because my Fitbit measures my steps each day does not cause me to walk 10,000 steps. Just because I weigh myself every day does not mean that I have met my weight goal. As a matter of fact, I have lost almost no weight even though I have had a Fitbit scale for over a year. This may sound strange coming from someone who has helped managers and executives focus time and effort on measuring all sorts of variables in business. However, it is true, and there is a very clear reason as to why. I believe a more appropriate adage is, “What gets measured improves the chances of getting done.” more

Friday, January 16, 2015

Trying to Cure Depression, But Inspiring Torture

To understand the nature of learned helplessness, one needs to travel back to Seligman’s early graduate-school days in the laboratory of Richard Solomon at the University of Pennsylvania. When Seligman began his studies, Solomon’s lab was working with dogs on a phenomenon that Ivan Pavlov had first identified as aversive conditioning or avoidance learning. The researchers administered shocks to the animals, accompanied by tones or lights, so that they would come to associate the tone or light stimuli with the shock’s onset, and, in some cases, then learn to avoid the shock by jumping over a barrier. Solomon would then work to see if he could get the dogs to, in effect, unlearn the association. When Seligman arrived at the lab, he noticed that some of the dogs had started to act rather strangely. Instead of trying to figure out how to avoid a new shock, they just sat there. They didn’t even try to figure it out. Teaming up with fellow graduate student Steven Maier, Seligman began to study what was going on...When Seligman and Maier analyzed the results, they found a consistent pattern. The dogs that had learned to avoid the shocks by pressing their heads against the panels on the first day were quick to jump the barrier on day two. Not a single dog failed to learn to jump quickly after the first go-around. Those that had been unable to escape the shocks, though, weren’t even trying...The effect of the harness experiment was been both severe and lasting. more

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The "Next Big Things" in Teaching Technology Never Quite Were

While attending a back-to-school event at his youngest daughter Debbie's school in 1953, influential psychologist B.F. Skinner watched as her teacher taught fourth-grade arithmetic. After writing the problem on the blackboard, the teacher would walk up and down the aisle, occasionally pointing out the children's mistakes. Some students finished quickly and sat bored while others continued to work the problems. The teacher collected the papers, graded them and returned them to the students the following day. This immediately gave Skinner insight into some problems in the pedagogy, as well as an idea toward their solution. Skinner knew that a corrected paper seen 24 hours later could not serve as a reinforcer and did not present a good scenario for learning. Understanding the value of using mechanical devices in his experiments with pigeons, he created a crude prototype over the next few days, using a series of cards containing questions, within a box with sliders to "dial in" the answers. It was his first teaching machine. more

Monday, January 12, 2015

Rhesus Monkeys Can Learn to See Themselves in the Mirror

For humans and apes, vanity comes naturally -- homo sapiens and their hairier ancestors both automatically recognize themselves in the mirror. The same can't be said for monkeys. But new research suggests rhesus monkeys can be taught mirror recognition. Scientists say their discovery is likely to help them further understand the neural origins of self-awareness... Scientists have tried to determine whether monkeys could develop mirror recognition before, but nothing seemed to work. In the new study, researchers shined a laser on the monkey's faces -- a mild irritant intended to spur the specimens into using the mirror to their advantage. After several weeks of training the monkeys began recognizing their face and laser in the mirror, moving their hands to the spot of the laser and then often smelling their fingers -- suggesting a recognition of themselves in the mirror. Once the behavior was learned, many of the monkeys were able to use the mirror in a variety of other unprompted ways in order to investigate other parts of their bodies. more

Friday, January 09, 2015

Talk to Your Kids

In the nineteen-eighties, two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, began comparing, in detail, how parents of different social classes talked with their children. Hart and Risley had both worked in preschool programs designed to boost the language skills of low-income kids, but they had been dissatisfied with the results of such efforts: the achievement gap between rich and poor had continued to widen... In all, Hart and Risley reported, they analyzed “more than 1,300 hours of casual interactions between parents and their language-learning children.” The researchers noticed many similarities among the families: “They all disciplined their children and taught them good manners and how to dress and toilet themselves.” They all showed their children affection and said things like “Don’t jump on the couch” and “Use your spoon” and “Do you have to go potty?” But the researchers also found that the wealthier parents consistently talked more with their kids. Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences, Hart and Risley concluded: “With few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.” more

