Thursday, May 31, 2012

Reducing CO2 Emission: There’s an App For That

There is a new app in town from eco-rewards company Recyclebank, and it promises to reward users for opting to walk or bike instead of hopping in their car. The process is simple: Every time you walk or bike you will receive 5 Recyclebank points at the end of each journey, which can be used to receive discounts on a variety of products. What’s more, users can receive more points for choosing routes with lower carbon emissions...But can attaching rewards actually help change a habit? According to previous psychology studies, yes it can! Rewards, according to behaviorist psychology, reinforce behavior, and reinforced behavior is repeated. more

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Lighter Side of Electronic Monitoring

Thirty five years ago, only one person in the United States was subject to electronic monitoring. His name was Spider-Man, he was battling evil on the pages of America’s newspapers; and for several weeks during the summer of 1977 the syndicated Spidey’s every move was tracked via an “electronic radar device” cuffed to his wrist by a villain known as the Kingpin.

Nearly 20 years before the Kingpin inspired Judge Jack Love, a pair of identical twins named Robert and Ralph Kirkland Gable had begun to experiment with an electronic monitoring system in the course of their studies as graduate students at Harvard. Their system positioned electronic monitoring as a tool in the process of positive reinforcement rather than a means of deterrence, a way for individuals to document instances of good behavior. (The Gables’ original surname was Schwitzgebel. They legally changed it in 1982.) “My brother’s advisor was Tim Leary—there was a lot of crazy, creative stuff going on with that,” says Robert Gable, who obtained a PhD in Education from Harvard in 1964 and is now a Professor of Psychology (Emeritus) at Claremont Graduate College. “I was a student of B.F. Skinner. He was mostly working with pigeons and was very boring as a lecturer, and I wasn’t interested in doing anything in the lab. But my brother came up with this idea—why don’t we try the stuff that Skinner’s doing with pigeons on juvenile delinquents?” more

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Perfected Self

B. F. Skinner’s notorious theory of behavior modification was denounced by critics 50 years ago as a fascist, manipulative vehicle for government control. But Skinner’s ideas are making an unlikely comeback today, powered by smartphone apps that are transforming us into thinner, richer, all-around-better versions of ourselves. The only thing we have to give up? Free will. more

What Man Can Make of Man

[T]he most powerful form of control over the individual never required electricity or even a state apparatus. It can be seen operating at full force in our comic and frightening short story, “Honors Track,” by Molly Patterson. There we see the warping effect of social pressure transmitted, intentionally or not, by parents, teachers, and peers. As Frazier observes in arguing for his own behavioral control rather than that of post-war mores: “Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless. It enslaves him almost before he has tasted freedom.” Outside of Walden Two, we may believe that we control ourselves. “But,” Frazier warns, “don’t be misled, the control always rests in the last analysis in the hands of society.” more

Pavlovian (sic) Pacifier Teaches Premature Babies to Eat

Infants born at full term are able to feed themselves thanks to their instinctive sucking reflex and the fully developed muscles needed to extract milk from their mothers. But every year in the U.S., more 500,000 infants are born prematurely, few of them with the muscular strength needed to acquire nourishment from either their mother or a bottle. Jayne M. Standley, Ph.D., a distinguished professor at Florida Stata University's College of Music who is recognized throughout the United States as the foremost authority on medical music therapy, is the inventor of the Pacifier Activated Lullaby (PAL®). Specially wired to play a soothing lullaby in response to each successful sucking motion, the PAL® is an FDA-approved, patented system that "utilizes music reinforcement therapy to stimulate non-nutritive sucking and the breathe-suck-swallow reflex in pre-term infants." more

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vocal Learning: Practice Isn't Perfect?

Learning complex motor skills such as speech or dance movements involves imitation and trial and error. Young songbirds, for example, learn to sing by copying an adult tutor, and practising the song thousands of times until they have perfected every syllable. The underlying brain mechanisms are unknown, but one influential model states that structures called the basal ganglia generate a variety of movement patterns that are tried out by the motor cortex, which executes the movements. The basal ganglia then reinforce the best pattern by transmitting a rewarding dopamine signal after receiving feedback on the result of the movement from the motor cortex. But research published  in Nature challenges this view. more


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Songbirds' Learning Hub in Brain Offers Insight Into Motor Control and Vocal Behavior

To learn its signature melody, the male songbird uses a trial-and-error process to mimic the song of its father, singing the tune over and over again, hundreds of times a day, making subtle changes in the pitch of the notes...For previous experiments, Brainard and his colleagues developed a training process that induced adult finches to calibrate their song. They created a computer program that could recognize the pitch of every syllable the bird sang. The computer also delivered a sound the birds didn't like -- a kind of white noise -- at the very moment they uttered a specific note. Within a few hours, the finches learned to alter the pitch of that syllable to avoid hearing the unpleasant sound. more

Monday, May 21, 2012

How Reliable Are the Social Sciences?

