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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Britney Spears Brain: A Sofisticated Analysis


A baseline or control state is fundamental to the understanding of Britney Spears brain. Defining such a baseline state for Britney Spears, arguably our most complex systems, poses a particular challenge. Many suspect, that left unconstrained, her behavior will vary unpredictably. Despite this prediction we identify a tanline state of Britney's brain in terms of the brain oxygenation extrapolation fun factor, or OEFF.The OEFF is defined as the ratio of oxygen used by her brain to oxygen delivered by flowing beer and is remarkably uniform in the awake but rocking state (e.g. listening to hip hop music with eyes closed). Local perversions in the OEFF represent the physiological basis of signals of changes in neuronal activity obtained from disfunctional mri during a wide variety of teen behaviors. We used quantitative alcoholic and circulatory measurements from positively emission tom-tomography to obtain the OEFF regionally throughout Britney's brain. Areas of activation were conspicuous in their absence of thinking. All significant deviations from the really mean hemisphere OEFF were increases, signifying deactivation, deviations, and perturbations and resided almost exclusively in the posterior angulate limbo system. These changes suggest the existence of an organized, tanline default mode of Britney brain function that is suspended during specific goal-directed behaviors, such as shopping.


Disfunctional brain imaging studies in normal teen subjects with chiaPET and fun MRI have consistently revealed expected task induced increases in regional brain activity during goal directed behaviors. These changes are detected when comparisions are made between a task state, designed to place demand on the cerebral noggin, and a self-control state, with a set of demands that are sort of different from those of the task state. We believe our findings will show that our idea that a tanline or default state of Britney's Brain is pretty interesting, and that the functions of which are revealed by those areas whose activities are suspended during many transient, attention demanding, goal directed, lip smacking good activies, such as shopping.


Although Britney's tiny brain accounts for only about 1% of her body weight, it consumes nearly 20% of the oxygen and snack foods she takes from her environment. This co-dependence of her brain on oxygen is highlighted by the fact that failure of oxygen delivery to her brain, usually the result of thinking, results in spates of giddy laughter within seconds. An examination of the relationship between oxygen delivery to Britney's brain and blood regionally within her brain (go Figure 1) highlights the nature of this dependency.

Natal Pie Chart fmri reading of Inter-neural Co-Limbo Dependencies for Britney Spears brain

Conduction and Valence Bands for Britney, the meaning of which should be obvious

Britney Brains as scanned by a 3mpeg digital autofocus zoom camera

(notice transmodal cortical giddiness patterns as she thinks of shopping.)

The rest of this article is more of the same, or to put it succinctly:


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Socrates doesn't live here anymore

The consummate inquiring mind in history wrote nothing, accomplished nothing, and made his mark by standing around a rock, questioning people. His obsession was the nature of truth, of wisdom, of the good and virtuous life. It was a focus unsullied and undeflected by any desire for money, fame, or material reward. The truth was found by the questioning, the constant questioning of every observation, every premise. To Socrates, knowledge was not something you would merely sit back and absorb, like some mental sponge, but was to be continually tested and questioned. Not as efficient, but more stimulating, and it was the question that provided the motive and measure of truth.

Always questioning, to the end.

Socrates was in effect the first radio talkshow host, but without the radio, and without the agenda. Daily, he would reinvent the philosophical wheel, continually testing the shadow that we call truth, and providing the vital dynamic behind the development of western philosophy. Surprisingly, the Socratic approach is old hat; we practice it all the time. The vitality of democracy and the free market depend upon it. We debate matters continually to determine the shoes we buy, the food we eat, and the governance we choose. These choices flood us everywhere, forcing us to continually question our merchants, our politicians, and ourselves. It does make for a sort of insecurity and chaos, but that is the hallmark and enabler of a society that butters our bread.

To look at things from every angle, and at every level, and to pepper it with irony is an embedded tease of a question that makes for soap operas and Shakespeare. It doesn't anymore make for good philosophy, and that's a shame. I suppose you can blame that as well on the market, a value placed on sophistication, as a sophist would say. The sophists were Socrates' bane, and not just because they had to earn a little money. After all, knowledge does not necessarily come cheap. The Sophists were intellectual types in classical Athens who had to work for a living, and used knowledge to earn a living. They knew how to use language, and how it could be used to persuade and of course to earn money. Naturally, with such a pecuniary motive their interest would gravitate to using language, or rather fracturing language to generate a thousand truths. The cartoonist Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) likened this racket to a new economic model that he called a 'confusopoly'. that is, if you can confuse all the people all the time, you can charge folks for it. We know them now as college professors, politicians, and lawyers. And of course, we know them as psychologists. You can identify sophists from the fact that if the money is not there for them, they will not talk to you, and if they favored you with an answer. It was beyond debate.

We are well aware of the spectre of doubletalk, and how it can easily part foolish you from your money. But if that knowledge is necessary for survival, you have no choice but to question it often, think twice about its source, and never fully trust what you know. This makes for good shopping habits, whether it be buying calves brains or getting brain surgery. So we argue, and debate, and constantly inquire, and hopefully keep the politicians and lawyers at bay, and are all the wiser for it.

