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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

I have an hypothesis that the key ability of humankind that evolved over the millennia is learning.   Broadly speaking this means the awareness, recognition, and synthesis of patterns.   This doesn’t refer just to academic learning or book knowledge, but instead to the more generalized concept of pattern recognition.   We are learners.   

 

Everything we do is about foraging for new patterns or confirming previously learned patterns.   Of course, we forage for patterns to survive – to eat, sleep, find water, mate and avoid predation.   While in the modern world it can be hard to see how everything we do is about these basic survival aspects so far removed is our daily experience from pulling food from the ground and running from sabre tooth tigers, no doubt our homes, transportation, logistics networks and so forth have been built up to provide essentials for increasing populations.   And the one common behavioral thread from how our pre history ancestors likely lived and how we live today is Learning.   This is the biological strategy developed from our interaction with the world over time.

 

Our physiology compared to the rest of the animal kingdom favors us using our large brains and capable senses to forage for and use patterns vs. terrifying strength or built in camouflage, etc.  A baby can do very little physically for a very long time while it is learning.   Our period of growth to adolescence and self sufficiency is very long.   There is a lot to learn to become surviving human.

 

Certainly all living things learn to some degree.   The simplest creatures all of have some sorta of biological memory that helps them find food and avoid destruction – though that memory is often quite different from ours and may not even be anything we’d recognize.    The difference is the sophistication and complexity of that learning made possible by our complex nervous system.   As individuals we learn a great deal.   As a species we learn a great deal.  Over time we are able to store and retrieve an increasing amount of learning that we pass on to our descendents through culture, written records, and now the internet and digital technology.   There is simply no other animal we’ve found that does this to the scale we do it.

 

Plenty of literature suggests it’s language or consciousness or art that makes us “human” or “different that the rest of animals.”   Rather than saying learning makes us a superior life form or different than other animals I’m merely suggesting that this our evolutionary strategy that developed and that all of those other things people mention come from this ability and need to learn.   We are constantly in search of more efficient ways to discover and transmit patterns that help us survive.   Music, language, art, writing, sport, etc all of this are varied, efficient and robust ways to teach other patterns.   Yes, they often have more pragmatic and immediately practical effects like making us attractive to mates, etc.   but they also are transmissions of patterns we’ve found interesting or useful or they help unearth other patterns.

 

Now, this being per speculation as so much of evolutionary biological thinking is, it’s quite possible that everything that allows us to learn was simply evolving in response to other things than learning.   Perhaps that’s true, but the emergent effect is that we happen to be extremely powerful learnings and we have yet to devise anything that can learn more effectively.   It’s unsurprising to me that our key enterprise is developing non human machinery to help us learn and that might learn better than us.  This is literally what we must do, it’s all we do do.

 

Why is any of this important?   It is a perspective that might put various aspects of organizing our lives, societies, countries, world, technology in a new, more resilient light.   If learning is the key ability we have to survive should we not organize around this and NOT do things that reduce learning?   Should we not amplify our ability and scope of learning?   

Maybe that’s too directional of a way to think about it.  Perhaps it matters not if there’s something we OUGHT to do and rather we Do What We Do and that’s the whole lot of it.   EIther way, as an individual looking to find better ways to survive and thrive I find it useful to think through and understand what might be underlying it all.   You know, seems like I should learn.

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As learners, Skinner said, “we are automatically reinforced when we successfully control the physical world (ibid:75).” Teaching implies the identification of desired outcomes and precise planning of strategies for facilitating “the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement which expedite learning (Skinner,1959:15).” The educator prepares the students for situations not yet risen by bringing discriminant operants under the control of stimuli expected to occur in those situations. The child is forewarned and forearmed with powerful tools for controlling nature, the very exercise of which provides reinforcement. Because of this, the natural payoffs inherent in the subject matter are the teacher’s chief allies (Hutcheon,1996:413). Skinner maintained that educators who recommend external means of motivating learning have got it all wrong, noting that “the sheer control of nature itself is reinforcing (Skinner, 1959:102).” As he reminded us, “The motives in education are the motives of all human behavior … We appeal to that drive to control the environment that makes a baby continue to crumple a noisy paper and the scientist to continue to press forward with his predictive analysis of nature (Skinner, 1948:124).”

from a very nice paper on Piaget and Skinner.

All living things learn in response to their environments.   And living things are part of the environment.  All living things relate to their environments, even when in the same environments as other living things, uniquely.   All living things have enough genetic difference, even when in the same species and born in the same “family”, to have unique responses (developmental and learning) to the world around them.