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits

Our environments come to unconsciously direct our behavior. Even behaviors that we don't want, like smoking. "For a smoker, the view of the entrance to their office building — which is a place that they go to smoke all the time — becomes a powerful mental cue to go and perform that behavior," Neal says. Over time those cues become so deeply ingrained that they are very hard to resist. And so we smoke at the entrance to work when we don't want to. We sit on the couch and eat ice cream when we don't need to, despite our best intentions, despite our resolutions. "We don't feel sort of pushed by the environment," Wood says. "But, in fact, we're very integrated with it." To battle bad behaviors then, one answer is to disrupt the environment in some way. Even small changes can help — like eating the ice cream with your nondominant hand. What this does is disrupt the learned body sequence that's driving the behavior, which allows your conscious mind to come back online and reassert control. "It's a brief sort of window of opportunity," Wood says, "to think, 'Is this really what I want to do?' " Of course, larger disruption can also be helpful, which brings us back to heroin addiction in Vietnam. more

Monday, January 05, 2015

Getting Hooked: How Digital Firms Create Products That Get in Your Head

The makers of habit-forming products have clearly read the works of B.F. Skinner, the father of “radical behaviourism”, who found that training subjects by rewarding them in a variable, unpredictable way works best. That is why the number of monsters one has to vanquish in order to reach the next level in a game often varies. Faithful Twitter users are rewarded with more replies to their tweets, and more ego-boosting followers, but not according to any predictable formula. These variable rewards come in three forms. The reward of the tribe: people who use Twitter or Pinterest are rewarded with social validation when their tweets are retweeted or their pictures are pinned. The reward of the hunt: users quickly scroll through their feeds in search of the latest gossip or funny cat pictures. And the reward of self-fulfilment: people are driven to achieve the next level on a video game, or an empty e-mail inbox. Should the makers of habit-forming products be praised as innovative entrepreneurs? Or shunned as the immoral equivalents of drug pushers? Ian Bogost, a designer of video games, describes them as nothing less than the “cigarette of this century." more

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Addictive Social Media

Plenty of research has demonstrated that the addictive quality of social media is very real. And according to a new study, heavy social media use may also contribute to a different type of addiction ... Psychologist Julia Hormes, who led the study, said that Facebook was found to have especially addictive properties. The respondents spent an average of one-third of their online browsing time on Facebook, and 67 percent received Facebook push notifications on their phones. "New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward. Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently," Hormes said in a statement. "This uncertainty about when a new reward is available is known as a 'variable interval schedule of reinforcement' and is highly effective in establishing habitual behaviors that are resistant to extinction. Facebook is also making it easy for users to continuously be connected to its platform, for example by offering push notifications to mobile devices." more

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In Praise of Small Miracles (and Small Nudges)

Most of us don’t save enough. When governments try to encourage saving, they usually enact big policies to increase the incentives. But, in Kenya, people were given a lockable metal box — a simple place to put their money. After one year, the people with metal boxes increased savings by so much that they had 66 percent more money available to pay for health emergencies. It would have taken a giant tax reform to produce a shift in behavior that large. Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously. The heckling discouraged dangerous driving by an awesome amount. Insurance claims involving injury or death fell to half of their previous levels. These are examples of a new kind of policy-making that is sweeping the world. The old style was based on the notion that human beings are rational actors who respond in straightforward ways to incentives. The new style, which supplements but does not replace the old style, is based on the obvious point that human beings are not always rational actors. Sometimes we’re mentally lazy, or stressed, or we’re influenced by social pressure and unconscious biases. It’s possible to take advantage of these features to enact change. more

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Implementation of Contingency Management in Probation Agencies

