A mind of its own

January 30, 2007

Hi, I’m back. About time, too–the holidays took me out of the habit of writing here.

The holidays. My family met with the other members of my extended family for a week at Christmas. For some of you, this is a normal occurance; for others of you, this brings nightmare scenarios. For us, it was somewhere in between. It had been perhaps a decade since we had all been together, but the worst thing that happened was the flu. Seven of us (none from my immediate family, yay!) succumbed; the rest of us did our best to clean up without catching it ourselves.

But that is not what I wanted to write about. What prompts today’s title, “a mind of its own”, was something my dad did during the reunion. He was playing with one of the younger cousins, and toying around with a little spinning top. Sometimes it spun perfectly, but at other times he could not manage to get it to spin at all; instead, it would careen off the table-top, and the little girl would have to search for it. On one of these occasions, my dad exclaimed “it has a mind of its own!”; it certainly seemed to. Its actions were unpredictable, dependent on the slightest variation in how he tried to spin it. We never knew what it might do next.

Of course, that is pretty much the way we speak of “mind”, even in people. We are not able to predict their actions perfectly, so we infer that they are acting in accordance with their own free choices. They do things because they have minds of their own. (And of course, most people reading this–yes, I delude myself that people read this–are rolling their eyes and thinking well of course we have minds of our own; we are human, after all!) But it seems reasonable to me to examine this. Does our inability to predict necessarily mean that a mind is responsible?

Let us begin by looking at some of the uses of “mind” in things other than human. We can also look at other words that typically are seen as “mental” actions–deciding, wanting, hating or loving. The top, of course, “had a mind of its own”. It was teasing my dad and my niece. At the reunion, there was a wood stove, with a fire that we had to keep stoking because it kept wanting to go out. And, with little kids around, we had to keep a close eye on the fire in case one of the logs decided to fall out. (In truth, we do also–and more accurately–say that the fire kept almost going out, or that the logs occasionally would simply fall out. We do not always use mentalistic terms with inanimate objects. But it is the times that we do that are most informative.) If we could predict when the logs would fall, we would not call it “deciding”; if there was an observable cause, then the falling is a simple effect.

Last week, we had a cold snap here, with the morning temperatures below zero (F); my car did not want to start. (I have had friends whose cars often chose not to start even on warm days; my friends would often beg, plead, or yell at their cars while cranking the starter.) There are times when my browser chooses not to open particular websites. Indeed, I could be excused for inferring, based on which websites and the observation that the more I want to see them, the less likely they are to be available, that my computer hates me. I know that I have had many, many students whose excuse for a late assignment is “my computer hates me; it’s evil; it wants me to fail…”

In each of these cases, the active agency on the part of the inanimate object is inferred from unpredictable actions. If the car never starts, it is broken. If it always starts, it is in good shape. If it unpredictably starts or does not… it has a mind of its own. If the browser never opens a particular website, it is incompatible (or one or the other is broken); if it always does, all is well. If it unpredictably does or does not… yup, a mind of its own.

Do tornadoes actively choose to hit trailer parks? It certainly seems that way. So we personify the North Wind (why is it always a fierce-looking bearded guy?), or say that it was Poseidon (the wind is not the chooser, but there is still a choice being made) who sent the wind. Today, of course, we know that the weather is a chaotic system, partly unpredictable but always determined by physical inputs. Of course, this does not stop us from using mentalistic terms when there is uncertainty: “of course, whether that storm hits New England will depend on what the jet stream decides to do; it looks like we might get a foot of snow, but I’m only about 70% certain of it at this point. We’ll know more by this time tomorrow.”

If human behavior is also a chaotic system, it will be partially unpredictable but still completely determined by environmental factors. It is, of course, impossible to prove this absolutely, but I am convinced by what evidence we have that this is the case. When a person acts with “a mind of her own”, what is happening is that her behavior is the result of environmental factors, but factors that we are not aware of. If we had more information, her choice might be much less surprising.

Even the reasons for our own behavior are often not available to us. We know that classical and operant conditioning do not depend on awareness. We can shape a person’s behavior without his knowing what the contingencies of reinforcement were (indeed, sometimes it is more efficient that way!). Social psychologists can easily demonstrate variables that change behavior, even when their experimental subjects deny they were influenced at all!

When we are unaware of the very real influences that our environment has on our behavior, our behavior can only seem unpredictable. And, from a young age, we are taught that this unpredictability is evidence of “a mind of our own”. Well…if we want to use “mind” as a synonym for unpredictable behavior, fine. But most don’t stop there. Most, in our culture, see the mind as causal–as the reason for our unpredictable actions. We infer a mind from our behavior, but then claim that mind as the cause of the behavior, with no more evidence at all. That is circular reasoning, and it is a logical fallacy.

I will close with a definition–from Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary”:

DECIDE, v.i.
To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: “‘Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said: “My judgment I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

“First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.

Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
You’ll have no hand in it at all.



November 26, 2006

Just over one month ago (although it seems much longer), my family had a bit of a shock. My son, nearly 18 years old, went to the doctor to check on a sore throat that wouldn’t go away…and left the hospital two days later with a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes. He had lost over 15 pounds (which he did not have to spare), and checked in at just over 100 pounds; yes, he had lost 13% of his body weight, mostly due to dehydration. Normal Blood Glucose (BG) levels are in the neighborhood of 70-100 mg/dl; my son maxed out the doctor’s BG monitor at 600. He was checked in for an overnight stay at the hospital, got lots of saline solution in an intravenous drip, learned how to test his own BG levels and inject himself with insulin. It was only the beginning of a routine he will have to follow for the rest of his life, barring technological advances.

Actually, technological advances are progressing at a fast and furious pace. The insulin he is injecting (two types, a slow, long-lasting one and a quick-working, briefer sort) were invented less than a decade ago, and are a tremendous improvement over what was available when my son was born. An insulin inhaler has recently been approved (although it would not replace all of his injections), and there are insulin pumps that can deliver insulin more-or-less constantly for a period of days. The plus side is, he would not have to inject himself nearly as often; the down side is that he would be wearing a device constantly. Of course, these days we all wear cell phones attached to our hips anyway…

I am not complaining, and to his credit, neither is my son. I can think of a thousand worse things to have happened—including the same diagnosis a century ago. Indeed, there is actually quite a lot to be grateful for in this diagnosis. It may actually increase my lifespan.

Let me explain. As I write this, I am sitting on a couch, arranged in a comfortable viewing distance from a television. It would be so simple, as it often is in our modern society, for me to spend a great deal of time on this couch, watching that television. It would certainly be simpler than heading outside for a walk…or even… a run. It is much easier, much more reinforcing (in the short run), to eat pie, than to go on a bike ride. Exercise is self-punishing. Eating is (often) self-reinforcing. I know I would probably live longer if I got in the habit of walking, biking, or otherwise exercising instead of sitting on the couch…but dammit, it is just not something that is easily shaped by the immediate contingencies.

But…my son’s diabetes changes the timeline. The things that are in my long-term best interest are in his short-term best interest. Put more scarily, the foods that could kill me sooner in the long run could kill him sooner in the short run. Exercise, self-monitoring of health, and a “Mediterranean diet”, are all things that would help me to live a longer, healthier life; they are also things that help my son simply live. Our whole family is cutting down on fats, watching carbs, losing weight, and increasing exercise. (In truth, we ate a healthier-than-average diet before this, but there is always room for improvement.)

Advances in medicine will, I hope, mean that my son’s diagnosis has absolutely no effect on his lifespan. Understanding diabetes will, though, probably mean an additional few years for me.

The science behind it…

It may seem strange to hear that Behaviorism, that stronghold of determinism, has a line of research on choice, and a more specific line of research on self-control. We define these terms a bit differently than others might, though… A choice is any situation in which more than one response is possible. Yeah, that’s pretty much all of them. Note, we do not look at “choice” as something that you do, but rather something in your environment that you respond to. What is important is the effect of various conditions in the environment that dictate your response—will you do A or B? What are the characteristics of A and B that determine your behavior?