This is a very simple set up and yet has enough power to cover the bulk of how we all learn.     When thinking about what approaches to educating children are more or less effective I evaluate how seriously an approach considers these basic principles.  Every environment is a learning environment – it’s a matter of figuring out, and this is complicated, what is learnable in that environment.   Each person, even a young child, is a complex mix of genetics, epigenetics and environmental history.   Some environments build on this concept and others resist it.

So what is an ideal environment?   What is the best “classroom” for a child to learn?

First, it’s important to figure out what it is we want a child to learn.   And, of course, this is no easy question.   Broadly the goal of any “education” (in the formal school sense) is to provide strategies for survival (and thriving).*   Effective strategies for survival is by no means a fixed target.   As long as the world changes so will the strategies that best ensure survival.  So in some sense what we want a child to learn isn’t one particular strategy but a way to derive strategies in response to a changing environment.   We could call that critical thinking, synthesis, and problem solving.   In short, we want children to learn how to learn – to be more aware of the world around them, to be able to process information efficiently and effectively and to manipulate the environment as needed.

Is anything else needed to be taught?   No, not strictly.  There’s no need to preach a particular curriculum as fundamental.  Yes for certain paths in life and in our culture knowing a particular skill or piece of information could be beneficial.   If mathematicians make more money than other professions and making more money provides better means for survival then it is likely a child taught mathematics should survive and thrive.   That is, as long as the child finds mathematics interesting and so forth enough to actually pursue it and develop enough skill.   Even in that example one can get to the point of survival without assuming a priori that there’s intrinsic, universal value to mathematics.   Everything worth knowing is in relation to the person knowing it and their relation to their changing environment.   The essential learning necessary for a person s being able to evaluate quickly enough to matter whether a strategy is effective or not.  The strategies themselves should be viewed as experiments – behavior-response experiences to see what is worth doing and knowing.

Based on this the ideal environment is not a singular environment.  it’s not a classroom, it’s not a gym, it’s not lecture hall, it’s not a playroom.   The ideal environmentare different for everyone.   Some children do very well in a traditional classroom, others do not.  Some prefer being alone, others in nature  and so on and on.   Just as discussed in the what is worth learning, environment staging should be viewed as an experiment – contexts to see what reinforces successful strategies for survival.

Combine strategy testing and environment building and exploration and you get the whole equation of education.   For certain children maintaining a steady environment that induces effective exploration of strategies might be best.   For other children varying environments may be the key to the building up of strategies.

The goal of education can be refined from above as: increase the repertoire of behavior** in order to identify and execute strategies to survive and thrive. 

This probably sounds horribly inefficient.  Is possible to educate a family, village, country, and world of children on a completely individual basis?   Yes!  That’s exactly what happens anyway.   It is LESS efficient to make the assumption that this isn’t what is actually happening and so to be unaware how everyone responds differently.   To use the same textbooks, same computer programs, same schedule for everyone makes an assumption that it’s “optimal enough” for any given child.   Who knows what potentially incredible strategies are going unexplored.

The world has now developed a sufficiently robust set of tools to uniquely educate, without compromise, every child.   Tablets and laptops can be obtained for less than $100, be connected to a free wifi at libraries and other community zones, and provided access to millions of free books, free websites, free Ivy League virtual classrooms.  Obviously, there is more to it than a computer and the Internet.   More and more networks of volunteer organizations, sports, after school programs, book clubs, excited artists, professional musicians are available for almost anyone (in the US) to join/connect with/create.   With the social network inter-connectivity of the world with more than a billion people connected, likely by less than 6 degrees of separation, identifying communities to join, people to talk to, and new environments to join has become much more possible.

I’m not suggesting that everything is perfect and that education has been solved!  Quite the contrary.  The space of possibilities is now MUCH greater than it ever has been.   It’s not even more vital to explore this space of educational possibilities in search of better and better strategies.   There’s no right or wrong way to go about this.   There’s more or less effective strategies for you and your children.  And there’s an infinite number of strategies possible and we all have finite energy/resources/means.

I suppose if I had to conclude or provide some closure on my point here it’s that the ideal education is really whatever works for you.  And what “works” is a complicated mix of means and goals and values.   There are so many options available and yet to be created and that seems to me to be a great thing. Ideal really.

*It’s relatively straight forward to assume that’s the goal of almost any education, formal or not.  Though would could say in certain situations we are trying to teach someone to suffer and die, such as in the case of prison

**repertoire of behavior doesn’t imply a broad set of behaviors, it could be the case that become a master in a particular skill set becomes a necessary strategy.  That is, experts often demonstrate a very wide and deep set of strategies/abilities within a given discipline.