Contingency management (CM) is an evidence-based practice (EBP) (National Institute on Drug Abuse 2010) that theoretically appears compatible with the basic strategies used by judicial or probation officials within the U.S. criminal justice system. The justice system routinely uses reinforcers to address compliance with behavior for desired drug- and crime-free behaviors. The compatibility of positive reinforcers with the existing system lies in the similarity between the core concepts of CM and the principles of effective punishment: swift, certain, and increasingly intensified responses. Given this consistency with the core functions of justice processing, CM implementation in justice systems should be relatively easy to implement (Rogers 2003). Contingency management has wide applications in the area of behavior change. In substance abuse treatment settings, CM interventions reduce drug use and increase treatment retention for a wide variety of drug abusers (Stitzer et al. 2010). Among the core components of any CM protocol is a focus on reducing or eliminating certain behavior(s) (e.g., abstinence from drug and alcohol use) and the use of structured and transparent rewards or incentives as the primary driver of behavior change. As such, CM protocols consistently use systems in which points are assigned to desired positive behaviors. Clients earn rewards via redeeming earned accumulated points. In prior work on implementing CM within drug and alcohol addiction treatment, clinicians established CM guidelines detailing which behavior(s) needed changing and how rewards could be earned. In such studies, both clients and clinicians understand that the rewards are achievable only with demonstrated positive behavior in line with the target goal (Stitzer et al. 2010). more

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Keeping Down with the Joneses to Save the Environment

The World Wildlife Fund urges us to think about the poor polar bears and penguins whose homes are swiftly melting away. Meanwhile, documentaries—from Al Gore’s classic An Inconvenient Truth to Showtime’s recent Years of Living Dangerously—warn us of impending natural disasters. Yes, environmentalists tend to go all dramatic on us in order to minimize energy use and treat the planet better. But these efforts, largely, aren’t working. A spate of new evidence suggests that fear-based approaches to environmental change are backfiring, resulting in little more than angry arguments over Thanksgiving dinner between you and your climate-change-doubting uncle. But about a decade ago, behavioral psychologists hit on an important finding: people are actually willing to save energy when they see how much energy their neighbors are using. A groundbreaking 2004 study revealed that, contrary to popular belief, people do not care much about saving money on their electricity bill or protecting the environment; the single biggest motivator to changing our energy consumption is our desire to keep up—or, in this case, down—with the more energy-efficient Joneses. more

Monday, December 08, 2014

Google Deep Mind: A New Artificial Intelligence

Demis Hassabis leads what is now called Google DeepMind. It is still headquartered in London and still has “solve intelligence” as its mission statement. Roughly 75 people strong at the time it joined Google, Hassabis has said he aimed to hire around 50 more. Around 75 percent of the group works on fundamental research. The rest form an “applied research team” that looks for opportunities to apply DeepMind’s techniques to existing Google products.  Over the next five years, DeepMind’s technology could be used to refine YouTube’s recommendations or improve the company’s mobile voice search. They dream of creating “AI scientists” that could do things like generate and test new hypotheses about disease in the lab. When prodded, he also says that DeepMind’s software could also be useful to robotics, an area in which Google has recently invested heavily. DeepMind has combined deep learning with a technique called reinforcement learning, which is inspired by the work of animal psychologists such as B.F. Skinner. This led to software that learns by taking actions and receiving feedback on their effects, as humans or animals often do. In 2013, DeepMind researchers showed off software that had learned to play three classic Atari games - Pong, Breakout and Enduro - better than an expert human. The software wasn’t programmed with any information on how to play; it was equipped only with access to the controls and the display, knowledge of the score, and an instinct to make that score as high as possible. The program became an expert gamer through trial and error. more

Friday, December 05, 2014

There Is No Language Instinct

Imagine you’re a traveller in a strange land. A local approaches you and starts jabbering away in an unfamiliar language. He seems earnest, and is pointing off somewhere. But you can’t decipher the words, no matter how hard you try.

That’s pretty much the position of a young child when she first encounters language. In fact, she would seem to be in an even more challenging position. Not only is her world full of ceaseless gobbledygook; unlike our hypothetical traveller, she isn’t even aware that these people are attempting to communicate. And yet, by the age of four, every cognitively normal child on the planet has been transformed into a linguistic genius: this before formal schooling, before they can ride bicycles, tie their own shoelaces or do rudimentary addition and subtraction. It seems like a miracle. The task of explaining this miracle has been, arguably, the central concern of the scientific study of language for more than 50 years.

In the 1960s, the US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky offered what looked like a solution. He argued that children don’t in fact learn their mother tongue – or at least, not right down to the grammatical building blocks (the whole process was far too quick and painless for that). He concluded that they must be born with a rudimentary body of grammatical knowledge – a ‘Universal Grammar' – written into the human DNA. With this hard-wired predisposition for language, it should be a relatively trivial matter to pick up the superficial differences between, say, English and French. The process works because infants have an instinct for language: a grammatical toolkit that works on all languages the world over.