In a self-control paradigm, the person (or rat, or pigeon, or whatever) is presented with a choice between two alternatives, a smaller, sooner reward (SSR) and a larger, later reward (LLR). Choosing the SSR is termed “impulsive”; choosing the LLR is “self-controlled”. This experiment can be run with pigeons, using access to grain (2 seconds access now, or 4 seconds access three seconds later), or on people, using money (ten dollars now, or twenty next week). In each case, many variations on the theme are easily set up; we can vary the size of each reward, the length of delay before the larger reward, the difference in size of the two rewards, the time between when the decision is made and when the reward will be available.

It turns out that this last one is a very important variable. While it might be tempting to choose ten dollars now instead of twenty next month if the ten-dollar bill is sitting right in front of you, it is much easier to choose the larger reward if the choice is between ten dollars in three months or twenty in four months. A little perspective makes all the difference. Interestingly, pigeons make the same choice: while they will choose the SSR if there is no delay between their choice and the presentation of the reward, if there is an 18 second delay between their choice and the sooner of the two rewards, they will choose the LLR (in both choices, the mechanism re-sets after 30 seconds, so choosing the SSR does not allow more runs through the process). Self-control is not so much a human characteristic as it is a function of the schedule of reinforcement…

What is more, if we give pigeons the ability to make a choice now (called a controlling choice) about which choice they will get to make later—that is, they can peck a button now to determine whether they will get the 18-second delay choice or the immediate choice—they learn to choose the delayed choice, and to maximize their reward. It is the pigeon equivalent of parking your car a mile from your office in the morning, when you have energy, so that after work when you are tired enough that a walk (which is in your long-term best interest) is not as appealing as just crawling into your car (very appealing in the short term), you have no choice—the car is a mile away. (One of my students—a retired engineer—did this last summer; he significantly increased his exercise, and lost 11 pounds over the course of the summer!)

Another key variable is the length of time between the sooner and later outcomes. The more distant the later outcome, the less influence it will have over our behavior. This should come as no surprise—we know that both reinforcement and punishment work better the more immediate they are. Reinforcement works via meliorization, not optimization—that is, it is driven by what is better in the short term, not what is ideal in the long run. (So is evolution, for that matter, which is why we suffer with bad backs and impacted wisdom teeth.) There is no guarantee that what is in one’s best long-term interest will be reflected in the short-term contingencies. A big part of “self-control” is making the controlling choices to make the long-term contingencies much more apparent in the controlled choices.

And of course, this is what is happening to our family, thanks to my son’s diabetes diagnosis. The long-term punishing consequences are no longer long-term. The same things that could take time off my life some decades into the future could put my son into the hospital (or worse) in very little time. The contingencies are not delayed, but are immediate. The controlling choice has been made for us. What remains is fairly simple. We pretty much have to take the path that leads to a longer, healthier life.

Like I said, we are not complaining.

labels (love, part 3)

November 21, 2006

So…where does that leave us? What are the differences between saying that love is a label we put on a fuzzy category of public and private behavior, and saying that it is an internal state that causes these public and private behaviors?

Well, part of the difference (improvement, I would say) is not so much that it answers some of the age-old questions about love, but rather that it suggests that the age-old questions might be wrong. Copernicus did not answer the question “how does the sun climb through the sky?”, but rather showed that the question itself was faulty. A change of perspective allowed him to answer the question “why does the sun appear to climb through the sky?”, which not only appeased the earlier curiosity, but also added tremendously to our understanding of the universe.

How can I tell the difference between True Love and simple Infatuation?” (One love researcher, when asked this question, answered simply “hindsight.”) The question presupposes that the two terms are definable (say, by a standard list of characteristics for each) and that these definitions can be compared with one another for similarities and differences. In truth, there is no reason that both definitions, fuzzy and individual, cannot overlap broadly. Indeed, if the researcher mentioned parenthetically above is right, then the definitions are identical while one is in the midst of it, and only after sufficient time has passed can one see, in hindsight, the key difference.

What is the chemical responsible for love?” Um…this presupposes that there is one thing called love, with one chemical signature. This may sound reasonable at first…so let me use a different example. Or two or three. Picture someone with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). I ask students this one, and I get a classroom full of disparate descriptions; this one checks stoves, this one touches things in multiples of three, this one has a ritual about light switches. There may or may not be one single cause of these very different behavioral patterns. We have labeled a spectrum of behaviors “OCD” because we see similarities, but we can only infer that the similarities are because of an underlying cause. There may (or may not) be different causes for each of the different patterns, which we have grouped together under one label. Our labeling of something does not magically make it the same as other things with that label; it is what it is, regardless of how we label it.

Another example, from an argument I had recently about Near-Death Experiences (NDE’s). The published anecdotal accounts of NDE’s list many different sorts of phenomena—from “seeing a bright light” to “feeling a sense of euphoria” to “having one’s life flash before one’s eyes”, and more. The first two (light and euphoria) are most commonly explained by skeptics as the result of hypoxia—the supply of oxygen to the brain is reduced, and this causes (in experimental manipulations) a bright tunnel-vision perception and a giddy euphoria. Hypoxia seems a perfectly good explanation for these common NDE phenomena. But those who think NDE’s are evidence of something beyond death point out that hypoxia does not explain the phenomenon of having one’s life flash before one’s eyes. Nor does it explain numerous other experiences claimed by others who have been through an NDE. Hmmm… If we look more closely, we see the source of the problem. There is a wide range of experiences that have been swept into the catch-all category “Near-Death Experience”. One individual may have had her heart stop on the operating table and have been at the point where she had no detectable brain activity before being revived. Another individual may have been in an automobile accident which should have killed him, but which he was, miraculously, able to walk away from. Another lost consciousness, fainting, with no doctors around to check pulse or brain activity; if her friends say “I thought you were dead!”, she may describe her experience as an NDE. Each of these types of experience, and many more, have been cited in the NDE literature; there is absolutely no reason to suspect that each of them involves the same underlying physiological processes. Hypoxia still explains the bright light and euphoria of the individuals who have been close to brain-death. The “life flashing before one’s eyes” does not happen to this group, but to others with vastly different NDE’s.

But I was talking about love. The same word serves to express our attitude toward a lover, a child, a friend, a parent…even ice cream. Is it really reasonable to expect one chemical (or even one complex combination of chemicals) to explain each of these? Taking it further, if (as Hikmet says) “you can’t wash in the same river even once”, is it reasonable to think that my love for the same person is reducible to the same chemical each time I love her?

Do you mean the same thing when you say ‘I love you’ as I do when I say it?” Um… the only possible answer to this is “yes and no”. It is impossible that two people will have exactly the same learning history with the word, so no. But… you understood, didn’t you? You didn’t sit there, sounding out that middle word, trying to figure out if you should be insulted, or should be passing the salt or something. There is enough overlap in our learning that you can be fairly confident that the words mean the same. Of course, the more different your cultures (including the micro-culture of your family), the more different your meanings; some people are more expressive, others reserve “I love you” for the most special occasions. Perhaps the best answer is to be a good behaviorist again—if love is a set of behaviors, answer your question by watching. Is the “I love you” accompanied by other evidence? As someone I love once said, “I am listening to your words—but I am watching your feet.” Or, to paraphrase Forrest Gump… Love is as Love does.

