Thursday, February 27, 2014

Descartes' Dogs: A Precursor to Pavlov

It is well known in the history of psychology that Descartes was an early thinker on what we would now call classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, which he referred to as “reflex”. Most authors writing on the subject cite two of his works and one letter to make the connection clear: his Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method), 1637; Les passions de l’âme (Passions of the Soul), the last of Descartes’ published work, completed in 1649; and finally his letter to William Cavendish, 1st duke of Newcastle, Friday, 23 November 1646. However, another much earlier epistolary reference seems generally to be missed: his letter to his friend Marin Mersenne, dated 18 March 1630. What is particularly interesting in this earlier letter to Mersenne is Descartes association of sound (in this case the sound produced by a violin) to the ‘reflex’ response of dogs. As a precursor to Pavlov, and the Pavlovian dogs experiment, it is interesting to see Descartes constructing what is a remarkably parallel experimental test — albeit, in Descartes case and as far as we know, a thought experiment only. more

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In the Beginning was the Word

The more parents talk to their children, the faster those children’s vocabularies grow and the better their intelligence develops. That might seem blindingly obvious, but it took until 1995 for science to show just how early in life the difference begins to matter. In that year Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas published the results of a decade-long study in which they had looked at how, and how much, 42 families in Kansas City conversed at home. Dr Hart and Dr Risley found a close correlation between the number of words a child’s parents had spoken to him by the time he was three and his academic success at the age of nine. At three, children born into professional families had heard 30m more words than those from a poorer background. This observation has profound implications for policies about babies and their parents. It suggests that sending children to “pre-school” (nurseries or kindergartens) at the age of four—a favoured step among policymakers—comes too late to compensate for educational shortcomings at home. Happily, understanding of how children’s vocabularies develop is growing, as several presentations at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed. more

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Brain Implant Lets One Monkey Control Another

In work inspired partly by the movie "Avatar," one monkey could control the body of another monkey using thought alone by connecting the brain of the puppet-master monkey to the spine of the other through a prosthesis, researchers say. These findings could help lead to implants that help patients overcome paralysis, scientists added....The monkey that served as the master had electrodes wired into his brain, while the monkey that served as the avatar had electrodes wired into his spine. The avatar's hand was placed onto a joystick that controlled a cursor displayed on the master's screen. The avatar monkey was sedated so that he had no control over his own body. Computers decoded the brain activity of the master monkey and relayed those signals to the spinal cord and muscles of the avatar monkey. This allowed the master to control the cursor by moving the hand of the avatar. The master received a reward of juice if he successfully moved the cursor onto a target. more

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Brain Shot: Neuroscientists Scramble to Take on Ambitious Presidential Challenge

When the president of the United States makes a request, scientists usually listen. Physicists created the atomic bomb for President Roosevelt. NASA engineers put men on the moon for President Kennedy. Biologists presented their first draft of the human genetic catalog to an appreciative President Clinton. So when President Obama announced an ambitious plan to understand the brain in April 2013, people were quick to view it as the next Manhattan Project, or Human Genome Project, or moon shot. But these analogies may not be so apt. Compared with understanding the mysterious inner workings of the brain, those other endeavors started with an end in sight. more

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hooked: How To Make Habit-Forming Products

The Hook consists of four parts that must be combined in sequence to convert an externally motivated engagement with a product into one that is internally motivated and habitual. “Through consecutive hook cycles,” [Nir] Eyal writes, “successful products reach their ultimate goal of unprompted user engagement, bringing users back repeatedly without costly advertising or aggressive messaging.” Eyal stands on the shoulders of giants in putting together what is essentially an open source framework for user psychology. This framework draws upon the work of contemporaries like BJ Fogg, Dan Ariely, Charles Duhigg and Daniel Kahneman but also the inventor of behaviorism in psychology, B.F. Skinner. Eyal got an MBA at Stanford and now teaches there, and his debt to Stanford behavior design researcher and educator BJ Fogg in particular is evident. more

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Scientific Method and Statistical Errors