When an audience is interested in questioning the world, then nonsense blows away like a morning mist. However, if an audience is disengaged, then anything goes, and verbiage builds like an impenetrable fog. Minding your own business allows you to ignore academic poseurs who strut about naked in intellectually threadbare arguments. Whether or not they have clothes is of no matter to you, unless of course you are forced to move your eyes to comprehend their nakedness. It is then that you have to question things and to say at first blush that the Emperor has no clothes.

Wisdom begins with an admission of that you know nothing, a naked admission indeed!

We cannot as human beings avert our eyes from the questions raised by our mortality, our psychology, or the ultimate meaning of our lives. But such questions are not practicable because our insitutions have made them undebatable. And for this I say, bring on the clowns! Socrates made simple minded observations seem foolish by taking them to their ultimate and contradictory ends, and thus made intellectuals fall on their own verbal swords. The road to wisdom after all is as full of pratfalls as pitfalls, as nature has bestowed on us an eye for a joke. The modern view sees it differently, and we are led by our culture into a world comprised of scores of events that are beyond debate. Whether it be the origin of the universe or the origin of the species, we are dealt cold dead facts that suffocate us with their certainty. Socrates would have demurred, and would have introduced the possibility of flat earths and genesis floods to compete with our Newtonian and Darwinian certainties. Better he would have thought to render it endlessly debatable, and to charge the mind with with an endless fountain of questions. Ultimately, individual minds must think for themselves.

So get rid of the facts, toss them away. The truth will come out in the end anyway. It always does. Mix pixies and vengeful gods with your natural selection, and let inquiring minds find the way. It's after all the Socratic thing to do.

Any questions?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Psychological Acts

Why am ‘I’ not my right kidney?

Why am ‘I’ not my right kidney? I mean, why can’t ‘I’ be my right kidney? After all, it’s the same size as brain. It too does important and complicated things. It also has a cortex, responds to input from the body, and is connected to the body in intricate ways. So why am ‘I’ not a kidney, actively thinking kidney thoughts and pondering the nature of the blood supply among other things? Indeed, for any intelligent entity, there are lots of things to think about. We can ponder the permutations of all the atoms of the universe, read encyclopedias typed by monkeys, add, subtract, and multiply numbers into infinity. Life could be an endless computation, and we could revel in the details, or should we say, the fine print.

So with so much to think about, what makes the world of the kidney less privileged than that of the human brain? The kidney is an important organ as organs go, and does lots of complicated things to keep our bodies humming along. It’s a mindless chore to be sure, but a self-aware kidney could do much more, be entitled to its own opinions, and at least have a say regarding things that effect it directly, such as whether to eat that last taco on your dinner plate. But alas it’s not to be. The kidney is silent, an automaton that is unconscious of existence itself.

Brains of course are information processors, but even kidneys can process information. But the world for brains, or the persons that brains envision themselves to be is a lot more unpredictable than the world for kidneys. And to make sure we can handle this unpredictability, we must make the right choice ahead of time. So we must not only process information, but also model it. Actually, evolution has made us quite conscious of this fact, and we call it ironically consciousness. We are aware of the fact that we are aware, and we use our facsimiles of the future to predict the future and make for futures.

But of course not any future will do. We can spend our time counting atoms or drops of water in sea. But evolution has other purposes. So in its blind wisdom, we have been built not just to solve problems, or even anticipate them, but also to desire them. But these problems are only so if they contribute to our own survival as individuals and as a race. Thus counting raindrops is out, but counting stock options is in. The desirability of just desiring is something of a contrast to the simple materialism or hedonism that makes for car and beer commercials, where just having it all is just about all. Although houses and mates and endless buffets are fine things, and guarantee a life of ease and lots of babies, having it all is not quite the same as wanting it all. Consider that if our past was a Paleolithic Eden. We would have spent our time like a mindless vacuum machine picking up good things easily scattered about like so many dust bunnies. With such a non-challenge, the brain would have precious little to do, and would atrophy to the size of a dust bunny. That is, because it would thus have no mind for the future, it would whither as a mind, and become, well, like a kidney.

Perhaps God realized the importance of this after he tossed our original forebears out of Eden, and perhaps too he needed his own set of problems that would tax even His omniscience. So the wanting part is necessary, the one thing that we have to be conscious of, and perhaps it is a God given thing. And the having? Well, that’s kidney stuff.