I have the urge to post a poem I love. I mentioned Hikmet above; the line I quoted is from the poem “Things I didn’t know I loved” (appropriately enough). It makes me wish I could read Turkish…

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved

it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before
and will be said after me

I didn’t know I loved the sky
cloudy or clear
the blue vault Andrei studied on his back at Borodino
in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace into Turkish
I hear voices
not from the blue vault but from the yard
the guards are beating someone again
I didn’t know I loved trees
bare beeches near Moscow in Peredelkino
they come upon me in winter noble and modest
beeches are Russian the way poplars are Turkish
“the poplars of Izmir
losing their leaves. . .
they call me The Knife. . .
lover like a young tree. . .
I blow stately mansions sky-high”
in the Ilgaz woods in 1920 I tied an embroidered linen handkerchief
to a pine bough for luck

I never knew I loved roads
even the asphalt kind
Vera’s behind the wheel we’re driving from Moscow to the Crimea
formerly “Goktepé ili” in Turkish
the two of us inside a closed box
the world flows past on both sides distant and mute
I was never so close to anyone in my life
bandits stopped me on the red road between Bolu and Geredé
when I was eighteen
apart from my life I didn’t have anything in the wagon they could take
and at eighteen our lives are what we value least
I’ve written this somewhere before
wading through a dark muddy street I’m going to the shadow play
Ramazan night
a paper lantern leading the way
maybe nothing like this ever happened
maybe I read it somewhere an eight-year-old boy
going to the shadow play
Ramazan night in Istanbul holding his grandfather’s hand
his grandfather has on a fez and is wearing the fur coat
with a sable collar over his robe
and there’s a lantern in the servant’s hand
and I can’t contain myself for joy
flowers come to mind for some reason
poppies cactuses jonquils
in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika
fresh almonds on her breath
I was seventeen
my heart on a swing touched the sky
I didn’t know I loved flowers
friends sent me three red carnations in prison

I just remembered the stars
I love them too
whether I’m floored watching them from below
or whether I’m flying at their side

I have some questions for the cosmonauts
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
or apricots on orange
did you feel proud to get closer to the stars
I saw color photos of the cosmos in Ogonek magazine now don’t
be upset comrades but nonfigurative shall we say or abstract
well some of them looked just like such paintings which is to
say they were terribly figurative and concrete
my heart was in my mouth looking at them
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad
I never knew I loved the cosmos

snow flashes in front of my eyes
both heavy wet steady snow and the dry whirling kind
I didn’t know I liked snow

I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors
but you aren’t about to paint it that way
I didn’t know I loved the sea
except the Sea of Azov
or how much

I didn’t know I loved clouds
whether I’m under or up above them
whether they look like giants or shaggy white beasts

moonlight the falsest the most languid the most petit-bourgeois
strikes me
I like it

I didn’t know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my
heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop
and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved
rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting
by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
is it because I lit my sixth cigarette
one alone could kill me
is it because I’m half dead from thinking about someone back in Moscow
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

19 April 1962

Emergent Properties (Love, part two)

November 14, 2006

Ok, I promised this…a different way of looking at love. (I know, previous posts have described some incident in my life, then showed the science behind them. You will simply have to imagine the life incident for this one; although I could name names, I will not.)

Where were we? Ah, yes, love. The thing that makes us write poetry, sing songs, climb balconies in the middle of the night, write notes in the damp sand of the shore for the tides to carry away to her. The thing that makes catches our breath, quickens our heart, steals every second thought and nearly every memory. We once spoke of love as a gift (or curse) from the gods—Aphrodite’s blind bow-boy, Eros, shooting his arrows capriciously, striking any and all, leaving us love-struck. The motivation for this form of divine madness was ultimately out of our control. Although it sometimes still feels out of our control, we have relocated love; we no longer attribute our behavior to the influence of Eros, but to this thing called love, held deep in our hearts.

We have, though, simply substituted one fiction for another. Oh, I will not (never!) deny the powerful feelings of love, or that a person in love may act like a person possessed! But just as the appearance of a sunrise is also evidence of a spinning earth (instead of a rising sun), this beautiful thing called love may still yield to examination…

Let us begin at the beginning. How is it that you learn the word “love”? The people who were teaching you language (parents, siblings, friends, teachers, complete strangers) did not have any access to your thoughts, your feelings, your sensations, your memories. (I must write about “private behavior” some day soon.) It is quite impossible for any of them to have seen an emotion in you, pointed it out to you, and labeled it “love”. Nor is it possible that you were able to somehow peek inside their own private sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or feelings. All that you both have access to—all that can be pointed to and labeled—is what is publicly available.

A digression… How is it that you learn any word? Let’s start with something simple, and work our way up to love. How is it that we learn, say, the word “red”? As with love, there is no way any person can look into your thoughts to see your personal experience of red, nor can you look into their thoughts and see their experience of red. My students laugh in recognition when I suggest that this situation gives rise to countless late-night conversations on the theme “how do you know that you see the color I do? Maybe the color you call red looks to you like what I would call blue…maybe all of our colors look different to each of us…” Indeed, it is quite impossible for us to know. We simply do not have access to the private thinking of other people.

What we do have access to, though, is the real world. Our teacher can point to a red ball, a red block, a red sign, a red sweater, and eventually we generalize the concept of “red”. Anyone who has taught a child his or her colors has seen this process at work. The process may be explicit (“Point to the red ball. No, that’s the green ball; point to the red one!”) or subtle. Even a color-blind individual knows that the answer to “what color is a stop sign?” is “red”, even if he (The vast majority of color-blind individuals are male) lacks the biological equipment needed to sense the characteristic needed to generalize “red”.

In a very real sense (more real, I argue, than our current view), “red” is simply what our language community has agreed that it is. It is the set of thing in our environment that we have collectively labeled “red”. Red is fairly simple for a child, but as we learn to discriminate, we learn scarlet, crimson, rose, carmine, cherry, ruby, etc. The same sweater that is red to a child may be maroon to an adult.

“Red” is defined by the agreement of a language community. So is every other word, whether noun, verb, adjective or adverb. Anyone who has spent time with kids who are learning the language will recognize the effect that the language community has on language development, as we progress (as we did with “red”) from general examples to more specific uses of words:

Noun—“Could you hand me the mug? No, that’s a cup; I want the mug.”
Verb—“I said hand it to me, not throw it to me!”
Adjective—“The big one—the really big one. The huge one!”
Adverb—“Quickly, please—as fast as you can!”

Each of the examples above, though, requires a physical referent, something in the observable world which is a mug, not a cup, which is handing, not tossing, which is bigger or smaller, which is faster or slower. It requires something observable not only to one person, but to both (or to as many as necessary). But love is supposed to be this internal feeling, which no one else has access to—is it possible that a word like love is learned the same way that “red” is?

I cannot conceive of any other way it is possible. Until the day when telepathy—direct transver of one person’s thoughts to another—is actually demonstrated (it has been often claimed, but as yet cannot be demonstrated under controlled conditions—I strongly doubt that it ever will be), we are stuck with the reality of private thinking. I cannot read your mind, and you cannot read mine.

But what is the observed reality of the feeling of love? How is it that we come to know this word? Fortunately, there is an answer to this—and one which I believe will shed light on many other mysteries of the human experience.

Picture two people in love. What are they doing? Are they holding hands? Gazing deeply into one another’s eyes? Kissing? These (very observable) behaviors come to mind (among many others) because they are the public behaviors which were labeled as “love” when we were first learning the word! As we grew and learned, we added more behaviors to the list of things associated with “love”. Eventually, we generalized the concept “love” just as we did the concept “red” in our earlier example.

The trick is, with “red”, the public referent is fairly narrowly defined by our language community. “Love”, however, is a different animal altogether. That couple, engaged in earnest conversation—are they in love? Or is it a debate? The delivery of flowers: love, or obligation? Is that look love, or lust? Love, or respectful admiration? Is love independent from lust, or inseparable? Can there be love at first sight? Is it possible to love more than one person? (Is it possible not to?)

The truth is, there is no single right answer, or set of right answers. We each will have a unique set of experiences that teach us the meaning of the word “love”. Some experiences are ours alone; some we share with a few others; some we share with millions. Everyone who has heard the Beatles sing “All you need is Love” has a slightly different understanding of love than the people without this experience. Everyone who has seen Romeo and Juliet has a different view of love than those who have not. Everyone who has read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) defines love differently from those who have not. Everyone who has had reason to learn to say “I love you” in a different language has a different view of love than those who have never needed any but their native tongue.

