Pubblicato: settembre 17, 2012 in Comportamento
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B.F. Skinner

I must confess: I’m a behaviourist. I know someone will not agree, others-as has already happened- will say I’m a monster who wants to compare everything and everyone to robots and automata. I am a behaviourist, I know and use  Clicker Training, which makes me also a cold-mind who, at the same time, relegated emotions and feelings to the background, preferring a sterile mechanism made of stimulus and response. I consider my dogs like robots which I can manipulate …Let’s  not even consider the possibility that the same mechanisms can be applied to people (with success): obviously TAGteach. So, since we are talking about behavior I would like to give my point of view and show the complexity that underlies this science (and my beliefs).

Behavior is anything that an organism does in response to an enviromental stimulus. Something happens in the environment and we react accordingly. Poor behaviorism isn’t it? Where are emotions and feelings? Where is the empathy, joy, where is the essence of mankind? Allow me to answer with another question: what “creates” an organism? What “creates” a human being, a plant, a dog or a snail? In other words, where are the basics, the foundations that make every living being one and unique, capable to recognize its own “oness” (if it is equipped with a nervous system sufficiently complex[1] ?)

Sea slug: 20,000 neurons ready to go!

I know I’m myself and I had this awareness of “me” since I was born and I will carry it with me all life long. I am me and, certainly, not someone else. During a lifetime a body renews and regenerates completely. Blood is regenerated in three months, every six months we have new muscles and organs, bones and teeth instead take a year to be replaced. The only cells which follow us throughout life are the neurons (except those who die before the trauma or illness). So we have a “core” of cells that remain consistent throughout our  life[2], immersed in an environment where every other cell dies and, constantly,  reborn. Yet we always clear to be aware and be ourselves. During the night, a part of my body changes and regenerates itself, but when I wake up I’m back and do not feel like some version 2.0 (revised and updated) of myself[3]. Where is the essence of our identity? According to some scholars, and I agree with them, our consciousness is born on the only one thing that does not change in our lifetime: the balance of internal chemistry. Or rather, what does not change is the constant effort to maintain the values of internal chemistry inside a narrow range that allows life. Protein, sugars and fats, the regulation of the body temperature and heart rate, hormones and neurotransmitters: are all components that have to be striclty controlled. There are hundreds of different types of molecules into the bloodstream, their quantity and balance being controlled by the most primitive part of our brain, inside the brain stem (the end part of the spinal cord)

The brain stem

Here, groups of neurons work to mantain all these components  in an optimal balance (known as homeostasis). Our brains are built over and around this primitive part. Behaviors, including emotions and feelings, are born here. Stimulus and response. Is glucose lacking in the blood stream? The biochemical changes  activate the appropriate behaviors to search for food. As you can see we have some very basic response behaviors: on or off of which are the basis of life itself. Emotions are nothing more than mental shortcuts to process quickly and instinctively certain types of responses. Anger, joy, fear are some of those shortcuts and are in fact  behaviors of response to a stimuli that we share with all beings endowed with a nervous system enough evolved[4]The common sharing of this emotional repertoire is evidenced by the fact that we recognize, immediately, if our dog is angry, or if he is happy, and we can do it with any other mammal[5]. Feelings appear only in the most evolved brains, and are nothing more than expressions andbehaviors of a living being aware of its own emotions. The consciousness of having emotions allows us to modulate their “strength”. If we  get angry we are able to control our arousal avoiding to fight against anyone who dares to disagree with us. If my dog ​​is scared she may -if the stimulus does not go beyond a certain limit- try to control her emotions finding different and more useful answers to simply flee or attack.
From the simplest behaviors regulating the omeosthatic balance, more and more complex behaviors emerge; all of them found the same meccanism stimulus-answer. Behavior do emerge, following processes that. Behaviors emerge according to the processes and mechanisms which can be measured in their activity cannot be predicted in their results.

Unfortunately, this is not my car! 😦

We know that a car is made of many mechanical parts. All contribute to creat the car, but what percentage of the car is made, for example, by  the pistons? Or the steering wheel? A piston is not in itself a car, and until it is disconnected from the rest it is not even part of a car. The car “emerges” from its component parts and working together. I know that the brains have a number of –simple- behavioral shortcuts: the emotions.  I cannot compute how each of these emotions contribute to the emergence of a more complex behavior or how the same emotions are felt by the one who experience it. In this “emergence” of increasing complexity, from mechanisms of homeostatic regulation, to  emotions, feelings  and, at the end counsciousness we might find a new sense of what is sacred and mysterious. My behaviourism is born from the understanding of this substrate,from the respect that I have for this complexity and the realization that the underlying mechanisms of a living thing are made of simple mechanisms “on-off”. If I use Clicker Training or TAGteach is because I felt they are the best tools in my possession to interact positively, since they speak through the same patterns strictly inherent in each organism.
Must be careful: I am not suggesting that it is enough to have the plastic box and some food handy to get results[6]. In front of us is always more complex organism. Knowing the scientific basis can not predict what answers emerge with the Clicker: neither we nor our student are -just- robots.
We know how the methodology works, but it’s up to us, as teachers, adapt to the emotional response that arouses from our teaching to work empathically with our students.

 Luca Canever

[1] To this regard, experiments were performed to classical conditioning sea slug. These snails have a nervous system made up of about 20,000 large neurons. The fact that these animals respond to classical conditioning suggests that even in this far primitive system  there is a rudimentary mental processing, ancestor of our consciousness.

[2] These is not completely true: also the plasticity of neuronal connections change during our life, changing the way neurons work. Our brains are continuously changing.

[3] Let me clear this point: if you change every single part of your car during one year what you get is a brand new car, not a “newer” version of the old one. Even though my body change in one year I remain myself, no matter how or what I’ve changed. I’ve consciousness of myself; my car don’t.

[4] Back to our sea slug, we can say that it too has emotions since these animals  can find shortcuts through behavioral conditioning. This means that the animals are capable of being excited. Sea slugs’ emotions, but always emotions

[5] I am not able to understand the mood of an anaconda and I think I would have the same difficulties with some marsupials

[6] A common error among those who criticize the Clicker Training after giving an aproximate trial


STUART KAUFFMAN: Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion

ANTONIO R. DAMASIO: The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

  1. Les Kiger ha detto:

    Great opening post Luca! I wonder, have you read any of the Integral Theory work of Ken Wilber? He lays out a system that correlates internal subjective realms (the “me” and the “we” of culture) to external objective realms (behavior, biology, chemistry, etc). I really enjoy this approach because it allows for each piece to be seen on it’s own in in connection to the other pieces and effectively eliminates entire “is it this OR that” arguments by giving a way to say “Yes, it’s BOTH this AND that.”


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