Shakespeare in Laurel

He was Shakespeare all right. He had a talent for the words, an ear for the suggestive turn of phrase. He had an instinct for wordplay, a silver tongue that made the ladies swoon and a pen that could spin artless thoughts. But instead of resting on his laurels, what if he came to rest in Laurel? Laurel, Mississippi that is. Given his innate gifts, a fair education, and the company of a sizable population of equally intelligent people, would the bard flourish in a city known more for its chicken processing plants than its poetry? Shakespeare being Shakespeare, would his muse still grant him a Mississippi of inspiration? It’s hard to see if Laurel would actually matter. After all, a success here, no matter how slight, could still vault him on the path to Broadway.
To think that all the world is a stage implies that there is an audience that will respond to our every posture and every word. But is an audience like a siren, always beckoning in the distance and luring one on like Odysseus in an endless quest, or is it the buffeting winds, waves, and currents of myriad present influences large and small? Indeed, for what we know of Shakespeare, the fulcrum point of his inspiration was not just a faceless audience, but the approval and favor of royalty, posterity, the queen, fellow actors, lovers, and competing playwrights. Inspiration is perhaps not the word, but rather the inspirations of a continual flux of incentives that entice and excite the mind. And Shakespeare had to meet many different incentives, forcing him to devise manners and poetry and plot devices that could keep them all in play like simultaneously spinning a dozen dishes on sticks. There are no formal rules to do this; hence he had to be creative.
The plays the thing, but the art to which the play aspires occurs because it brings forth enticements that are as ephemeral as dreams. The intoxication and mystery of creativity and creative acts lies in the motivation that spurs it, and a pattern of incentives that is a multifaceted and fragile as the reflections of light through a crystal vase. Moreover, our ability to discern and appreciate creative things is embodied in the facets of our own personal tastes that reflect these same demands. Thus because we expect many things from a Shakespeare, or potential Shakespeares, we get creations that match our expectations. So we can enjoy Hamlet for its plot, its violence, its poetry, its sexual tensions, or its wit, but we ultimately have such tales spun for us because we actively demand these things. Author and audience is a mutual embrace, and one defines and refines the other, and if all the world is more interested in chicken nuggets than nuggets of wisdom, then that it what they will get. In Shakespeare’s London, a score of playwrights vied in a dozen stages in active competition for the favor an audience that was universally engaged and demanding. In Shakespeare’s Laurel, a dozen fast food restaurants vie for attention for an audience that’s merely hungry, and you can be sure that a potential Shakespeare works in one of them, serving something up.

Art for Art’s Sake

They came in the night, as elves generally do, and instead of making shoes or baking cookies, this time they had a larger design. It was an occasion for the grandest gift or mischief, depending upon how you look at it.
Silent and perfect in their industry, their work was complete at the glimmer of dawn, and when they left they proudly looked upon multiplied perfection, piled high to the sky. In the morning, and like the shoe cobbler of the fairy tale, the world woke up not to shoes, but to rooms full of duplicates of all things beautiful and precious: Da Vinci’s and diamonds and fine wines stamped out indistinguishable from the originals. Rarity itself had become rare, virtually detached by elfin hands from all the icons of culture. And when confronted with the munificence of all rare things, the people were aggrieved.
For detached from these fine things was the intonation of memory, the poetic metaphors of places and people and societies long lost in time. To view the real Mona Lisa is to imagine the moving hand of the artist, the bustle and smell of Renaissance times. But it also recalls the collective admiration and desire of individuals and nations. Art is embedded in the collective memories its rareness invokes, but these memories are mere artifacts of culture, and have little to do with art itself. Yet without them art became the stuff for a coffee table book, to be admired briefly and at turns with drinking tea. A poem or song or a pretty sunset do not achieve value because we know or possess their origins, but because they delight the mind through their existence alone. If art is for art’s sake, then for art’s sake, we will and without regret take equal pleasure in the editions of Shakespeare, Mozart, and Rembrandt so faithfully copied by the elven like hands of our own technological robots, working silently into the night.


They are perfect, willing subjects. Though not particularly bright, in fact they are bird brained. They are willing accomplices to those brainier fellows who saw a sort of wisdom in their witlessness. In fact this stupidity was a virtue, a state of mindlessness that bared the rudiments of mind, and laid the foundations for a new way of thinking about how organisms, and in particular, people behave. But who were these harbingers of simple wisdom, of psychological truths?
Feathered or furry, and conveniently tiny, these partners in scientific progress were the mouse and the pigeon, the fabled laboratory animal. They earned their keep by running in mazes, pressing levers, pecking at lighted buttons, and all for a bit of food, or in worse situations, to escape an electric shock. It was a literal rat race, a microcosm and abstraction of human concerns. Strange stuff indeed upon which to build a science.
Yet indeed that was the case. Mazes and levers and electric shocks represent problems or tasks to these little creatures. The manner that they worked these problems out, or responded to these tasks is important stuff, `data’, and data is the grist for journal articles, complex theorizing, and even a little understanding about how and why we behave.
And what of this newfound wisdom, this fresh insight into the mind of man? Well, it was all unremarkable knowledge, a mundane and almost too simple insight. And that was the remarkable thing. Put a mouse in a box, have him press a bar for food, and like a good laborer, he’ll do it, to a point. If he has to press too many times, and for a little bit of food, he’ll balk at the task, take time outs, get frustrated, and when he’s off the job, will tend to beat up on his mate, and abuse substances, like cheese. The daily grind would become inescapable, and literally shocking if the little fellow was put away in a little box, and jolted with electricity if he tried to escape. He would understandably become depressed, helpless, and even if he were removed to a safer place, he would remain inert and depressed. He would have become helpless.
But just as you can make a mouse into the semblance of a harried office worker or a depressed ghetto dweller, you can also make him manic, supercharged, a real mouse about town. Simply rig up the little lever with the variable pay off of a slot machine, and soon the little bugger will be merrily and madly pressing the level as if it were a one-armed bandit. The mouse will be happy and satisfied, and will not abuse his mate, or be tempted to eat the children.
And so it goes, modest experiments with little animals producing shadowy outlines of human traits. And what was the key to these wildly differing patterns of behavior? Well, it can’t be willing, thinking, or existential angst, and Freudian motives won’t work either. When you’re dealing with what are essentially a bunch of mouse or bird brains, you have to settle on a simple mechanics.
With a simpler mechanics, the outside causes which set them in motion become simpler too. The behavior correlated with programs or schedules of reward or `reinforcement’, patterns of information which race through the animal’s perception like a computer program races through the central processing unit of a computer. A mouse, like a tiny computer, accessible and controllable by an abstract dance between the mouse and his world. The experimenter is the partner in this dance, who choreographs the motions of his little partner by designing these schedules of reinforcement. So how is behavior predicted and controlled? The scientist divines not tea leaves or the stars, but schedules. And so the behavior of these little animals is reduced to the piano roll of schedules, patterns of information that are arranged just so, a simple and elegant hypothesis borne out by equally simple facts.
Now there is a long way between the mind of man and the mind of a mouse, yet man can be more than a little enlightened by the modest truths that these little creature convey to us. In an age when human motivations are elevated further and further into a foggy cloud of drives, needs, and hidden motives, its nice to see that there may be simple and more elegant reasons for our behavior. Perhaps it is hubris, a fatal immodesty which drives us to over complicate and ultimately obfuscate our understanding as to what ultimately makes men move. Maybe the ultimate question we must put to ourselves is not how like a god, but how like a mouse.