And we have some paradoxical learning going on as well. A child about to be spanked may hear “I am only doing this because I love you.” A battered woman explains that she stays “because I love him, and I know he loves me.” A manipulative lover (that word!) says “if you really love me, you’ll do it…” We learn the negative connotations of the word “love” the same way we learn the magical positive ones, and as a result our definition becomes fuzzy, broad, and at times self-contradictory. If there were one Platonic Ideal of Love that we had access to, we might be able to say that some of these uses of the word were legitimate, while others were false. But no such Ideal is available to us; what is available is this rich exposure to varied public uses of the word. Like with “red”, we cannot know what is in another person’s heart; we can only see how that person uses the word, and what public referents they associate with “love”.

Your unique learning history is what makes you unique. Your unique history with the word “love” has defined it for you.

Note, this does not mean we cannot define it, or recognize it, or that it does not exist! It means that love—real love—is what you do, not why you do it. When we see a couple kiss, and say “that is love”, we cannot see the motivation, only the behavior. We may be wrong about the motivation; we cannot know. But we learn the word, just as we learned “red”, from these examples. Love is not why you write sonnets, climb balconies, send flowers, take moonlit strolls on deserted sandy beaches, think obsessively about her eyes, or let someone warm their cold feet on your back…love is writing sonnets, climbing balconies, sending flowers, taking moonlit strolls, thinking obsessively, and allowing cold feet on your back. Love is not the motivation; it is the actual behavior. We can study the motivation separately (and have), but if we are looking for a thing called love which causes this public and private behavior, we will not find it. There will be no one single chemical in the brain responsible for love; even though our behavior can be reduced to biology, love is an emergent property of a fuzzy category of behaviors. Having been learned from a multitude of examples, it is not a single thing. You might as well ask what it is about the metal sodium and the gas chlorine that makes salt taste the way it does!

(As for motivation, social psychologists have explored many variables—proximity, physical attractiveness, similarity or complementing attitudes, sexual cues, situational arousal, and more. Both operant and classical conditioning also clearly play roles in the learning of the public and private behaviors we call love. It may be a lot of work to try to understand so vast and complicated a subject, but there is no reason to think that love cannot be explored by scientists as well as by poets.)

From a behaviorist viewpoint, love is not something you hold deep within your heart, but something (or rather, a great many things) that you do. It is a fuzzy category of public and private behaviors; it is all those things that we used to say were caused by love.

So, does love exist? Yes, of course—but not in the way we naively supposed that it does. It is still wonderful, and it still turns your whole world upside down. Sunsets did not cease when we discovered that, rather than the sun rising, what we saw was the result of the earth spinning. Sunsets are every bit as romantic now as they ever were; ignorance does not add beauty, nor does knowledge take it away.

Perhaps you will, some day, be fortunate enough to watch a sunset with a special someone, and fall in love with one another. If you are really lucky, perhaps you’ll watch the sun rise together as well. And you will realize that neither the sunrise, nor the love, nor even the luck, are really what we originally thought they were. And it won’t matter a bit, because you’ll be with her (or him), watching a sunset while in love, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Operational definitions (Love, part one)

November 9, 2006

“I only fall in love with those who fall in love.” I read this recently, and it started me thinking. Not just about the statement itself, but with how much we say, how much we claim to know, how much we claim it is impossible to know, about love. We know that “all you need is love”, that “love never dies”, that “love is blind”, that “love is patient, love is kind…love never fails”. Or, conversely, that “love stinks”, or that (in the translated words of Sophocles) “Love is not love alone, but in her name lie many names concealed; for she is Death, imperishable Force, Desire unmixed, wild Frenzy, Lamentation.”

We have centuries–millenia–of poetry and prose about love. And yet it is difficult to answer the question “when you say you love me…what exactly do you mean by that?” Some people will have a terrible argument over the phone, but end their conversation by practically hurling the words “I love you” like a stone; others may, like Cordelia in King Lear, “love, and be silent.” Some believe you can choose whom you love, while others will swear that love chooses them. Romeo and Juliet fell in love in the space of a sonnet, Tevye and Golde took twenty-five years to call it love.

So… as the question goes, “What is this thing called Love?” I ask my students each semester, as a part of a unit on the scientific method, to “define Love.” Each time, I can expect a strong majority of my students’ definitions to include some version of the phrase “no one can really define Love”, or its variation “Love is different for each person.” This is the starting point for two very different discussions on the relationship between science and love. Usually, it is a vehicle for exploring the workings of science, but it is also a lens we can use to look at love itself, and better understand a very important part of our lives. (Some will argue not that we cannot study love, but that we should not. I disagree, but any more than this will have to wait for another time.)

I am a huge fan of love. I have to smile when I hear (and I do) someone say that behaviorism denies the reality of love; no one who knows me would dare make that statement. In examining love, what we are doing is rubbing the tarnish off of a gleaming piece of silver; by removing the tarnish, we are allowing the true nature of love to shine. If love were only an illusion, it would be all tarnish, and when we were through with our cleaning, we would have nothing left. But if that were the case, we would have demonstrated that there was nothing there to begin with. Fortunately, love is strong enough to handle the most thorough scrubbing, so let us polish up this silver a bit and take a look at it. You might want sunglasses…

(One could argue that behaviorists have a history of being big fans of love. Even the founder of behaviorism, John B. Watson—whose methodological behaviorism left little or no room for discussion of “feelings”—was an early researcher in love and sex, and not just because he was, as one writer puts it, “obsessed with sex”. The biggest events in Watson’s life revolved around love. Indeed, his letters became evidence in a scandalous divorce trial, so we have samples of what a behaviorist in love writes: “I’ve made enough love in one day to a girl so young — you might grow weary in reading so much. I am so mad whenever I get to the end of one of your letters — are you that way? Could you kiss me for two hours right now without ever growing weary. I want you all 24 of the hours and then I’d quarrel with the universe because the days are not longer. Let’s go to the north pole where the days and nights are 6 mo. each. Your John.” “I know every cell I have is yours individually and collectively. My total reactions are positive and towards you. So, likewise, each and every heart reaction.” If that is not evidence that he is a passionate scientist, I don’t know what is.)

There are two very different ways in which Behaviorism can and does look at love. One method is shared by other areas of psychological research—Social Psychology has studied love for decades and has done so in large part because of the success, in practical terms, of this approach. I am speaking of the use of operational definitions—that is, simplified definitions that allow objective measurement. Operational definitions simply specify the units of measurement which we use in examining a concept. If we want to know how big somebody is, we may measure height in inches or centimeters (or hands, or smoots, or pez, or miles…), or weight in pounds or kilograms (or stones, or carats, or tons…) or mass, or volume, or shoe or hat size! If we want to know how fast somebody is, we may specify mph, kph, top speed, 40-yard dash, 100 meters, one mile, or 26.2 miles! The units we choose will depend on the use to which we will put this information. What sort of “size” is important differs: a basketball coach and a football coach have different ideas about which units will be more important. A “fast” sprinter may not finish a marathon, and a marathon specialist will not be the fastest sprinter. There is no one “perfect” operational definition of any concept, and no operational definition is a complete definition of a complex topic. The task of an operational definition is to simplify, to allow us to get a handle on something that may not always translate easily to numbers.

So how do we operationally define love? How do we take something that “no one can define” and reduce it to numbers? Well… in many different ways, actually, from percentage of time spent in mutual gaze (staring into one another’s eyes), to angle of lean (toward or away from one another, in degrees, while sitting on a couch), to phone bills. (Watson’s operational definitions, consistent with his view of conditioning, tended to be explicitly physical or sexual in nature.) Zick Rubin used some of these measures to examine the validity of his “loving” and “liking” scales, the first paper and pencil standardized measures of love.

If I could never be with _______, I would be miserable.
I feel very possessive toward _______.
I would do almost anything for _______.
I feel I can confide in _______ about virtually everything.

(items from Rubin’s [1970] love scale)

Since Rubin, there have been other attempts, organized around different models of love, asking different sorts of questions. Depending on one’s theoretical view of love (there are a few at least, within Social Psychology; Behaviorism has not tended to be terribly theoretical on the issue), the concept may be broken down into different aspects. One popular view is Sternberg’s Triangular Theory, in which love is dissected into Passion, Intimacy, and Commitment. Research in this area typically operationally defines love through a series of paper-and-pencil tests:

Sometimes I feel I can’t control my thoughts; they are obsessively on _______.
I sense my body responding when _______ touches me.
I want _______ to know me—my thoughts, my fears, and my hopes.