At a stroke, this device removes the pain of learning one’s mother tongue, and explains how a child can pick up a native language in such a short time. It’s brilliant. Chomsky’s idea dominated the science of language for four decades. And yet it turns out to be a myth. A welter of new evidence has emerged over the past few years, demonstrating that Chomsky is plain wrong. more

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

An Equation for Happiness?

It’s hard to describe happiness, let alone to measure it. We all see it differently. Psychologists have multiple theories in this regard. Neuroscientists point to multiple brain mechanisms and the levels of different neuromediators. Clinicians have studied multiple environmental and medical factors leading to various mood disorders. The picture is complex, and putting various influencing parameters into one equation that could have a predictive value would seem to be an impossible task. But this is exactly what researchers from University College London have attempted. In their article published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science they’ve suggested an equation that rather accurately calculates the level of moment-to-moment happiness. The equation takes into account two major factors: expectation and reward. In their experiments, the researchers asked 26 volunteers to participate in decision-making tasks that could lead to some real monetary gains or losses. It turned out that happiness wasn’t linked to the amount of wealth accumulated. Rather, happiness was experienced when things were going better than expected. On top of this, recent rewards substantially influenced the moment-to-moment happiness. more

Monday, December 01, 2014

Elf on the Shelf--at Work?

Maybe it’s time we put an elf on the shelf in organizations, too, so leaders and managers would know what was done and by whom. Employees wouldn’t have to toot their own horns. Nor would they have to spend time worrying if anyone really knows what they are doing and how they contribute to business results. It’s quite a common occurrence for employees in our client organizations to ask our consultants, “Do you think my boss knows about this?” With a corporate scout elf, you wouldn’t have to engage in behaviors to ensure your boss or others properly recognized you for the value you added to the company. With this out of the way, everybody could instead focus on doing things that added value, and we could leverage each person’s behavior in ways that create greater benefit. I have an idea. Rather than an elf, why don’t we have a person (a manager, maybe) whose job it is to know these things and to provide the proper consequences that will accelerate these behaviors for everyone’s benefit? more

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Addicted to Our Devices

If you drive to the store for a loaf of bread and forget your phone, do you feel adrift? Do you worry that if you don’t check your computer every 15 minutes, you’ll miss the news that Martians just landed in Petaluma? Welcome to my world. And let me introduce you to Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Matt Richtel. Here’s what Richtel said last week on the public radio program, “Here and Now”: “It goes all the way back to B.F. Skinner’s studies with rats. There are rats in cages that would press a lever to get food, but they would never know which press of the lever would bring food, so they would press the lever all the time. … We (humans) never know which press on our devices is going to bring the good email, the good text, the good information. So we become conditioned to press it all the time.” more

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's a Parent to Do?

So what is a parent to do? If asking, scolding, yelling and punishing don’t work, you need to try another tactic. Try praising. Change how you interact with her. If most of your interactions with her are about things you are unhappy with, she will soon try to avoid you altogether. Anyone who is at all smart will avoid someone who is always unhappy with them ... Let her know when you are happy with what she has done. You can let her know you are pleased by giving her a high five, a smile or a hug. Let her see your enthusiasm with what she has done and be specific. It helps to say, “Great job putting your dishes into the dishwasher!” is better and works better than just saying, “Great job!” Don’t encourage her to be disobedient by giving it a lot of attention. If you focus on defiance, it actually may increase the very behavior you don’t like. Try actually walking away from her behavior when it is annoying. Even walking away sends her the message that her annoying behavior doesn’t work ... Another way to help change your child’s behavior is to try a reward system and make a game of doing what you ask her to do. Give a point each time she does what you ask her to do right away. If she doesn’t do it, you can say that you see she isn’t ready but you will try again later. If she then turns around after you have said that and does what you asked, praise her but don’t give her a point. You want to get her to do what you ask right away without complaining about it. more

Monday, November 24, 2014

Monkeys Learn to Steer Wheelchair Using Only Their Brains

Training a monkey to navigate a wheelchair is as easy as letting the animals go for a few rides—that is, assuming they have electrodes implanted into their brains that allow researchers to decode their neural activity and use it to steer the chair via a brain-computer interface (BCI). Researchers in the Duke University lab of Miguel Nicolelis, who helped design and build the exoskeleton that allowed a paralyzed man to kick off this summer's World Cup games, presented their work on two wheelchair-driving monkeys at this week's Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference being held in Washington, DC. The team first recorded activity in the motor and sensory cortices of monkeys riding around in the chair. A computer decoder then correlated this neural activity with the direction of movement of the chair, and after the training period was over, the BCI worked in reverse—using the neural inputs to actually steer the chair. Both monkeys eventually learned to steer the chair across the room to a grape dispenser, where they received their food reward. more