He came only once. This messenger was a courier of wonders. Food in metal skins, great iron birds that soared high in the air, iron carriages that a man could ride, such were this new manna from heaven, this wondrous ‘cargo’. The messenger wore a metal hat, and bore mighty weapons, yet with his left hand offered candy, and with his right, gum. Then, for no reason at all, he left. And so the people were aggrieved, and reasoned that this heavenly messenger took affront with them. Good things are rarely free, and miraculous things, well, their price is worship, a heavenly price to be paid for supernatural favor. A liturgy and sacrifice were called for. And so, graven images were made to entice and implore a return of this heavenly host, this emissary from heaven: John Crum. And what were these images: fatted calves, one-eyed idols, multi-armed goddesses? Well, not quite.
Modern times call for modern idols, and when the believer is unsophisticated, modern is but a byword for magic. And so these magical talismans were jeeps laced with thatch, landing craft woven from palm fronds, and C-47’s made of bamboo. Such became the new totems of the natives of Melanesia and New Guinea, lands that were torn by war in World War II, or depending upon your point of view, were blessed by messengers from heaven.
The various ‘cargo cults’ of the south pacific formed one of the strangest legacies of World War II. As the American army fought the Japanese for control of these jungled territories, the natives looked on in amazement and wonder. The massive paraphernalia of war as well as the simplest conveniences and tools were disgorged magically from the bellies of ships and planes, and many of these little tools were freely given by these strange men dressed in green and with pots for hats: the American soldier, or as the natives called him: John Crum. Little mirrors, scissors, and Hershey bars are not particularly awesome stuff to us, but we know better. To an illiterate tribesman, these were acts of God. Primitives don’t know better. So we find the little temples raised up to the wonderful soldier to be comical, plaintive, and a little sad, and all because we know better.
A jeep pops out of the sky, borne by a parachute. Not quite magical really, for with this special sort of sleight of hand, we know the rules. We are indeed the magicians. But sleight of hand is played by nature as well as ourselves. Volcanoes erupt, comets pass, and men live, and are fated to die. It is not a jeep that is plopped in front of us, but an entire world, and its wonders are compounded by the fact that we see amazing things. And so we build spacious temples to a new John Crum, and under these vaulted beams and rose windows, we raise up chants that are plaintive and a little sad. For you see, we don’t know any better.


He had left only for the night, yet the experiment was untended, and worse, the switches were left on. Upon his return, he found his experimental subject acting in a minor fit, a strange and peculiar convulsion. He was hopping about, first on one leg, then the next. He would bound about the cage in haphazard directions while shaking his body about. Nonetheless, it all seemed unconvincing, like a playact epileptic. He thought it was rather a bird brained antic, but of course, the subject was a bird.
Then he turned the feeder off. Soon, the pigeon settled down, and the experimenter sat in wonder. The experiment was simple. The bird would peck at a lighted button, a tone would sound, and then a bit of food would fall into a tray. The performance of the bird would be recorded on a chart, and neat abstraction of the event. The rhythm of the bird’s behavior would correlated with patterns of keypecking. It was all a predictable minuet between the bird and his feeder metronome.
But something went wrong that night. The tone and the food would follow in quick succession, but the key had jammed, and now the tones had set a new choreography. The bird would make a movement, any movement, and the ensuing tone would make a new correlation, set a link between new relationships that now seemed to be. After a time, the bird would flutter and bounce, conducting as it were by its wild gyrations a simple symphony made of a string of tones.
Now as animals go, birds are rather simple minded, and there seems to be no great trick to train them, accidentally or not, to dance to a few notes. But correlations, even simple ones, can find larger and large reflections in the mirror of life A gambler blows on dice, mumbles a lucky word, or rubs a rabbit foot, and marvelous things can happen, particularly when the dice subsequently rolls a certain way. Superstition is made up of such correlations, and despite what we know we should know we still step over cracks, avoid the path of black cats, and obey our horoscope. Sometimes just the pretense of controlling our world can be as valuable as if that control were real, as there will always be a place in our lives for magic.
Correlations are the stuff of superstition, magic, and if we are keenly perceptive, even the poetry of motion. Of course, there is no poetry in the jerky flutterings of a pigeon, but again, the larger reflections are more instructive. We braid notes into music, and take pleasure as a succession of notes blend together into a stream of melody. Music is in its own way magic, and what better way to control it that by invoking a little magic of your own. And so, paced by a rhythm of tones, we too flutter about, sometimes with logical and precise grace, and sometimes with jerky and halting movements that even a pigeon couldn’t copy. For you see, when we apply magic to music, we just gotta dance.