(items from Hatfield & Rapson’s [1987] passionate love scale)

I have a warm and comfortable relationship with _______.
I experience intimate communication with _______.
I receive considerable emotional support from _______.

(items from Sternberg’s [1986] intimacy scale)

I expect my love for _______ to last for the rest of my life.
I am certain of my love for _______.
I have confidence in the stability of my relationship with _______.
(items from Sternberg’s [1986] commitment scale)

Other studies, at other levels of analysis, will use different definitions, perhaps as simple as asking “are you in love?” or as complicated as reduction to neurotransmitter action: “Human affection and love involve changes in the neurotransmitters of the brain. The neurotransmitter dopamine and the opioid peptides are involved in this respect. Falling in love has an obsessive component and serotonin depletion is involved in obsessive neurosis. The neurotransmitter serotonin is responsible for transient love while endorphins are involved in compassionate love. When one is in love head-over-heels, endorphins are released to the maximum. An alkaloidal neurotransmitter, anandamide, causes love in the brain when activated. The initial surge of excitement on seeing the person who is the focus of affection is mediated by the neurotransmitters, noradrenaline and dopamine, both of which cause arousal. These are activated in the hypothalamus by visual cues when some one meets a person to whom one is attracted.” (Kurup & Kurup, 2003)

Ah, but what is this “love” that these various measures are attempting to reduce to numbers? Certainly, when your true love looks deeply into your eyes and whispers “I love you”, he or she is not saying “I look into your eyes a lot”, or “I lean toward you, not away”, or “I have confidence in the stability of my relationship with you”, or even “you really cause the release of endorphins!” These things are nice, of course—indeed, they are wonderful—but are they love? Of course not. They are not supposed to be—they are operational definitions, which are necessarily incomplete and oversimplified. Operational definitions are tremendously useful when examining a subject, but they are not terribly satisfying when we wish to look at the big picture. Even the mosaic of perspectives the scientific community gives us altogether does not satisfy. We see, when we look at the entirety of scientific research on love, a much bigger and more detailed picture, but it can be a bit like a cubist painting—lots of perspectives of reality giving rise to something that looks very unlike the real world.

Operational definitions are merely a tool to allow us to grasp something that is not easy to grasp. There will never be the One Perfect Operational Definition of Love. There cannot be. The best chance we have of understanding how love works is to have a variety of operational definitions, and to see our understanding converge as we near our target from many different directions and perspectives.

And of course, operational definitions are not satisfying. We want to know what love is, not what some scientist measures as a way of answering the minutest fragment of the question. Helpful or not, I cannot accept an analysis of brain chemistry as “what love really is”. It is not; it is merely an operational definition. We need to look at the second way behaviorism can contribute to what we know about love. This second way is a real change in perspective. I hope to change the way you look at love, in much the same way that Copernicus changed the way we look at a sunset, or that Newton changed the way we look at a rainbow. Love will still be beautiful, as are sunsets and rainbows, but we may have a better chance at understanding some of the apparent mysteries of love, and of other of our cherished and important human attributes.

But that will be the topic for my next posting.

Food Aversion

October 30, 2006

Food aversion

Ah… Halloween! I just sent my kids out to beg for food from strangers. A few years ago, they had decided that they were too old for this, but I guess they are much younger now.

Long ago, well before I was their age, I took my most memorable trick-or-treat trip. Lots of good loot—I think I was dressed in a plastic ghost mask, but I am not sure; that was not what was so memorable about this evening. I don’t even remember what sort of goodies I got…except for one. I do remember a homemade caramel popcorn ball. I ate it eagerly (this was before there was a general paranoia about homemade treats, although not before the rumors of razor blades secreted into apples to await unsuspecting kids…)

Either later that night, or early the next morning, I was in the hospital. Some nasty bug was making the rounds, and I was one of three kids from my school who were hospitalized. I was, by far, the worst off; they put me in an oxygen tent, surrounded me with icepacks, used my rear for a penicillin pincushion… and I still had a fever that jumped up and down from a low of 104 (F, or 40 C) to a high of 108 (over 42 C). Anyone searching for a cause for my peculiarities need look no further; it is fairly certain that I suffered brain damage from such a fever.

My mom remembers being afraid for my life. The detail that stands out for her was that she (at the time, a medical technologist in another hospital) was given a device to hold while she watched me, a rubber stick to put in my mouth if I were to have a seizure, to prevent me from biting my tongue off. I guess it was a pretty scary situation. I don’t remember much of it at all, and did not remember much of it at the time.

I did recover (surprise!), and remember bits and pieces of a brief recuperation at the hospital. I got toys from some charitable organization, so that my parents would not have to take time to go home. I watched daytime television. I rested. I got better.

Afterward, things were pretty much back to normal. I find, with a bit of amusement, that I cannot recall how long I was out of school. It must have been at least a week. There was one lingering effect, though. I no longer liked popcorn. In fact, I hated it. Could not stand the sight or smell or thought of it. I would not eat it. For over 20 years. It was not until my daughter decided we needed to plant popcorn in the garden—and you know how I feel about eating food from my garden—that I once again could eat popcorn without a feeling of nausea. Today, I am once again able to eat popcorn without worrying, although it is still not my first choice.

The science behind it…

In most cases, classical conditioning works best when the conditioned stimulus is delivered just before the unconditioned stimulus. The stimuli can overlap (delayed conditioning) or be separated briefly (trace conditioning), but if the separation is longer than just half a second or so, conditioning is much less effective. (You may also pair the stimuli in reverse order, or present them simultaneously, but those are subjects for another time.)

There is one important exception to the half-second trace conditioning rule. In conditioning food aversions, the conditioned stimulus (food) may be paired with an unconditional stimulus (nausea-inducing poison, microbes, or radiation) that is presented considerably later. The unconditional stimulus may be presented hours, even days later, and the association between the stimuli may still be learned.

In my case, I know that the popcorn ball was not poisoned, or tainted. I know that there was an illness going around my school, and that my classmates who were sick were from other neighborhoods and had not eaten popcorn from that house. Over the years, I learned about the conditioning of food aversions, but that awareness did nothing to make popcorn any more appetizing.

It makes sense, of course, that food aversion would be an exception to the trace conditioning rule. Even if food is tainted, it may take some time before illness sets in. You could easily eat a non-tainted food in the interim. If it were not for the effectiveness of this long-delay trace conditioning, you might not learn to avoid a dangerous food. (In truth, this sort of learning is biologically prepared; the organisms that did not develop this trick did not leave as many offspring as those that did. We are the descendents of the lucky ones.)

That’s it; nothing complicated this time. I need the time—I have to raid my kids’ candy stash.


October 29, 2006


As noted elsewhere, Ginkgo Day is approaching (or is here, or has come and gone, depending on your location). Since my friend the Gastronomer complains “I have been wandering around New England quite for sometime and nobody told me about the ginko tree and nobody brought to my attention the tradition of the Ginko Day”, I think I will take this opportunity to explain the origins and two reasons for the continued observance of Ginkgo Day.

To the best of my knowledge (and I have spent quite a bit of time trying to prove myself wrong on this, and welcome any evidence that I am wrong), the tradition of Ginkgo day began with…me. Seriously. So far, every time I have talked to someone who knows about the Ginkgo Day traditions, I have been able to trace their knowledge back to me, through not too many intermediaries. I moved to this town (where there is a magnificent ginkgo tree perhaps 100 steps from my office) in 1984, and I have been unable to find any similar Ginkgo Day traditions predating this. (I did find, though, that ginkgo leaves have been used as “specific magic” against bookworms; this use is ancient, but unrelated to Ginkgo Day.)

The short version is this: The ginkgo tree (usually) loses all (or the vast majority) of its leaves on one day. This day is Ginkgo Day, the only holiday I know of where the determination of the date is independent of any human decision. The tree decides, and Ginkgo Day may be different from town to town, or even from tree to tree within a given town. The tradition I started (and I really don’t like saying that) is that if you catch a falling leaf on Ginkgo Day, it brings good luck. Oh, and you can catch leaves for other people–giving them the leaves will bring luck to them.