But how reliable is even the best work on the effects of teaching?...For making informed decisions about public policy, though, we need to have a more precise sense of how large the difference in reliability is. Is there any work on the effectiveness of teaching that is solidly enough established to support major policy decisions? The case for a negative answer lies in the predictive power of the core natural sciences compared with even the most highly developed social sciences.  Social sciences may be surrounded by the “paraphernalia” of the natural sciences, such as technical terminology, mathematical equations, empirical data and even carefully designed experiments.  But when it comes to generating reliable scientific knowledge, there is nothing more important than frequent and detailed predictions of future events.  We may have a theory that explains all the known data, but that may be just the result of our having fitted the theory to that data.  The strongest support for a theory comes from its ability to correctly predict data that it was not designed to explain. more

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dopamine and Eating Disorders: Unexpected Rewards

Each participant reclined in an scanner that uses a technique called functional magnetic-resonance imaging to peer inside the brain as their owners where presented with external stimuli. The first of these was a series of coloured geometric shapes displayed on a screen. Then, a few tablespoons of either sugar water or salt solution, made to resemble saliva, were squirted into the subject’s mouth. Alternatively, nothing was administered. In a nod to Ivan Pavlov, after a while a purple polygon, which had been systematically followed by a dose of sugar, was enough to provoke a spike in the brain activity in the reward centres. Occasionally, however, the rule was broken, either by squirting sugar following an orange snowflake, say, where none had been squirted before, or withholding it after displaying a purple shape. Imaging revealed that the three groups responded differently to such surprises. more

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Replication Studies: Bad Copy

Positive results in psychology can behave like rumours: easy to release but hard to dispel. They dominate most journals, which strive to present new, exciting research. Meanwhile, attempts to replicate those studies, especially when the findings are negative, go unpublished, languishing in personal file drawers or circulating in conversations around the water cooler. “There are some experiments that everyone knows don't replicate, but this knowledge doesn't get into the literature,” says Wagenmakers. The publication barrier can be chilling, he adds. “I've seen students spending their entire PhD period trying to replicate a phenomenon, failing, and quitting academia because they had nothing to show for their time.” more

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Orangutans at Miami Zoo Use iPads to Communicate?

This is interesting, but it does seem to reek of facilitated communication, as the trainers hold the iPads:

"The orangutans at Miami's Jungle Island apparently are just like people when it comes to technology. The park is one of several zoos experimenting with computers and apes, letting its six orangutans use an iPad to communicate and as part of a mental stimulus program. Linda Jacobs, who oversees the program, hopes the devices will eventually help bridge the gap between humans and the endangered apes...When it comes to orangutans, the iPad itself has limitations. First, the relatively small screen causes orangutans to hit the wrong buttons sometimes. Also, the touchscreen won't register if they try to use their fingernails. Most importantly, the devices are just too fragile to actually hand over to the apes - the trainers must hold them." more

Monday, May 14, 2012

War of Words Over Tribal Toungue

It wasn’t long after his translation of the Gospel of St Mark failed to interest the Pirahã tribe members he was trying to convert to Christianity that Daniel Everett, then a missionary and linguistic anthropologist, began to doubt what he had learned about the foundations of human language. Thirty years on, Everett, now at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, has long since left missionary work, but his study of the Pirahã tongue has increasingly cast him in the role of heretic in a battle over the influence of culture in shaping the structure of a language. The debate has resurfaced with the publication in March of his book Language: The Cultural Tool and a related television documentary scheduled to be broadcast this week in the United States. But as Everett’s controversial views gain attention, other scholars are beginning to question his interpretations. more

Friday, May 11, 2012

Scientists Identify Neurotranmitters That Lead to "Forgetting"

To better understand the mechanisms for forgetting, Davis and his colleagues studied Drosophila or fruit flies, a key model for studying memory that has been found to be highly applicable to humans. The flies were put in situations where they learned that certain smells were associated with either a positive reinforcement like food or a negative one, such as a mild electric shock. The scientists then observed changes in the flies' brains as they remembered or forgot the new information. The results showed that a small subset of dopamine neurons actively regulate the acquisition of memories and the forgetting of these memories after learning, using a pair of dopamine receptors in the brain. more

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Scientific American: Erasing Painful Memories