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NOTE: this is NOT a mathematical proof, a formal logic paper, nor even a science paper.  It’s a blog post that contains interpretive statements and some shortcuts to get to the point.  Maybe not even the point (s) I meant to make.  also, i’m sure there are typos.

aka a Story.

My mostly-borrowed thesis: Everything is Information.

Various smart folks have put forward this basic theory.   And I’ve personally come to believe it as truth.

Seth Lloyd put this basic theory forward in a clear way for a popular audience in his book “Programming the Universe”.

The universe is made of bits.  Every molecule, atom, and elementary particle registers bits of information.  Every interaction between those pieces of the universe processes that information by altering those bits. (page 3, Introduction)

Lloyd proceeds to draw out the universe as a computer paradigm and make a compelling case that everything is just information processing.   It’s a paradigm many others have proposed but I really like the straight-forwardness of of Lloyd’s book.

Now I can’t prove his theory or this entire thesis that Everything is Information.  I think Lloyd and others have done a really good job making a case for this view.   I’m going to essentially treat it as an axiom and develop a train of thought from there.  In the end of my explorations I’m led to a somewhat less borrowed thesis.

Art (and in particular STORY) is the most effective way humans can understand the universe and thrive

I can’t prove this either but why not shine a light on some data, some ideas, some commentary to perhaps make it easier to engage with this theory?

This thesis results from following a common thread to responses to questions like:

  • What is a thought?
  • Who am I?
  • What is behavior?  where does it come from?
  • what is moral?  what is a law? what do we value?
  • what is computation?  what is a general computer?
  • is the universe/multiverse a computer?
  • how did it all begin?  how does it all end?
  • why do people laugh? what is humor?
  • what is art?  why is some art good and other bad?
  • what are forces?  what is DNA in the abstract?
  • what is mathematics?
  • what is language?  communication?
  • what is time?  what is space?  what is motion?  what is change?
  • what is death? what is life?
  • what is love?  is love just a word or a real thing?

There’s certainly a large body of work (UNDERSTATEMENT!) attempting to answer these questions rigorously and thoroughly.    By my interpretation of the work that I can actually consume, process and synthesize it all leads back to the kernel that the most fundamental concepts are information and the processing of information.   Everything is information, nothing is information.  A bit.  0.  1.  Infinity. Blackholes.  Planets.  People. DNA. RNA. Animals. Humans.  Language. Emotions. Behavior. Math. Love. Computers. Paintings. Books. Bosons. Time. Space. Existence.  Non Existence.

What is is information.  What happens is processing information aka computation.

Humans are a specific class of configurations of information.   Survival is maintaining this class of configurations throughout processing.  Evolution is the transformation of this class of configurations of information.   Understanding is the processing capability to be aware of information configuration and processing (this is so strange loopy meta like).  Thriving is a human ideal/feeling (also information configuration) of not merely surviving (passing genes on) but of actually playing a material and unique part of processing information.

What is Information then?

Seems to be a basic question to ask.

To be sure, this word information in communication theory relates not so much to what you do say, as to what you could say.  That is, information is a measure of one’s freedom of choice when one selects a message.

This comes from Warren Weaver’s introduction to Weaver and Shannon’s “The Mathematical Theory of Communication.”   This is a classic, the classic, book on information theory.  It is a good place to start even though the language is somewhat anthropological.

I take the above quote in a broader sense that information is a measure of anything’s freedom of choice to be something else, to interact with other information.  Everything has infinite freedom.  Nothing has infinite freedom.   All the various “things” or configurations of bits into bytes into megabytes and so has various measure of potential to be something/anything.

Whoa.  That’s a mouthful of abstraction and ambiguity.  Such is the danger of trying to talk about these topics!

[Remarkably reviewing entries on Wikipedia for Information yield a pretty confusing set of paths to explore the basic idea of information.  WolframAlpha yields a variety of definitions, usage patterns and related terms that also lead in a wide variety of directions and abstractions.  And perhaps, more interestingly, the choice was made to map the basic query “information” to pretty much EVERYTHING in WolframAlpha.]

The smallest amount of information is a bit.  a 1 or a 0.   that can be processed as open or shut, on or off, charge or no charge, etc.   Put more bits together and things get interesting quickly.  two bits and you get 4 numbers, little words, on, off, sort of on, sort of off and so on.   You can build up the multiverse from this.   You can write configurations of information that process other information aka  “programs”.  So the universe has a very large measure of information – lots of freedom of choice to configure bits.