The long version is much more interesting, and is a tapestry woven from many, many different stories. I’ll just use one now…

“Dr. K.” Several years ago (but well after the tradition had momentum) I caught many leaves, and happened to give one to “Dr. K.”, a colleague of mine who had passed by and asked me what I was doing. (The short version does not adequately paint the picture of people standing underneath a tree, craning their necks skyward, lunging randomly at falling leaves, usually missing…) Dr. K. had recently been through a divorce, and thought she could really use some luck. Well…within the next week or two, she had met a man, a very nice man, an English teacher. She credited the ginkgo leaf. No, really. She told him about it, and gave him that same ginkgo leaf, laminated into a bookmark. A few months later, he carefully cut the leaf out of the bookmark, and presented it to her in a poem he had written, in which he proposed marriage. Of course, she accepted, and credited the ginkgo leaf. I have a copy of a poem he read at the wedding, crediting the ginkgo for their meeting and love. (The final copy, framed with that same leaf, is on the wall in their house.) The wedding cake had green ginkgo-leaf frosting; she wore gold ginkgo-leaf earrings. One of their wedding gifts was a set of crystal goblets etched with ginkgo leaves.

In subsequent years, I would see her at the tree on Ginkgo Day, catching leaves for friends. “I really do believe in this!” Two years ago, she moved out of state. At her new house, of course, they have planted a ginkgo tree.

For myself, I try my best never to miss a Ginkgo Day, but I do not share the view that it actually brings luck. It is a ritual, but not a superstition.

The science behind it…

In most operant conditioning experiments, reinforcement follows a particular behavior. Under some schedules (ratio schedules), reinforcement is delivered after a given number of instances of that behavior; under other schedules (interval schedules), reinforcement is delivered after the first instance of the behavior following a specified length of time. In both types of schedule, though, the subject (whether rat, pigeon, dog, monkey, dolphin, or person) must perform the specified behavior in order to receive the reinforcing consequence.

In 1947, B. F. Skinner tried something different; he delivered food to hungry pigeons “at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behavior” [italics in original], and noted the resulting behavior. Most of the birds had developed stereotyped behavior patterns—repetitive movements which were quite obvious and consistent, turning in circles, or dancing with a pendulum-like movement, or a vigorous nodding of the head. It appears that the early movements the pigeons made were serendipitously followed by the delivery of food. This acted to reinforce the behavior, making it more probable that they were doing it again when the food was next delivered. A few repetitions of this, and the behaviors became stronger, even though at no time was the behavior necessary for delivery of food.

“The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing — or, more strictly speaking, did something else.” (1948)

When Dr. K. met her future husband shortly after the ginkgo leaf was caught (yes, I was the one who caught it, but human verbal behavior is easily able to bridge gaps like that), meeting him served as a reinforcer (a big one!) for the behavior of ginkgo leaf catching. There was, really, no causal connection between the leaf and her good fortune, but Skinner’s experiment demonstrates that no causal connection is necessary. And, while I would be happy to report that Dr. K. does not really believe there is any magic to this ritual, my conversations with her lead me to believe that she is quite convinced of its reality. Why shouldn’t she? All her experience has shown her that wonderful things come to those who believe in the magical power of the ginkgo leaf and act accordingly. We are, it seems, built to notice such connections, and to learn from them. Seeing connections is the basis for both science and superstition!

But what about me? Why do I, who claim not to believe in the superstition, spend my time under the ginkgo tree, running around like a fool, trying to catch falling leaves?

One possible explanation is that it is also superstitious conditioning, but without conscious awareness of the conditioning. In other words, the behavior of catching leaves has been reinforced, but not the behavior of believing in the superstition.

Another possibility is tied up in the concept of stimulus control. Briefly, stimulus control occurs when a behavior happens more frequently in the presence of a stimulus than in its absence. (We use this concept when we advise someone who is trying to quit smoking to change other things at the same time, so that the stimuli that used to prompt smoking would not be as salient.) I use Ginkgo Day as a day of remembering friends; I ask myself “if it really was the case that I could give someone luck by catching a leaf, who is important enough to do this for?” After all, there is no guarantee that I will see the tree on Ginkgo Day (since the tree, not the calendar, determines the date). There is no guarantee I will be there at the right time (one year, virtually all the leaves fell in under two hours—while I was teaching a class!). There is no guarantee that I will catch a leaf (at the peak of the fall, it is like a heavy snowfall, but if you miss the peak, it may take a while; I have seen people trying for over half an hour with no luck). So a leaf is a precious commodity. Deciding whom to send it to requires taking an inventory of all the important people in your life. In my opinion, if catching a leaf makes you think about the important people in your life, it is a good thing.

And giving a leaf to friends does not mean I actually think I am passing out magic talismans. It is really nothing more than an odd way of saying “I’ve been thinking about you. You are important to me.”

The nice thing is, I could spend an hour trying and failing to catch leaves (not that I ever have), and it would still be a success because I would have spent that time with thoughts of loved ones. On the other hand, if Dr. K. fails to catch a magic leaf, it foretells a bad year ahead!

I like my magic better.


October 26, 2006


(For my friend, the Gastronomer…and the best behaviorist I know)

There is something special about cooking something with ingredients from one’s own garden. This year was a terrible one for tomatoes, or I would have at least a couple dozen quarts of tomato sauce in mason jars downstairs, as in other years. This year, I barely managed enough tomatoes to eat fresh, and some of my varieties did not produce at all, except nasty fruits mottled with diseases. Three years ago, I had 18 different varieties of tomato, and put up sauce in different shades: white brandywine, yellow low-acid, and loads of beautiful red sauces. This year…nothing. No tomatoes, anyway.

Green beans did a wonderful job, though. I planted too many of them, because I had planted too few too often. Some went to waste this year, giant hulking green beans that had grown beyond the tender stage to the “I dare you” stage. And herbs…my herbs were beautiful and fragrant. I made pesto, and herb jams, and dried herbs…and I managed to harvest the basil before the first frost this year.

The only other thing that grew was my Hubbard Squash. And yes, the use of the singular is intentional, as only one squash grew to full size. Two other mutant dwarfs were harvested, but all others fell prey to squash beetles.

But it is the squash I wanted to talk about, specifically, today. A few years ago, with a bumper crop of beautiful blue squash, I experimented with several different recipes for squash soup, eventually hitting upon one which I am quite fond of. I will share two different versions of the recipe (and variations), and talk a bit about why one version is invariably so much better than the other.

Squash Soup, version 1:

Hubbard Squash—peeled and seeded, chopped into 1-inch chunks, about 3 pounds.
Onion—good pungent Spanish onion, not a sweet onion—1 large, or 2 small, chopped.
Garlic—2-3 cloves, chopped.
Stock—sufficient to cover the squash in a saucepan. Vegetable or chicken both work.
Half and half—or light or heavy cream, from 1 cup to more, to taste and thickness.
Salt and pepper.
Olive oil

For (optional, but highly recommended) garnish:
Roasted red peppers—pureed, in olive oil.
Walnuts, chopped
Parmesan Reggiano, grated

In a stockpot, saute the garlic and onion in olive oil until soft. Add the chunks of squash, cover with stock, and boil until tender (15-30 minutes, depending on ripeness and variety of squash). Mash or puree squash (or, for a more textured soup, simply stir well to break up chunks into a thick, lumpy mess), adding more stock, if needed. At this point, the soup can sit for some time if you have other things to cook. It will take very little time to finish up. To finish, stir in half-and-half or cream (or if watching fat, additional stock as well) to the desired soup consistency. Season with salt and pepper; stir well. Serve with pureed pepper, chopped walnuts, and grated parmesan floated on top.

Variations I have tried include substituting evaporated milk for the half-and-half or cream (if you never tried the original, you’d never miss the fat; if you tried the original, evaporated milk does not do quite the same job), substituting lobster stock for chicken or vegetable (a wonderful variation; here on the North Atlantic coast, I will try adding some cooked lobster meat next time, too). I do not recommend substituting sweet onion; too much flavor is lost.

