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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why In-App Purchases Will Bankrupt You

App purchases, on the other hand, are designed to be incredibly seamless. Your credit card is stored with Apple, Google or Amazon, and all it takes is a quick click of a button to instant gratification, no uncomfortable reminders that you just spent real money on that virtual life or game boost. What’s more, games use subtle-but-effective psychological tricks to keep you playing and spending. The Guardian’s Dana Smith writes that “Candy Crush” is exceedingly popular because it uses a series of ingenious mind-games to make it addictive. First, it’s simple. Games start off easy to play with frequent mini rewards that cause a release of “neurochemical dopamine.” This pleasure response in your brain is similar to the “neuro-circuitry involved in addiction, reinforcing our actions.” The next step is to increase the challenge, making the dopamine bursts more intermittent. If it stayed easy forever, you would get bored. And, as it turns out, an unpredictable reward schedule (a “variable ratio schedule of reinforcement”) is more addictive to our brain’s pleasure sensors than one where you keep consistently winning. more

Monday, February 09, 2015

Speak & Spell: A History

The Speak & Spell is a teaching machine specifically in the tradition of B. F. Skinner, reflecting some of both Skinner’s design principles and his theories of learning, decades older than the popular Texas Instruments device. Rather than selecting the correctly-spelled word in a multiple choice quiz, for the example, the Speak & Spell prompts the user to construct the response. It praises; it corrects... The shared features in most definitions of teaching machines include automation, immediate feedback, and self-pacing. The Speak & Spell has all three, using “contingencies of reinforcement” to establish appropriate spelling behavior. (Some of its engineers thought it would be funny if the user received a raspberry or a funny comment when they spelled a word wrong. But this idea was rejected as it would “reward” incorrect spelling.) more

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Cocktail Party Effect: Birds Hear Like We Do

I worked in Dr. Micheal L. Dent’s laboratory for a few years as I was earning my undergraduate degree in animal behavior. I was interested in studying birds, and Dr. Dent was interested in studying acoustic communication in animals. Dr. Dent is an associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. “In the past, I’ve worked with budgerigars, starlings, canaries (multiple strains), Japanese quail, zebra finches, and barn owls,” she recently told me. “I currently work with budgerigars and zebra finches.” Acoustic communication refers to hearing. Other ways that animals can communicate include visual, olfaction, touch, thermal, and some can communicate even through electromagnetic fields. In Dr. Dent’s lab we used operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to measure birds’ abilities to detect, discriminate, identify, and localize sounds by training them to peck keys. One interesting occurrence she discovered was that parakeets and zebra finches exhibit the cocktail party effect. more