And a little tangent here… don’t you need another concept “energy” that gives you the fuel to process information.  Um, if you need that definition you can use it.  It’s really just a short cut to get around defining everything in terms of information.   e.g. how much energy a system has is just information about the rules for processing information.

Which then leads to wonder why there seem to be specific rules (information) about how to process information that give us this universe we experience.  It’s not at all clear that this is true in the universe – that there are fundamental rules that cannot be different.   The universe (this specific configuration of information) may have rules that it probabilistically are most likely to play out, but there’s not a requirement in the space of all possibilities.

I have to stop this train before it becomes a complete paper / book / library unto itself.   Wolfram, Lloyd, Shannon, Chaitin, Wheeler, Deustch and many others go very in depth about this stuff.

It’s unlikely I’ve convinced you of Wheeler’s premise “it from bit” but hopefully there’s some understanding of how I interpret things.

What is Information Processing? What is Computation?

Well, in short, it’s the transformation of information configurations into other information configurations.   Oh, sure, we can pick this a part and try to get more rigorous, which again, I’ll just refer folks to the smart people better able to draw all that out.

Processing could be random, a computation, simply letting time pass, anything really.

Computation is a bit more specific but still nebulous.   Computation is a refinement of the general processing in the form of function or a program or an algorithm – a set of instructions or rules by which the processing occurs.   I think it’s good to have this really abstract thing called processing and something more specific like computation because when you dig deep into things like computability you need these distinctions.   Not all processing is computable processing.

However, in general I don’t really make much of a distinction going forward.

Now to make sense of any of this and make progress we have to tackle the universe of information configurations and how they come to be and how we figure them out.

What is Exploring The Space of Possibilities and Why Does That Matter

The universe is always computing.  It’s exploring all possible configurations of information.   We experience and/or observe just a tiny tiny bit of these configurations.

Computing/processing (observing, understanding, modeling, sharing) ALL information configurations takes more time and energy than any of us have. Heck, processing even a small portion of information takes more time and energy than we have.  (wait, pause!   by limits time and energy… I mean this current configuration of information we are in the form of cells, organs, brains, humans has instructions to transform into other information aka we die.)

The survival of humanity and of an individual depends on exploring ways of avoiding extinction in the face of information processes that change us (kill us, destroy the genetic code, etc).

If one’s goal beyond survival is to live well (thrive) by whatever definitions we concoct then we also need to explore the universe of possibilities at that level as well.  And yes, I believe, our class of configurations, humans, has some embedded and learned processing instructions to do this.  Perhaps it wasn’t always embedded but the process of evolution (or whatever other processing model is in place) seems to have selected a class of configurations that tries to thrive over those that just maintain the gene code.

So.

There have been attempts to explain and interpret EVERYTHING through mathematics, physics, computer science, philosophy, religion, and so forth.   All of these attempts are models of how it all works.  Models of information and processing information that are more or less useful for figuring out ways to survive (and then to thrive).  These are narratives or stories.  Some more “formal” and “coherent” or “logically consistent” than others i.e. less open to interpretation and varied application of those interpretations.

What becomes apparent as you dig into each of these narratives and their connections to each other is that to actual make use of these narratives in our own lives consumes considerable amount of energy – more than our instruction sets provide.   In short, you could not actually get through a day if all you did was try to use “math” to navigate life.  Mathematical interpretation of all this information adds a layer of information that becomes all consuming to other forms of information processing that actually keep you alive much provide understanding.

Cutting to the chase, which is so hard to do, is that there are infinite number of information processing methods to gain understanding at work all the time.   Math is one approach (well, it’s infinitely rich as well).   Chemistry is another approach.  and so on.   All are universal processors – given enough time/energy they will explore the right possibilities.

And here we get to the BIG THESIS is that ART and STORY are the most efficient ways to explore the right information processing for humankind to improve chances of survival of the species and of an individual.

How Does Art, Story Compute and Explore the Right Possibilities more Efficiently

For whatever reason human nervous systems seem to be big fat pattern recognizers.   That is they “see” patterns and change information configurations (behave) based on patterns.   Successive exposure to the same pattern or similar patterns tends to reinforce specific behavior aka learning.  (see experimental analysis of behavior for things like matching relation, etc. and various other learning theory and neuroscience material).

Learning is essential to avoiding “destructive” information configuration transformations (ya know, death).

So this thesis comes down to figuring out which ways of processing the universe teach the species (and its individuals) efficiently.   