P values have always had critics. In their almost nine decades of existence, they have been likened to mosquitoes (annoying and impossible to swat away), the emperor's new clothes (fraught with obvious problems that everyone ignores) and the tool of a “sterile intellectual rake” who ravishes science but leaves it with no progeny3. One researcher suggested rechristening the methodology “statistical hypothesis inference testing," presumably for the acronym it would yield....Consider Motyl's study about political extremists. Most scientists would look at his original P value of 0.01 and say that there was just a 1% chance of his result being a false alarm. But they would be wrong. The P value cannot say this: all it can do is summarize the data assuming a specific null hypothesis. It cannot work backwards and make statements about the underlying reality. That requires another piece of information: the odds that a real effect was there in the first place. To ignore this would be like waking up with a headache and concluding that you have a rare brain tumour — possible, but so unlikely that it requires a lot more evidence to supersede an everyday explanation such as an allergic reaction. The more implausible the hypothesis — telepathy, aliens, homeopathy — the greater the chance that an exciting finding is a false alarm, no matter what the P value is. more

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brain Injury, PTSD and Behavior

When our service members return from war, many are fighting on a new front: the battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. In this video, Dr. Harvey Jacobs, a behavior analyst and psychologist who specializes in PTSD in troops, talks about the complexity of the condition, how it relates to brain injury and overall behavior and how it impacts service members’ ability to reintegrate back into domestic life. more

Friday, February 07, 2014

Distortion of Psychology: There’s No Defense for Affluenza

Examining the psychological underpinnings of the misnamed “affluenza” defense, there’s no “there” there. Let’s take Couch’s history of a lack of appropriate consequences for his behavior. In essence, this part of the defense’s argument rests on the assumption that knowing the law is not enough to deter someone from criminal acts. Instead, the person must have experienced deleterious consequences for his or her socially inappropriate or illegal behavior in the past. Otherwise (it seems to follow), the threat of legal consequences will appear empty since the person hadn’t experienced consequences before. This argument doesn’t hold water...Even though Couch’s parents may not have taught him that his inappropriate behavior has negative consequences, this doesn’t mean that he was incapable of learning this lesson in other areas of his life. We know that people are sensitive to context and accurately distinguish between consequences that will occur in one situation but not in another. Even rats and other animals learn to make analogous types of discriminations based on context. They learn that if a light is on when they press a lever, they’ll receive a food pellet, but when the light is off they won’t. If you’ve spent time around preschoolers you know that they are sensitive to context—to how much they can “get away with” when Person A is in charge of them versus Person B. High-school students learn that a substitute teacher has less authority, and thus they may act up with him or her in ways they would never consider with their regular teacher. more

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Learning to Think Outside the Box

The world may be full of problems, but students presenting projects for Introduction to Creative Studies have uncovered a bunch you probably haven’t thought of. Elie Fortune, a freshman, revealed his Sneaks ’n Geeks app to identify the brand of killer sneakers you spot on the street. Jason Cathcart, a senior, sported a bulky martial arts uniform with sparring pads he had sewn in. No more forgetting them at home....Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill. Pin it on pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking, or on the need for ingenuity in a fluid landscape. more

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Robots with Insect-Like Brains: Robots Learn to Navigate Environment Guided by External Stimuli

Researchers of Freie Universität Berlin, of the Bernstein Fokus Neuronal Basis of Learning, and of the Bernstein Center Berlin and have developed a robot that perceives environmental stimuli and learns to react to them. The scientists used the relatively simple nervous system of the honeybee as a model for its working principles. To this end, they installed a camera on a small robotic vehicle and connected it to a computer. The computer program replicated in a simplified way the sensorimotor network of the insect brain. The input data came from the camera that-akin to an eye-received and projected visual information. The neural network, in turn, operated the motors of the robot wheels-and could thus control its motion direction. The outstanding feature of this artificial mini brain is its ability to learn by simple principles. "The network-controlled robot is able to link certain external stimuli with behavioral rules," says Professor Martin Paul Nawrot, head of the research team and professor of neuroscience at Freie Universität Berlin. "Much like honeybees learn to associate certain flower colors with tasty nectar, the robot learns to approach certain colored objects and to avoid others." more

Monday, February 03, 2014

Behaviorism at 100: The Legacies of Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto

The Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis is pleased to announce the availability of a special issue on "Behaviorism at 100: The Legacies of John B. Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto," edited by Kennon A. Lattal and Alexandria Rutherford. It appeared as the September, 2013 issue of the journal. The articles comprising the issue are available online in both Spanish and English. more