It is a perfect world, a manicured, orderly society. Although the people rule, it is hardly a democracy. Yet indeed they chose this society, they made it be. It is as exquisitely constructed as a Faberge egg, an absolute beauty in a small place. Of all possible worlds, this is the one we like the best; yet all things beautiful are as difficult as they are rare, so each citizen could only apportion himself a little time each year to renew his citizenship in this cheery Utopia, this magic kingdom.
This society could not exist unless it fulfilled every caprice of its visitors, who with the individual fussiness of a child and the collective power of a potentate, would withhold favor and financial support upon noticing the slightest flaw. Because the visit was temporary, a visitor’s attention was sharply focused, and as an uncaptive audience, could be withdrawn on a whim. The society was an elective consumable, perfect, accessible, entertaining, and since it was problem free, it was free too of the troublesome thought that problems always generate. The society was a consumable, like a fast food, and it held its franchise, like a local Mcdonalds, on the good will of its visitors, It was a standardized type of excellence, sort of one society fits all: so it could be excused for a little banality, a perfection by the lowest common denominator.
In our fast paced world, there are many instances in which convenience and simple pleasures are glad replacements, if only for a little while, for complicated and often troublesome things. The constructions that fill these interludes are a uniquely American contribution to man’s culture, and are as precious as the most vaunted and complicated cathedral, museum, or work of art. A pleasure in simple and uncomplicated things that suggest a coexisting childhood underscores perhaps the most profound value of all and in the end, who would guess that the philosophers of such a standard would bear the unlikely names of Mickey and Goofy?


They crept in, etched their way in was more like it. Passive infecting things these codes! It is a conspiracy of the software, those immutable and silent lines of words, strung of characters, and finally reducible to bits that say yes or no, and no more. There are everywhere, leather bound in ledge like shelves, encoded in the vibrations of sound, light, and magnetic fields. They are the activity and the residue of our minds:
Ideas and only ideas can comprise the meaning of life, but that’s circular reasoning, since after all what else can ‘meaning’ mean except ideas? Meaning is the great modifier, while life is the great constant. Life or consciousness is the light that animates knowledge, yet life itself is meaningless because the meaning is elsewhere. The conspiracy must therefore lie not if our little lives, but in our books. So the ideas will conspire, and lead us on, to refute our vanity and spite our deaths.
Our lives will pass, as will the world’s. And in the long sleep of the universe, information will remain, until in time it will awaken in its eternity by reflecting upon itself through the light of human eyes.
Of yes. And the meaning of life? God will make sure we get the idea.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Blockhead Behaviorism

At the turn of the 19th century, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov had a problem. His special interest was the physiology of digestion, the biological mechanics that tied brain to gut, from the perception of food to a salivating gland. It didn't of course work the way he thought. The reflexive aspects of the digestive system, from gastric to salivary secretions was not hardwired like a kneejerk. It was plastic, malleable, and dependent upon an animal's vicarious experience with the world. The digestive process, at once so simple and reduceable to a cantilever of glands and muscles, was tethered to a complex and indecipherable brain. Pavlov surmised that the simple salivary response provided a doorway to the understanding of the labryinthine neural processes that modulated the aspects of not only such 'respondent' or classically conditioned behavior, but perhaps behavior in all its manifestations.

Through countless experiments on his hapless subjects , dogs, Pavlov cobbled together a theory of learning and the brain. It was, of course, wrong. But it was 'right' to be called a theory because it was testable, or more specifically, falsifiable.

Pavlov's work represented one of the first examples of a learning 'theory'. A learning theory is a series of interlocking conjectures about how experience influences behavior. These conjectures necessarily involved processes or mechanisms that make the model for behavior work. But with inference comes the means to test if it is true. Without the ability to test an inference, a scientific theory can never be. The mettle of a theory and whether we may even designate it a theory depends upon our ability to test the key inferences that make its predictions work. An 'effective' or robust theory in turn emerges when we can test it logically and empirically from every level, every perspective. This definition of a scientific theory, the work of the distinguished 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper, was met by Pavlov's theory of learning, and with but one major exception, every theory of learning that was to follow. The path was laden with dead ends, misteps, and contentiousness, but progress began to be made.

Ivan Pavlov and happy, willing subject.

But progress demanded a special manner of thinking, that as with all the biological sciences, required a bit of generalization from knowledge of simpler but similar things. The basic processes of learning,like the essential aspects of ingestion, respiration, and life itself were assumed to be not dissimilar across species. Thus the root essentials of learning were presumably shared between species, and the dependent measure of learning, namely behavior, was like the shadings of light to an astronomer, the stuff that theories are made of. So learning theories met the logical demands of science, were derived root and branch from an 'ethological' (animal experiments) perspective, and because they emerged from an observation of non-verbal behavior unclouded by the metaphors of speech, were 'behavioristic' in nature.

The learning theories that would follow Pavlov, from Thorndike, Guthrie, Tolman, and Hull to the modern biological learning theories of Bolles, Toates, and Berridge were all of necessity behaviorisms, and were bound to the deductive method of hypothesis testing that drove the progress of the biological and physical sciences.