This soup is wonderful; I have received compliments on it every time I have served it. It was a first course for Thanksgiving for a family gathering a few years ago, and earned a place on the “ok, we will have this every year from now on” list.

But there is a way to make it taste even better.

Squash Soup, version 2:

In mid-October to late November of previous year, plant your garlic. For this soup, I recommend a hard-neck garlic, which is more fun to grow, anyway (since you can harvest the garlic scape and eat it, too). Keep them well-mulched over winter, and water them well during the spring. When the leaves turn brown, harvest them. Most folks will tell you to dry and age the garlic before using it; they are probably right, but I like to use fresh garlic as well, for its own taste. For this soup, aged is preferred, but some new adds other flavor.

The following spring, plant your onions and squash. You may wish to get a jump on growth by planting the squash seeds in containers indoors before the danger of frost is gone, and transplanting your seedlings to the garden after any such danger is over. Remember, this squash plant needs a lot of room! Vines of 10 feet in each direction are not unheard of! Feed with plenty of compost, and water well; these are hungry and thirsty plants. Keep a close watch over them, especially in their early growth; you may wish to cover them with a row cover, to keep those nasty borer beetles at bay. If you wish, you may harvest some of the copious flowers; they are delicious sautéed with those garlic scapes! Don’t become complacent once the squash fruits appear—those beetles are nasty little creatures. Fortunately, the onions will look after themselves; keep them fed and watered, but they are relatively low-maintenance.

It is a long process, I admit. At least I don’t ask you to raise your own chickens, or catch your own lobster. (Although, in truth, the soup will taste better if you do. I am serious. Yes, I will explain.)

By late October, at least in this growing zone, your garlic will be dried (unless you left some in the ground), the onions will be harvested, and the squash will be the size of your head…or larger. When its stem is dry, harvest the squash. Let it dry a bit (a couple of days at minimum) in the garden, or somewhere outside, before bringing it in to store or to cook. Everything should be ready to cook the soup for Halloween, and it will stay in absolute peak condition at least through Christmas. Actually, all these ingredients should be fantastic through Spring, but I have never had any left by then; this soup is just too good during cold winter evenings. Just follow the steps in Version 1.

If you use ingredients from your own garden, the soup will taste better. Period. And it is not (merely) because the ingredients are fresh; it will taste better if it comes from your garden than if it comes from your neighbor’s, harvested the same day.

Trust me.

The science behind it…

I recently found a paper of B.F.Skinner’s (1986) that I had not seen before, entitled “What Is Wrong With Daily Life in the Western World?” In it, Skinner discusses the problems inherent in the success of Western society. Yes, there are global problems of hunger, violence, the possibility of war, and Skinner does not dismiss these, but the relatively affluent and successful Western culture brings with it its own set of problems. These are problems that arise not from want, but from plenty; not from plague, but from health; not from adversity, but from bountiful success. A strange sort of problems, indeed.

There are many things wrong with the world today, but they do not disturb everyone. Overpopulation, the impoverishment and pollution of the environment, and even the possibility of a nuclear war are often dismissed as matters to be dealt with in the fairly distant future. Poverty, illness, and violence are current problems, but not for everyone. Many of those who live in the Western democracies enjoy a reasonable degree of affluence, freedom, and security. But they have problems of their own. In spite of their privileges, many of them are bored, listless, or depressed. They are not enjoying their lives. They do not like what they are doing; they are not doing what they like to do. In a word, they are unhappy. That is not the most serious problem in the world, but it could be said to be an ultimate one. Most of the world looks forward to enjoying some approximation of the Western life-style when they have solved their other problems. Is there not something more promising in the future of the species?

What has this to do with squash soup? Everything, actually. Our behaviors, in the Western world, tend to be reinforced in inefficient manners. We are paid every two weeks, the same amount, whether it has been a good two weeks or a horrible two weeks. The rewards (not reinforcers) we receive are, to some extent, independent of our behavior. We work for money, which we pay to someone who grew the squash, rather than working for the squash. We work on an inefficient interval schedule, where the time passed, rather than the work done, determines whether we get paid. When we are reinforced for the work done (rather than for the time passed), we take advantage of the schedule of reinforcement that built Las Vegas. Gambling takes place on a variable ratio schedule, and the most casual observer can see that gambling interests people more than their bi-weekly paycheck does.

Reinforcement for what we do, rather than for the time it takes us to do it, builds stronger behavior. And what is enjoyment, beyond a desire to continue doing something? When we are reinforced directly for doing something, the reinforcers are more powerful. When we do something ourselves, rather than do something else in order to pay someone else to do something for us (did that parse?), we enjoy it more. Yes, it can be easier to pay someone else. But, again quoting Skinner, “people who avoid labor and have things done for them escape from many aversive consequences, but beyond a certain point they deprive themselves of strengthening consequences as well.

The more you do for yourself, the more you are directly reinforced for your actions, and the more you enjoy your soup.

Grow for yourself! Cook for yourself! Entertain your guests for yourself!

You will thank me for it.

Discriminative Stimuli

October 24, 2006

Discriminative Stimuli

My dog is getting older. Her beautiful black and brindle coat now shows a little grey around her muzzle, and her eyes have a trace of haze in them. She’s eleven years old, and at her size that makes her a senior citizen.

We bought her when she was seven months old, from the animal shelter where she had been sent for chewing on the furniture too many times. We were not looking for a Doberman mix. We were looking for maybe a Golden Retriever, or there was a litter of adorable Black Lab/Husky mix puppies that were all spoken for by the time we got there. But this one sat quietly in the midst of barking chaos, and when my wife saw her, she called me to bring the kids. We took the dog for a little walk in the field around the shelter, and while she sniffed at, rolled in, and tried to eat a small mound of frozen horse manure, my family out-voted me. We brought her home, where we discovered that she, despite her fairly large size, considered herself a lapdog.

She is part Greyhound, and she was poetry in motion going after a Frisbee. This past summer, she may have caught one once. She is just not interested in sprinting any more. She does still love to swim, although she does not have the stamina she used to. She’ll swim as long as there is someone else there she needs to protect, but she no longer will sneak out the door and down the path to the lake by herself.

She has a slight heart murmur, we are reminded each time we take her for her annual check-up. Nothing too bad, but something to keep an eye on. I have had to adjust my sleeping schedule on occasion; there will be a few weeks at a time when she needs to wake me up at 3AM to let her outside, or there will be something for me to clean up the next morning.

So tonight, we were out for a walk. It is habit—dogs are great with habit—after supper, I wash the dishes and then we go for our second-to-last evening walk. The skies are dark, with clouds just beginning to file in from the west, and a smell of rain or snow (it is supposed to snow up north, but here we should only get rain); I am walking slowly, eyes skyward, wishing my usual wish upon a star. (What does The Behaviorist think of wishing on stars? That is a topic for another time, I promise.) When I look down, I notice that she is beginning to walk a little funny. A bit bowlegged. This is also something she has only started doing this year. I pick up the pace, and (uncharacteristically, I assure you) run the next 30-40 yards with her, to an appropriate area, where she immediately takes a massive dump. Sadly, her years are playing tricks on her here, too; she is losing control, and may start walking away while…um…not quite finished yet. Poor dog. She is getting old.

For her health and mine, we have begun a new walking regimen. Each morning we set off, walking and gathering our thoughts for the day. We started a few weeks ago with a half hour walk, and are coming closer to an hour by now. We each have our good days and bad days; some days, she limps, others, I do. On days where we both are limping, we take a shorter walk.

For some reason, I am reminded of one of my favorite poems, by one of my favorite poets.

On A Good Dog
by Ogden Nash

O my little pup ten years ago
was arrogant and spry,
Her backbone was a bended bow
for arrows in her eye.
Her step was proud, her bark was loud,
her nose was in the sky,
But she was ten years younger then,
And so, by God was I.