And this is where this essay has no ability to prove anything with rigor.   That said, here goes.

Efficient learning involves efficient presentation of stimuli and efficient processing of that stimuli.   In other words, to effectively teach someone you have to be able to communicate information with them in such a way that they can consume it, process it and learn from it with the limited time and energy they have to avoid destruction.   There are some basic survival things “learned” in the gene code… various fixed action patterns like suckling and crying that get us going, but after that learning has to take pretty quickly to avoid the million different ways we can die at any given moment.

Now, before we get all crazy, let’s consider that humankind very much could have a different strategy for survival.  But the fact is our current configuration is such that we take 9 months to bake in the womb, we come out needing lots of help and have a very long rearing stage while our brains and bodies grow and get to the point where we can pass on the gene code (can make eggs and sperm and mate).   Having a person live this long and to select a viable mate makes learning some complicated stuff very quickly essential.   And if you keep thinking about all this you end up looping in about did big brains create the need to learn or did stimuli start evolving brains (bad example) and all sorts of other statements we can never verify.

So here we are with this species.  Over the centuries we’ve taught generation after generation how to survive and then how to contribute to the survival of the species. Which, to me, seems to rely on convincing each other to not just survive but to thrive so we’re more attractive to each other and all feel like living long enough to be fruitful and multiply.

What appears to be mostly true from history is that our primary way of teaching is through narrative.  We concoct stories that are devoid of formal specifics and instead have some memorable themes, lessons and characters – you know, patterns we can interpret in a wide variety of contexts.

These stories come in the form of fables, religion, traditions, paintings and what not. ( I am not suggesting MEMEs. )

Stories seem to be really robust information packets.   They can be poorly told and retain information value.  They can carry on through various mediums.   They are primitive packets of human information that survive generational death.

Formal mathematics, science texts, and what not are very dense information packets requiring very specific processing capability (a long time spent learning math!).

In essence stories help us avoid dying due Computational Irreducibility.   Most things we experience, see are computationally irreducible.   That is, to fully understand them would take forever and infinite energy.  Stories provide a description of how the world works that our pattern recognition systems can story up a bunch of stories that help us react without needing complete knowledge.  Stories are usually comprised of metaphors or rather we are good at using stories metaphorically to expand their utility.   Bears eat people is equivalent to Big Brown things with Claws eat People and so on.  (worth reading is Metaphors We Live By and responses like this)

It’s quite possible that with modern computers we’ll escape our current configuration computing limitations and we can describe the universe and the world around us with ever more precision and have enough time to not just live but thrive.

As it stands now, we’re still a world that relies on the telling of stories.

Our businesses need PR and business plans.   Our politicians need platforms and slogans.   Our kids need fables.   Our families need traditions.  Our economy needs advertising.

If we could simply process ALL INFORMATION we wouldn’t need short hand or interpretive information packets.

What Are The Implications

I think if we eliminate the need for story we’re not going to at all resemble this information configuration known as human.   It’s neither bad nor good.  Just different.

I think Story = Human.

I think we’re seeing, in some aspects of culture, the erosion of story and thus humanity.  Facebook and twitter are more and more turning the daily experience into more and more specific, formal bytes of what’s going on.   It’s quite possible that as web content gets more algorithmically generated we’ll just use algorithms to interpret it and as we get our phones and smart devices to do more and more stuff for us we’ll probably lose the ability and/or the need to tell stories and we won’t know the difference or care.

Humans aren’t efficient by very many measures.   What we’re efficient at is telling and interpreting stories.  This may not turn out to be a good ability for long term survival.   I don’t even know of species survival is a good thing.

I do think everything is information and we’re part of that everything and that stories are a nifty little thing in the configuration of all things.  and that of all the big questions I’ve chased down in life almost all of them have the best answers found in a story.   It is a tale told by an idiot perhaps…..

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I wonder if I can break from the flow in this blog to posit a response on the CNN article

When any argument used results in the personification of the brain as an entity that ‘does’ things, the value of your verbal behavior to others gets minimalized. Brains are cellular matter that behave according to cellular chemistry and physics without any agency toward purpose, function, or order.”