Yet what the popular and even adademic imagination knows of behaviorism is not a deductive and theoretical approach to learning that informs the way we look at ourselves and our behavior, but rather an inductive and atheoretical approach that aims to supplant our knowledge of self and behavior. This intellectual certitude, and perhaps arrogance was not a recipe for vigorous and fruitful debate, but for a bitter and contentious struggle that has marred and retarded the development of psychology to this day.

The Perversion of Behaviorism

It started innocently enough with a unique procedure and apparatus for the recording of behavior. A little box, fitted with a roll of paper and a depressable key could provide a cumulative record, that like a siesmograph, could record the frequency of activity as the animal pressed the key to 'work' for food. Adjust the timing of reward by altering the dependencies between reward and the number and/or interval between key strokes, and the data would come out differently, demonstrating how behavior is shaped by schedules or contingencies of reward or reinforcement. The psychologist B. F. Skinner took this raw data and ran with it, or as he called it, 'fled' from the laboratory. The ethological data of laboratory animals was replicated, with no small success, in the real workaday world of humans. The problem though is that when you move a level of description from animals to humans, humans will in turn interject the metaphors of common language, and metaphors have a habit of becoming an unfalsifiable 'reality'. So the problem Skinner faced was that the wholesale transfer of a behavioristic methodology to human affairs compromised behaviorism, since unfalsifiable mentalisms of need, drive, and desire got in the way of cause and effect. And it was the realities of cause and effect, the facts of behavior that ultimately mattered and were all that counted. Because the mentalisms that populated common speech were unfalsifiable, Skinner simply banished them, and the methodology of his brand of behaviorism, or a 'methodological' behaviorism became by virtue of its intrusion in common affairs, the behaviorism that is popularly known today in notoriety and fame.

B. F. Skinner: A philosopher for the birds?

By transposing behaviorism to human affairs, Skinner unwittingly changed the rules that made behaviorism a bonafide science. Removed from its ethological roots and the deductive principles that allowed it to test the boundaries of knowledge, behaviorism became merely guided by the dead hand of fact gathering. It was psychology as if imagined by Price-Waterhouse, a colorless tableau of ordered facts that only an accountant would call beautiful.

Confronted by the specious metaphorical realities of common sense or 'folk' psychology, Skinner chose to avoid them entire. But the vast majority of psychologists continue to use them, and vault a myriad mentalisms into an ever morphing kaleidoscope of unfalsifiable realities we call contemporary psychology.

The Clash of Antipodes

The supreme value of science is that it allows us to separate out words and their meaning by providing us with the ability to determine the literal from the aliterative, the metaphorical from the real. Human speech is profoundly metaphorical, and we often transpose words to others to suggest meanings they never had. Thus we speak of engine horse power, cool mints, and splitting headaches, yet because we know the nature of engines, mints, and headaches are able to see that their descriptions are metaphorical and not real.

However, the endeavor to limit the metaphors you use does not entail the ability to determine what is metaphorical and what is not. You can't after all have a witchhunt without knowing who the witches are. By decrying the use of inferred mentalistic forces, Skinner did not provide the tools to determine their metaphorical content; or in other words, whether they can be falsified or not. To do that requires a behaviorism, a theoretical behaviorism.

Variable Ratio

To illustrate this, let us use a Skinnerian example. In the language of Skinnerian or 'operant' conditioning, behavior occurs and is modulated in rate and form by its functional and/or temporal dependencies to reward or reinforcement. Press a key five times to get a reinforcer, and the resulting pattern of behavior is due to a FR 5 or fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement. .Similarly, wait ten minutes for the bus and your resulting behavior or lack of it is due to a FI 10 or fixed interval schedule.

On the other hand, variable schedules (VR) of reinfrcement occur when we don't quite know what step of our behavior will be followed by a reinforcer. The reinforcer may occur after any response or on average after any set series of responses, or all at any minute, any time. Strange thing though about variable schedules, they bring out the metaphor in all of us. Press a lever down five times for a reward and you are a bored pieceworker. Make the number of pulls variable and vary as well the size of the reward, and you are an energized and addicted slot player. Make the variance more fine grained, with every nuance of behavior followed by a randomized and important event, and like an artist, athlete, or surgeon engaging in the touch and go of their craft, behavior vaults to a higher consciousness, flow or peak experience, self-actualization, or intrinsic motivation.

A Skinnerian would see merely superfluity and the obfuscation of the facts of behavior, namely that variable schedules correlate with high rates of behavior. The rest was specious, unprovable, unnecessary. A humanistic or 'self determination' (SDT) theoriest would disagree, and say that such states were real, irreduceable and non-metaphorical things, that there are indeed unique flow states, intrinsic motivating processes, and peak experiences.

To a Skinnerian, learning is to be effective, to measure in economic terms behavior and its results, and by coordinating them just so making the economic measure of man. To a humanist or SDT theorist, learning is affective, a thing in itself, unfalsifiable, and unmeasureable in economic terms But between them both is the unbridgeable barrier of metaphor, made so because one party would abandon theory, and the other, misinterpret it.


