Archive for October, 2006

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.

Hello world!

October 21, 2006

I suppose we all start with “Hello world!”

This is just a place so that I have a home on wordpress; I have a couple of friends around here somewhere.