Please don’t follow the crowd and use words as if they don’t matter. Furthermore, avoid the crowd’s focus on monocausality, absolutes and Newtonian cause and effect chain-link logic. You are involved with an organ that has roughly 100 billion neural cells with 10 million attachments to each one. Noodle that if you will! The number of permutations for what is going on in the brain as a billion fibers fire in and out of synchrony with other patterns is difficult to deal with. Using simplistic metaphors is what the crowd does. Metaphors may sound succinct but they reduce the reader’s ability to grasp the enormity of the problems involved in every aspect. Behavior::neural activity::genetics::the environment and their reciprocities are complex. The subject matter has a “wow” factor but it also has a history littered with charlatans, elixir salesman and worse. Don’t follow the crowd but instead, select the empirical path rather than the path of myth, magic and dualism.

No, these observations reported by CNN don’t abstract well.  They don’t do much but imply that a correlation is as good as a ‘cause.’ Pity. Correlations are the basis of fMRIs.

The brain doesn’t show that people fear being different. The brain shows patterns of firings that people with letters and research project numbers after their name interpret one way or another. You still have to listen and read and evaluate what they say, write and interpret.

  • How did the brain come to fire the way it did (in that area, at that amplitude, and pattern)?
  • What impact did neural plasticity have on the firings?
  • What do the fMRI readings represent?
  • Is the same firing pattern seen in Budapest or Pogo to that stimuli?
  • Is it true of Paraná tribe members and Malaysian sea nomads?

We are like others in groups or organizations because we are both reinforced and punished over time for our behavior in relation to their behavior. We recognize similarities (selectively) and as long as they don’t conflict with our other (selected) valued belief systems, we “relate” to that group. We diverge from social group convention for the same reasons. What is constant are the changes in the flow of what we value or what we relate to in those and other groups we attend to…which is also conditioned.

To show the degree that things are controlled by consequences, invite a Shiite to speak at your church mission group or invite a goyim to participate in the next Hasidic  law review. Watch the group behavior.  Of course these are extremes to show an effect.  But there are subtle abstractions as well… Bring your close friends, the ones who love you for who you are… to a Monster Truck Rally.   Social contingencies are powerful!  

That is one way to explain why some people are Green Bay Packer fans and some are Oakland Raider fans. Each sees things they value in their group and don’t value in the other’s group. Those ‘things’ are also conditioned by the contingencies the different fans were exposed to in the past.

How else does one explain being a Raider fan?

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I was going to title this “Not found @ 2009 Consumer Electronics Show…” but I’d get punished.

People invest in training for their education, work, entertainment and even lifestyles. The society as a whole invests billions in training and education for all its children and encourages more of it after high school. Collectively, corporations spend hundreds of billions of dollars on training of all levels; from simple tasks (MS Office) to the ultra complex (Billings fMRI certification). Training can be hands-on, case studies, role-play, webcasts, podcasts, virtual, instructor led, eLearning, Learning communities and even blog solutions groups. Then there is mentoring for individuals to complement sales training, technical training, service training, partner training and vendor training.

Professional athletic organizations spend billions of dollars globally each year to train not only the muscles of their athletes but the way they think about themselves, their competitors, and how to handle work-life balance issues that can be anything but normal. The ‘natural’ athletic ability of athletes like Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods, Paton Manning, Dana Torres, and Mario Williams comes at the price of eight+ hours of practice a day for years in order to be an over-night success. People watch super athletes perform a bevy of athletic feats and too frequently ascribe their behavior to a “natural ability” rather than to intense training in multiple areas that is required to do what they do. The US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, has classes for athletes on handling the media, food, injuries and anger. Organizations also spend millions more to learn new methods of training world class athletes for elite competition in every sport imaginable from both forms of football, baseball and basketball to lesser but intensely played X-games, tennis and ping pong.

All this time, all this money and all these people invest daily in what they can learn today that will take them to the next level tomorrow. They are all committed to acquiring whatever will improve performance, profit, presentation or information that will serve them in the pursuit of what each of them is organized to value.

However when any of these individuals, groups or organizations are presented with the learning and conditioning rules that apply to their training there is push back and denunciation conditioning. While even a grade school track coach knows how the Krebs cycle affects a ‘kick’ at the end of a 440, they know next to nothing of the methods of reinforcement and avoidance, chaining and fading, discrimination training or schedules effect those they train. Even the arguments against the use of conditioning and learning techniques as being relevant are learned using the very contingency management they deny is involved.

So, am I missing something? Did we all learn to read blogs by reflex? Was divination involved in finding the right partner to marry? Was it always their ‘motivation’ or was it due to a ‘calling’ he turned that MBA from University of Colorado into a creative design position for www.getgreen.com?