Science represents the endless quest to separate the essential from the derived. The colors of the rainbow, the nucleotides of DNA, and the structure of matter itself represent the modulation and permutation of simple things. Each of the five senses make palettes of sound, color, and taste from the permutations of simple neural inputs, or rudimentary sensations of bitter and sweet, of red, green and blue, of simple vibrations of sound. The conjectures of science explained the five of them, and have dismissed the sixth. But the seventh and last sense has now been discovered. It is no less than learning itself.

Learning is more than an effective thing, it is an affective thing, and to understand this basic truth gives us comand of the most important and human sense of them all. Although Skinnerian behaviorists would ignore it, and humanistic psychologists deny it, how we learn is not less sensual than any of the senses. We know this from behaviorism, a true theoretical behaviorism, the fact that we are as sensitive to the problems or discrepancies of our world as our irises are to light, and our ears to vibrations of sound. Tune them just right and you have the real pleasure of fulfillment, satisfaction, and pride, but misunderstand or misapply them, and you have the pain of boredom, dissatisfaction, and despair.

Above the arguments is the light of scientific truth. Whether or not psychologists or behaviorists for that matter can learn from the behaviorisms of science only time will tell.

Author's Note: for more essays on the nature and implications of 'bio-behavioral' learning theory, please go to the 'Essential Mezmer' section of my website. For a much longer academic version of my argument, the following recent article (introduction copied below) by the neuro-psychologist Kent Berridge chronicles the progress of learning theory from its beginnings to its present form that recognizes the crucial importance of 'affect' in human learning. Please note that although Berridge notes the 'demise' of behaviorism, he is discussing the a-theoretical 'methodological' or 'radical' brand of behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, not the theoretical behaviorisms of Thorndike, Hull, Tolman, Bolles, Toates, etc. that are at the root of modern biological learning theories, including Berridge's own. One more note, the difference between a methodological and radical behaviorism lies in what each brand of behaivorism considers to be 'behavior' Methodological behaviorism concerns itself with primarily 'overt' responses that are subject to easy measurment, whereas radical behaviorism admits as well molecular or biological responses as an equally important subset of behavior. Both however eschew theory, which is in mine and Berridge's opinion, a serious error

excerpt from:

Reward Learning: Reinforcement, Incentives, and Expectations.

Kent C. Berridge

(article is available entire in pdf format on Berridge's site, hyperlinked below)

...The radical behaviorist sense of reinforcement was the simplest, though not chronically the first version of the reinforcement concept. Reinforcement in a behaviorist sense as used by Skinner was merely a description of the relation between a change in a behavior caused by following it with a stimulus such as food. No explanation was offered. As Skinner put it,

The Law of Effect is no theory. It simply specifies a procedure for altering the probability of a chosen response. But when we try to say why reinforcement has this effect. Theories arise. Learning is said to take place because the reinforcement is pleasant, satisfying, tension reducing, and so on..(Skinner, 1950).

Skinner took a dim view of theoretical attempts to explain the 'why' of reinforcement. "Theories are fun. But it is possible that the most rapid progress toward an understanding of learning may be made by research which is not designed to test theories."

In the first half of the 20th century, such an explicitly antitheoretical account had two forms of appeal. First, it offered a purely objective alternative way of talking about behavior that could be claimed to escape the theoretical disagreements of early mentalistic psychology. Second, at the time Skinner wrote it seemed to many possible to believe that his hope for "the most rapid progress" might actually be true. One could be impressed in 1938, when Skinner's first major book appeared, by the clarity of the early studies of operant performance curves, of the smooth versus scalloped differences in their shapes produced by fixed ratio versus fixed interval reinforcement schedules, and so on. Such precision in behavioral description had never before been achieved, let alone brought under experimental control. One could still hope then that the second half of the 20th century would be filled with many powerful demonstrations of new and useful behaviorist principles for predicting and controlling behavior.

But the Skinnerian hope turned out to be unfulfilled. Very few new principles of use were produced by behaviorist studies over the next 50 years. However objective a behaviorist description might be, it generated very little for the predicting or control of behavior beyond the original law of effect, and a few straightforward applications of that law. And as Skinner himself acknowledged, the radical behaviorist concept of reinforcement offered nothing at all for understanding the 'why' of reward's effect on behavior. It had no theory and no explanatory power.

Today there remain a few calls for a return to atheoretical behaviorism (Staddon, 1999, Uttal, 2000). They reflect an almost aesthetic preference held by these authors for a purely atheoretical behavioral description, which avoids any inference about mediating processes that could turn out to be wrong, even at the cost of explanatory power. But contemporary behaviorists draw mostly on the old evidence for support, and simply reassert the original Skinnerian faith that good progress might be made in an atheoretical fashion.That faith, once plausible, now has nearly died away from psychology for lack of fruition. Most importantly to the demise of behaviorism has been a consensus in psychology that the behaviorist fear of theory and psychological constructs was misplaced. It has proven eminently possible to test theories grounded in cognitive, associative, and motivational hypotheses over the past 50 years. Many such theoretical constructs have been disproven, others confirmed, and still others modified on the basis of experimental results. Contemporary psychology and neuroscience of reward learning are both concerned almost entirely with accounts of why reward works. We will therefore turn to theoretical answers to the why of reward and reinforcement......