Small birds on stilts along the beach
Rose up with piping cry.
And as they rose beyond her reach
I thought to see her fly.
If natural law refused her wings,
That law she would defy,
for she could do unheard of things,
And so, at times could I.

Ten years ago she split the air
to seize what she could spy;
Tonight she bumps against a chair,
betrayed by milky eye!
She seems to pant, Time up, time up!
My little dog must die,
And lie in dust with Hector’s pup;
So, presently must I.

The science behind it.

Nothing complicated today. A stimulus is anything that can potentially influence a response (“response”, itself, is behaviorese for behavior); there are unconditioned and conditioned eliciting stimuli (in classical conditioning), reinforcing or punishing consequent stimuli (in operant conditioning), and there are discriminative stimuli (again, in operant conditioning), today’s subject.

A discriminative stimulus precedes a response, but does not reflexively elicit the response. Rather, it acts as a signal, alerting the organism (me, you, a rat, a dog…) to the contingencies of reinforcement and punishment. A very simple discriminative stimulus setup might consist of an operant chamber (or Skinner box—I’ll discuss it in more detail in a later post) programmed to deliver a reinforcer of grain if a key is pecked while it is lit, but which will not deliver grain if the key is pecked when it is not lit. A pigeon quickly learns what the “lit key” signal means, and responds appropriately, pecking when the key is lit, but not when it is not.

Discriminative stimuli may signal that a behavior will be reinforced, or that it will be punished. The discriminative stimulus itself does not cause the behavior to occur, but simply signals what will happen if the behavior does occur. There are many discriminative stimuli in our lives: Do you act differently with friends than with parents? If so, these people are discriminative stimuli for different modes of behavior. Are you louder at a ballgame than at a movie? Discriminative stimuli. Traffic signs, storm clouds, red versus green strawberries…discriminative stimuli.

My dog’s gait had changed; her bowlegged scrabbling did not reflexively cause me to run, but it did signal that if we continued walking at the current pace that I would have some serious street-cleaning to do. The discriminative stimulus signaled that walking would be punished, while running would be reinforced.

Her eyes, her lack of stamina, her grey muzzle, her limp…all of these are signals. Walking will be reinforced; so will curling up on the couch. One thing these discriminative stimuli keep saying is “enjoy her now; there may not be many years left.”

I think I’ll pay attention.

Spontaneous Recovery

October 23, 2006

Spontaneous Recovery

So there I was, driving along the tidal flats on my way to the next town, with the radio on. Nothing special was playing, my thoughts were several thousand miles away—as usual—when I heard the opening notes of a song I had not heard in much much too long.

“Heard” is wrong; true, but incomplete. I felt these notes in my stomach, in the tightness of my breath, before I recognized what the song was. My guts knew before my brain did, this was a song that had a history with me…

As the morning light stretched in across my bed
I thought of you
Remembering your laughing eyes and all we said
I love you too
And as all my thoughts of you pass ‘fore my face a thousand times
The way they race my heart, I cannot say it all in lines

I had never—not once—heard this song on the radio. Not back then, not recently. This song has been a part of my life for over a dozen years, and yesterday was the very first time I had ever heard it on the radio!

Deborah had sent me this song, over a decade ago, with others. A mix tape. Nanci Griffith, John Hiatt, John Gorka, Richard Thompson, many others. Some I knew, but others—like Nanci Griffith—I had never heard. I kept the tape in my car, and played little else for months. And yes, thought about Deborah with each playing.

How the short time together lasts so long
Makes me strong
As two weeks came and went and you and I were gone
Living on
For it seems our love was destined to be caught in other nets
But the love we held so brief I’d chance again without regret

It was closer to two years than to two weeks, but I would not change, do not regret, a single moment of our relationship. It was a wonderful friendship, and much more. We were each other’s sounding boards, each other’s confidante, closer in some ways than lovers, although (you are reading this on the internet, so you know the score) we never even kissed. Too many hundreds of miles between us.

As we drifted apart, amicably, the tape was played for other people. Some were the ones who were replacing Deborah in my life. Friends, yes, and closer. We spent days, weeks together—talking about love and life, running a business and holding each other up. We could work all week together and want nothing more than to see one another all weekend. A long workday followed by a staff meeting, and when it was over we would still hang around, watching the stars, talking or listening to music…yes, this song. I built up more memories with this song; now it was Deborah’s, but also Lisa’s, and Lori’s. When I loaned the tape to Lori for a cross-country trip, I knew I would never see the tape again; I bought Nanci Griffith’s CD (and some of the others from the tape). No CD player in my car, so I brought it in to the office.

Yes, standing by the road has been my song before
Much too long
But now somehow I’m forced to see me there once more
And that’s the song
For my waking thoughts of you are but extensions of the dream
Without you here beside me I’ll never know all that they mean

That was several years ago. That CD, and others by Nanci, were played many, many times over the next 5 years or so. My officemate and I both enjoyed it, so it was often background music while we prepared for class, or graded papers, or just drank coffee. A couple of years ago I moved offices, and that CD has not yet been unpacked. Until yesterday, it had been over 2 years since I had heard that song.

And it took me right back to Deborah, and those wonderful, exciting feelings we shared a dozen years or so ago. A musical time capsule, a fountain of youth, a magic spell that grabs you by the heart before your head knows what is happening…

As the morning light stretched in across my bed
I thought of you
Remembering your laughing eyes and all we said
I love you too
And as all my thoughts of you pass ‘fore my face a thousand times
The way they race my heart, I cannot say it all in lines

Now, the science behind it.

The emotional reaction to a song—or to anything, for that matter—is a non-conscious reaction of one’s autonomic nervous system. It is, for all intents and purposes, a reflex. But of course, it is a learned reflex; if it were innate, we would all have the same reactions to the same songs, just as we all blink if air is puffed at our eye, or kick if our patellar tendon is tapped. The reaction to a song must be learned; it is an example of classical conditioning at work.

In classical conditioning (a more thorough explanation will have to wait for another time), an unconditioned (or unconditional) stimulus—one which reflexively elicits a response, and does not have to be learned—is paired with a neutral stimulus. Yes, it is the Pavlovian method, pairing a bell, or light, or metronome, with a bit of food powder delivered to the dog’s mouth. You do not have to teach a dog to drool when you put food in its mouth; a few pairings of the bell with the food, and you have a dog that drools when you sound a bell. This process is called acquisition. At this point, the reaction has been conditioned, and the bell acts as a conditioned stimulus for the conditioned response of drooling. Ok, next step: If we now present the bell without pairing it with the food, the dog will, at first, drool, but will gradually learn that the two are no longer paired. Soon, the bell will no longer elicit drool; this process is called extinction (and again, a more thorough treatment can be expected in some later post).

But now…if we just wait a while…if we do not present the dog with the bell at all, and just go about our business, an interesting phenomenon shows itself. The conditioned response to the association between bell and food was not eliminated by extinction; it was merely suppressed. If, some time later, we present the bell again, the dog will drool. It is nature’s “better safe than sorry” plan. This phenomenon is termed spontaneous recovery.

The song was, initially, a neutral stimulus. Deborah, however, was an unconditional stimulus (don’t think this is an insult—what I am saying here is that I did not have to learn to have her turn my stomach upside down, make my heart race, and quicken my breathing). A few pairings of song and Deborah, and the song itself could make me sigh and smile. It does not take a lot of pairings, and I had plenty of opportunity over the years to condition this reaction. (This is, of course, a simplification—I am only looking at the classical conditioning portion right now, but there is a lot of operant conditioning that will be explored later.) The pairing of the song with Lori and Lisa allowed the association to generalize and strengthen. Ah, but then the playing of the song in my office, with no pairing with anyone in particular, extinguished those earlier associations. The song, it seemed, was once again neutral, or nearly so.

But not yesterday. Time had passed; enough time, apparently, to allow for spontaneous recovery of the wonderful associations I had originally learned. And my heart pounded, my stomach tightened, my breath quickened, all before I recognized what the song was. It is not a conscious process; it is much deeper than that.

Is it magic? Yes. Of course.

It’s also classical conditioning.