The value for us is that learning and conditioning is everywhere. It is harder to find a behavior that didn’t come about due to past consequences than it is to keep up with pop logic that eating chocolate is good for me or that purging is a disease. Please! The effects of learning and conditioning are everywhere; drug cartels, congressman, Joel Osteen, Rev. Wright, moms, brothers sisters and you too.

Maybe we ought to take the rules of learning seriously in order to understand the big stuff about what the heck is going on in the world. Then we can start on the tough stuff.

Find me a behavior that was acquired without conditioning and I’ll pay you money.

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Actually this is a provocative title to get parents and teachers to read online crap. Kinda ironical, don’t you think… it is supposed to sound like concerns from worried parents.

One brain scientist at UCLA, Gary Small, a psychiatrist, argues that daily exposure to digital technologies can alter how the brain works. “Brain scientist” does not equate to brainy scientist!

While violent and porn have received a lot of public attention, the current jive goes well beyond concern and elicits fear. Media hawking ‘scientists’ purport that the wired world may be changing the way we read, learn and interact with each other. Dah…

Dr. Small claims that brain circuits involved in face-to-face contact can become weaker due to the time and exposure to digital media. Of course he offers no data and the directionality of the changes is impossible to determine if they empirically exist at all. …did the person select a digital world because of his or her brain or did the digital world change the brain by being less emotive, less rewarded by being around people?

Small says the effect is strongest in so-called digital natives, for now. It is the teenagers and 20s and 30 year olds who have been “digitally hard-wired since toddlerhood.” [Is pop-science the same as junk science?]

More than 2,000 years ago, Socrates warned about a different information revolution. He knew learning was important. Yet, he lectured that the rise of the written word was a more artificial way of learning than the oral tradition. More recently, television sparked concerns, then movies, then video games that would make our precious youth more violent or passive and interfere with their education. It even was rumored that TV watching interfered with their sight, fantasy development and ability to do good in school. YIKES!

There isn’t an open-and-shut case that digital technology is changing brain circuitry in any way different from an athlete’s brain or a student’s brain changes due to plasticity… those things a person does change the neural work paths of the brain so that the person doesn’t have to relearn everything they did yesterday all over again when they do it today.

Not enough scientists and non-scientists are skeptical of digital fear mongering. It appears to be a way for doctors to get copy in online and print media. I got some articles off the web on this…. There is little to disprove or prove the digital fear speculation.

Dr. Robert Kurzban, a University of Pennsylvania scientist states the obvious: he says that neurobiology is complex and incomplete and there is still have a lot to learn about how a person’s experiences affect the way the brain is wired to deal with any interaction including social or digital ones. They are separate issues: neurological wiring AND social interaction.

It appears to many in education and science that social interaction is a reinforcer just like food and water. Deprivation and overload appear to work in a similar fashion as anyone who has ever been in jail or from a large family will attest. Montessori educators have practiced a version of education and development that maintains that each student gets just what they need when they are ready to process it and there is not an absolute course on when, where and if that is going to happen or should happen.

But anything we do changes the brain due to plasticity. Even Googling. Some scientists suggest the brain actually benefits from Internet use which is equally silly as to claim that the brain is harmed by all things digital.

The developing brain builds pathways as learning occurs that gradually allows for more sophisticated processing. This is true of car mechanics and interpretive dance. It is also true for learning scripture whether it is based on Buddha, Mohamed, Christ or Jim Jones. It is all the same to the brain. Early on, “stuff” that isn’t used gets sloughed off in a pairing of dendrites and neural wax that keeps the brain working efficiently. Over time the 100 billion neurons with their 100,000 connections each come to grips with the environment, internal and external.

Children do more reading earlier online rather than Dick and Jane books at school. There is more and greater variability online than even seasoned educators can grasp. All and all, some parents can’t absorb or rationalize it. Yes, games are played to a frenzy. Yes, there is stuff out there that makes a sailor blush. No one knows how it will all turn out. There is also a bit of “Dr. Suez was good enough for me! Why do you have to be online all the time reading about arbitrage and the credit crunch or the net worth of Hollywood’s stars under 21 on Yahoo?”

For my 20 cents we shouldn’t have such a narrow view of children, humans or animals to rely on some aspect causing a great hole or scar in their behavior or man’s treatment of others. That flag is already waved by organized religion. They have a lock on it except for what is being played out digitally in games. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

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‘Thinking’ as a class of potential behavior is hard to study and thus, makes it ripe for speculation and interpretations beyond the data. As things are today, thinking is made more significant because it is presumed that humans are the only ones that do it making is a signature feature on what is human and what isn’t. “Mind”, “consciousness”, thought and all sorts of covert related properties are offered as evidence that humans are different and somehow more substantive than other animals. The past and existing organizations of what is going on inside the ‘vault’ [read: brain, head, mind, neural node, CNS] have been dismal. Answers are as elusive as they were 2000 years ago and are made more mysterious for some by being out of reach.