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Human Touch: New Research Suggests Some Animals Prefer Human Connections

What do animals really want? A new study from the University of Florida suggests it might be human contact, at least in the case of some Galapagos tortoises ... The findings are particularly important for those who work with animals in captivity every day -- zookeepers, trainers and students -- and strive to provide the best experience for them ... In the experiment, three tortoises at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville named Larry, Moe and Curly, were given four choices of keeper interaction: playing with a large rubber ball or under a water sprinkler, or having their shells scrubbed or necks rubbed. The zookeepers had used all of these enrichments at least twice a month for several years ... “Not only did they prefer keeper interaction overall compared to the traditional forms of enrichment,” Mehrkam said, “but the individual tortoises had preferences for the kind of interaction they wanted. Larry and Curly like having their necks rubbed. Moe liked the shell scrubbing" ... Both Dorey and Mehrkam use behavior analysis as the foundation of their research. This methodology, used primarily in human study, focuses specifically on behaviors and what factors or situations influence them rather than looking at root causes. The team also is studying aggression in dogs around guarding behaviors in a paper to be submitted for publication soon. more

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rodent Traders Can Beat the Odds

Eighty-five years ago, a young psychologist called BF Skinner developed what is technically called an operant conditioning chamber but is more famously known as a Skinner box, designed to contain and train laboratory animals. The simplest version rewards a rat for pressing a lever. More complex devices can play sounds, display lights and even deliver electric shocks, though Skinner himself preferred to use rewards rather than punishments ... Skinner’s ideas of modifying behaviour with rewards in a controlled environment seemed somehow manipulative and threatening. These days we call behaviour modification "nudging" and it is perfectly respectable. I thought of all this when I discovered RatTraders.com, a website offering, in its own words, "a professional service to the financial industry; rats are being trained to become superior traders in the financial markets." more

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How Everyone Gets Pavlov Wrong

As a college student, B. F. Skinner gave little thought to psychology. He had hoped to become a novelist, and majored in English. Then, in 1927, when he was twenty-three, he read an essay by H. G. Wells about the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. The piece, which appeared in the Times Magazine, was ostensibly a review of the English translation of Pavlov’s “Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex.” But, as Wells pointed out, it was “not an easy book to read,” and he didn’t spend much time on it. Instead, Wells described Pavlov, whose systematic approach to physiology had revolutionized the study of medicine, as “a star which lights the world, shining down a vista hitherto unexplored” ... Pavlov had formulated a basic psychological principle—one that also applied to human beings—and discovered an objective way to measure how it worked. Skinner was enthralled. Two years after reading the Times Magazine piece, he attended a lecture that Pavlov delivered at Harvard and obtained a signed picture, which adorned his office wall for the rest of his life. Skinner and other behaviorists often spoke of their debt to Pavlov, particularly to his view that free will was an illusion, and that the study of human behavior could be reduced to the analysis of observable, quantifiable events and actions. But Pavlov never held such views, according to “Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science” (Oxford), an exhaustive new biography by Daniel P. Todes ... In fact, much of what we thought we knew about Pavlov has been based on bad translations and basic misconceptions. more

Monday, November 17, 2014

Neuroprosthetics: Linking the Human Nervous System to Computers

In its simplest form, a neuroprosthetic is a device that supplants or supplements the input and/or output of the nervous system. For decades, researchers have eyed neuroprosthetics as ways to bypass neural deficits caused by disease, or even to augment existing function for improved performance. Today, several different types of surgical brain implants are being tested for their ability to restore some level of function in patients with severe sensory or motor disabilities. In a very different vein, a company called Foc.us recently started selling simple, noninvasive brain stimulators to improve normal people’s attention while gaming. And perhaps the most visible recent demonstration of the power of neuroprosthetics was a spinal cord–injured patient using a brain-controlled exoskeleton to kick off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In short, tinkering with the brain has begun in earnest. more