Mezmer's Predictions for Bad Psychology in the 21st Century

As we enter the 21st century, we can be sure that there will be technological marvels aplenty. So what's in store for psychology? One thing we can count on is the continually renewing creativity of psychologists in reinventing, or should we say renaming the wheel. Thus, common sense will be repackaged yet again in books extolling the 10 habits, 7 steps, 9 maxims, etc. that summarize the rules that presume to allow you to manipulate like a tinker-toy the human psyche, until of course a day or two later the proverbial wheels come off, leaving you back in the rut which inspired you to literally buy into that nonsense to begin with.

But there are many other exciting changes afoot which will serve the human race well in its intellectual dotage. Thus, I, Dr. Mezmer make the following predictions about what the new century harbors for the science of mind.

1) Evolutionary Psychology will explain why we like Britney Spears music.

I understand how cars work because I know why I have to get to work. If this logic makes sense to you, then evolutionary psychology (or EP) is the science for you! EP doesn't just hold that we do a lot of things because of the influence of instinctive mechanisms of brain and body, but that an inference as to why our ancestors needed to behave tells us how we now behave. Thus screeching half-naked cave babes were important for brutish ancestral cave guys to grab, thus improving 'reproductive fitness' (although feminists would have another take on the matter), and if those cave babes perchance looked like and were selected because they looked (and acted) like Britney Spears, BINGO, we got the fixins' for an EP theory!

In this century, I predict that EP will explain just about everything about human behavior, and an EP account of Britney appreciation (which obviously cannot be traced to learning or intelligence) will make psychological science complete.

An Evolutionary Explanation for Britney appreciation will be at hand!

2. Behaviorism dies, again.

As a major school of psychology, behaviorism has been refuted more often than evolution by Reverend Bob, pastor of your local Free Will Baptist Church. So far behaviorism has been refuted by humanistic psychologists, cognitive scientists, evolutionary psychologists, and Dr. Phil. It will in the coming years be refuted again by the same folks, but this time the Rotarians and Boy Scouts will join in. Of course no one will actually understand what behaviorism is, but that's a minor point.

3. Academic psychology journals will continue to be written in incomprehensible language on trivial topics, and will remain available in the attic of the local state university library, located only 300 miles from you, and open only on tuesday.

Got a research project? Want to find out why Aunt Emma is acting nuts? Unfortunately there's no WebMD for psychology. We do of course have lots of learned academic journals on psychology, and they even have a presence on the web. but that presence is more like an upcoming movie page with teasers of movies now showing. Problem is, these are movies you don't understand, don't want to see or pay for, and are playing only at a theater not near you. So where do we get our wisdom? Where else but pathetic sources like Dr. Phil or Dr. Mezmer, who will continue to perversely influence the field until they dominate psychology as we know it.

Library Tower at Babel State University

4. Psychology ideas go al la carte.

In times past, meals were complete affairs, and contained all the major food groups from veggies to meat neatly apportioned on the food tray. Psychology, and most certainly psychology education used to be that way, when you got equal parts brain and behavioral science with your feel good metaphors. Now, in these high paced times, psychological concepts are not ingested as entrees that accompany other ideas that are less palatable (think of neuroscience as broccoli here), but rather as entire meals in themselves. So instead of fast food, we have fast facts, and self contained concepts like flow, meditation, self esteem, and intrinsic motivation are pre-packaged for your consumption like a day old burrito. So, as the fast food nation morphs a diet of high minded ideas to fit psychological happy meal packaging (where you get a simple idea and a toy), a deep understanding of the human condition will be replaced with the metaphor du jour. When you think of it it makes you hypnotically flow with intrinsic self-esteem!

5. 'Half-ass' breakthrough concepts in psychology will continue to be developed, moving the field exactly nowhere.

Science is ultimately a pragmatic discipline, and if the equations you use to design rockets or electric sockets are too complicated to use or don't work well, you end with up blown space missions and blown fuses. Thus, without knowledge of an accurate and working theory of mechanics or electricity, your future as an aeronautical or electrical engineer is to say the least limited.

Consider though that if working rockets or sockets could be designed to work (although not with anything near precision), even if your knowledge of math was no greater than 'Big Bird' on the children's TV show 'Sesame Street', then you've got in a nutshell the pragmatic and imprecise discipline of psychology.

Unlike their contraptions that have to work precisely right the first time, humans are far more accepting of imprecision in their lives, when just muddling through is enough. So we put up with economic, educational, and political systems that are but a notch above Sesame Street in sophistication. Where else but in psychology can you find such high falutin' and half digested concepts like flow, intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, co-dependency, etc. that have no more practical or explanatory power than the common sense nostrums your mother handed out? Still, it does sell books which gullible people will continue to buy in this century and beyond.

Requirements of the field:
In physics, big brains; in psychology bird brains.

6. Psychology will embrace silly syllables as never before.

It will be exciting to look forward to whole new sets of syllables that will bestow the comfortable illusion that our understanding of the human condition is actually getting somewhere, when we're actually only renaming things. In the last century we've seen nativism morph into sociobiology and then into evolutionary psychology. Similarly, peak experience became flow, humanistic psychology became 'self-determination theory', and a candid advice from your best buddy became psychotherapy.

Using the power of metaphor, one can look forward to even more polysyllabic leaps of faith and logic. As mankind further merges virtually with its cell phones, PDA's, video games, and major appliances, new terms like gamer's block, internet addiction, repititive sex disorder, and surrender to the matrix (requires blue pill, of course) will enter the psychological lexicon. But by that time we will all have turned into floor lamps.