We have made no progress in regards to our understanding of what goes on there and how those things relate to subjective or empirical states of man or our institutions, including governance and law. They have suffered most while we hack away at deciphering the muddled mess of metaphysics and logically indefensible postulates that are put forth to explain how man behaves and why.

the verbal community has not yet been able to connect with what is going on that the community cannot experience. Any reinforcements that are delivered are not contingent on specific behavior because they can’t be seen in time or space. This comes to create a response class that looks like behavior that is reinforced on a VI schedule independent of a specific response on the part of the target organism. Yes; the prime requisite for development of superstitious behavior is non-contingent VI delivery of a reinforcer.

thinking may occasion in a person a fixed gaze, unblinking or reduced eye blinks, change in gate, or time insensitivity to many external stimuli, changes in galvanic responses and lowered heart and breathing rates. However, these are not thinking per se but may be part of what is inferred to be happening when one is doing any covert behaviors including thinking. All are part of other behaviors as well as behaviors with parameters of their own.

In describing thinking there is a lack of external conformation possible that any observer or the free-floating reinforcements can access. Thus, there is no connection between a specific covert behavior and a potential reinforcer. Thus, there is no way to show an increase in the future probability of occurrence of a target covert behavior occurring when the potential reinforcer was delivered.

Our covert behavior [including thinking] has several problems as a behavior class.

  1. it is not sensed and can’t be verified or falsified
  2. it does not have standard units of measurement
  3. results will depend on the way it is measured
  4. it is experiences through filters that transducer it to something else based on history and context
    1. vocabulary
    2. environment context
    3. culture
    4. in articulation of aspect (what parts are of interest – dreams, impulses, value, etc.)
    5. unknown empirical properties

Ultimately, the products of processes generated from within the ‘vault’ of the listener are routed and locked there. Everyone will continue to investigate how and what is going on there with whatever methods that can be mustered. Today the neurosciences are taking their shot at deciphering the relationships between what is going on inside our head and what we experience. To that end they are using 19th century models of man and behavior mixed with decrepit autonomous man inklings and sophisticated 21st century technology and chemistry. For some there is value in how they postulate the working of man and his mind. Those values are the same as postulated 2000 years ago and haven’t benefited our species as much as science methods have benefited biology, chemistry and anthropology. The value to science will depend more on changes in approach to man than the power of the magnet used in a portable fMRI.

Any set of the things related to what happens when someone is thinking is all just that, related to thinking for that person and not thinking itself. All the covert events can be related to things associated with other behaviors done when a person is not thinking as well as when some are thinking. The set of responses become associated as events related to a state that may be referred to as ‘thinking’ for that person who, when asked, “What are you doing?” or “Why don’t you answer me?” may report, “I was thinking…” and otherwise communicate something the other person will probably relate to as a set of private covert actions (events) that can be arbitrarily called ‘thinking.’

Of course it is very true that if thinking were an operant the people in the examples above would not have to ask, “What are you doing?” or “Why don’t you answer me?” If thinking were doing something overt, the observer could learn from observing or measuring behavior and would know the answers to those questions after learning to discriminate what was/is thinking and what is something other than thinking.

Psychotherapists, bosses, clergy, spouses, friends, parents etc., all have a version of why we do what we do. They have a story about what relationships exist between us and the world around us; the environment. There is a good chance that, after some time experiencing a person, that each could be right. Of course their story is riddled with inaccuracies as well seeing how they only see what they were trained to see. Seems impossible but consider that each of us has a VERY broad and complex behavior repertoire. Our complex behavior allows us to behave differently and distinctly in the different environments and contexts of different people. Sometimes the people we are, how we behave, overlaps. Sometimes they don’t.

SUMMARY

Great thinkers as well as the delusional philosophers, pontiffs, despots and princes and even the man and woman on the street have been reinforced for reporting their internal covert musings in subjective and fantasy terms focusing on the exhaust of the human thinking process – emotions and feelings. These 3 thousand years of focus has outdistanced the empirical study of thinking by overlooking histories of the individuals and the use of the least productive research methods NOT found in 17th century science! In the not-so-grand scale of things, it is more interesting for the lay person and the scientist alike to be enamored by the fantasy than by the environmental contingencies. We pay for that interest every day we live on this earth.

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