The rat is on a carousel with clear plastic sides, rotating slowly in a small room. As it looks out through the plastic, it sees markings on the walls of the room from which it can determine its position. At a certain location it receives a foot shock—or, in experimenters' jargon, a negative reinforcement. When that happens, the rat turns sharply around and walks tirelessly in the opposite direction, so it never reaches that same place in the room again. It will do this to the point of exhaustion. more

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Electronic Version of "Pavlov's Dog"

The bell rings and the dog starts drooling. Such a reaction was part of studies performed by Ivan Pavlov, a famous Russian psychologist and physiologist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1904. His experiment, nowadays known as "Pavlov's Dog," is ever since considered as a milestone for implicit learning processes. By using specific electronic components scientists form the Technical Faculty and the Memory Research at the Kiel University together with the Forschungszentrum Jülich were now able to mimic the behavior of Pavlov`s dog. more

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Brain… It Makes You Think. Doesn't It?

Are we governed by unconscious processes? Neuroscience believes so – but isn't the human condition more complicated than that? Two experts offer different views... "...[W]e are not stand-alone brains. We are part of community of minds, a human world, that is remote in many respects from what can be observed in brains. Even if that community ultimately originated from brains, this was the work of trillions of brains over hundreds of thousands of years: individual, present-day brains are merely the entrance ticket to the drama of social life, not the drama itself. Trying to understand the community of minds in which we participate by imaging neural tissue is like trying to hear the whispering of woods by applying a stethoscope to an acorn." more

Friday, May 04, 2012

Research Suggests Infants Begin to Learn about Race in the First Year

Consistent with previous reports, 5-month-old infants were found to equally tell apart faces from both races, whereas 9-month-old infants were better at telling apart two faces within their own race, Scott and colleagues report. Further, measures of brain activity revealed differential neural processing of own-race compared to other-race emotional faces at 9 months. However, 5-month olds exhibited similar processing for both own- and other-race faces. In addition, infants were found to shift their processing of face-related emotion information from neural regions in the front of the brain to neural regions in the back of the brain from 5 to 9 months of age. This shift in neural processing helps researchers understand how the brain develops in response to experience during the first year of life. more

Debating Language: The Role of Culture and Biology

Cognition + Culture + Communication = Language--With this formula as shorthand, in his new book Language: The Cultural Tool, linguist Dan Everett argues that the variability in human cultural life explains the variability in human languages. Last week I introduced some of Everett's ideas about language and discussed their genesis in his Brazilian fieldwork. When I suggested that Everett's ideas about culture's forceful impact aid in thinking skeptically about a heavily biological paradigm stemming from the work of Noam Chomsky and colleagues, the response was fast and furious. more

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Insert Dog Poop, Get Free Wi-Fi

Putting up signs that politely ask dog owners to clean up their pet’s excrement is often ineffective, judging by the amount of poop that litters certain dog-heavy areas. Instead of threatening to slap a fine on people, maybe it makes more sense to use positive reinforcement. DDB Mexico recently put on a campaign for Terra, a Mexican Internet company, that gives dog owners the opportunity to trade in their bags of poop for free Wi-Fi. The more poop people throw in the receptacle (measured in weight), the longer the free Wi-Fi lasts for the park and nearby area. more

From the Archives: New Yorker Article on Chicken Arcades

Article about a chicken in Chinatown that plays ticktacktoe: The writer describes how he takes out-of-town visitors to a Mott Street amuseument arcade in Chinatown and introduces them to a chicken who will play ticktacktoe with them for fifty cents. The chicken is in a glass cage outfitted with backlit letters, so that the words "Your Turn" or "Bird's Turn" light up at the appropriate time. If you win, you get a bag of fortune cookies. The writer describes how he uses the chicken story in speeches and essays. Several years ago, the writer Roy Blount, Jr., told the writer that the people who trained the chicken to play ticktacktoe were located in Arkansas and that they had been former graduate students of famed behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. more

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Psychology and Its Discontents

[Jerome] Kagan's latest effort, Psychology's Ghosts, might be called "Four Seductive Ideas," since it consists of his assessment of four problems in psychological theory and clinical practice. The first problem is laid out in the chapter "Missing Contexts": the fact that many researchers fail to consider that their measurements of brains, behavior and self-reported experience are profoundly influenced by their subjects' culture, class and experience, as well as by the situation in which the research is conducted... more

Latest Issue of "The Current Repertoire" Now Available Online

The latest issue of The Current Repertoire (Vol 28, #2, Spring 2012) is now available at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies website. The Current Repertoire is the newsletter of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies and is published 3 times per year.