Archive for the ‘Operant Conditioning’ Category


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


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.