Category Archives: Neuron

Moral Questions for Operant Conditioning in Animals

Have you ever wondered why we, as humans, measure the intelligence of other organisms by their ability to mimic the characteristics or behaviors that we exhibit? For example, consider a dog. If a dog listens well, does tricks, and obeys orders given by their owners then that dog is considered to be intelligent when compared to a dog that does not obey their owners. Now, if these two dogs are the same breed and the same age it is safe to assume that one has received training, most likely in the form of operant conditioning during their raising while the other dog did not. Does the fact that one dog was taught how to do tricks through positive reinforcement, most likely, make it more intelligent than the dog that was not given the same opportunity? I would venture to say that tricks and obeying orders does not explicitly illustrate the intelligence level of animals. I would argue that tricks and obeying orders is simply a medium which trainers and psychologists use to project the intelligence of animals into a tangible scale that most people are able to understand.

Now, the question arises: is it morally right and psychologically safe to use classical and operant conditioning methods to make animals perform tricks and obey orders that they would inherently never do in nature. Granted, domesticated animals such as service dogs serve a greater purpose than ‘rolling-over’, but take this idea and extrapolate it out from domesticated animals to organisms that truly have no place in captivity.

Consider the orca whale. For over 30 years these animals have been used as show animals for organizations like SeaWorld performing tricks for crowds of people of all ages. I would recommend watching the documentary ‘Blackfish’ in regards to the details of the orcas of SeaWorld, and for those of you who have seen it you might understand my stance a bit more clearly (Blackfish, Cowperthwaite). By nature, the orca is an extremely emotional driven animal. They live in families that live and die closer than most humans do to their families. Naturally, they are extremely intelligent and highly skilled in teamwork. A short video (hyperlink: shows how a family of orcas not only using teamwork to capture a seal, but using observational learning techniques with the children to try and show them how hunting works (Killer Whales). As we saw in class, the use of observational learning requires the use of mirror neurons which seem to only be found in organisms with high cognitive development such as primates and humans.

The heightened ability to learn through observation may have been a reason leading to making orcas show animals, but this has proven to have negative influences on the animals. In the film ‘Blackfish’, SeaWorld trainers explain how they used positive reinforcement to promote behavior and negative punishment to demote behaviors. On the surface this worked to train the animals to do tricks for their performances. However, just as Pavlov’s dog would do after conditioning if the trainers would make the orca do a trick and deny it a reward they would get frustrated. This frustration has led to violence and, in cases, the death of trainers.

Unfortunately, the moral questions continue. As stated before, orcas are very family based creatures. When taken from their homes and dumped into a cage with strange whales they can quickly begin to show signs of anxiety. There are cases where this anxiety has led to violence against other whales and to trainers. Over time, this anxiety has led to what seems to be similar to antisocial personality disorders and even depression. Once again I would highly recommend watching the documentary ‘Blackfish’ to get a sense of what I have talked about.

I hope this has sparked some thought into why we as humans find it necessary to psychologically shape other creatures when given the chance. In the case of orcas this forced conditioning has led to possible psychological disorders and in the case of domesticated animals it has led to the near complete dependence on humans for survival.

I encourage comments, thoughts, and criticisms.


Works Cited:

Blackfish. Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Dogwoof, 2013. Film.

“Killer Whales “Gang Up” to Capture Seal.” Killer Whales “Gang Up” to Capture Seal. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

Observational Learning and Children

The concept of observational learning is what makes higher-level animals different from others in the animal kingdom. Observational learning is the ability to learn a concept without direct experience. The observer will simply learn through seeing the task performed.  There are certain neurons within the brain that scientists have discovered while studying observational learning. These neurons were deemed mirror neurons. For someone to engage in observational learning, they need to include four elements into their learning process. First, they must be paying attention and notice the task being performed. Next, they must properly encode the memory of how the procedure or element is performed.  After that, they must be able to properly imitate, or be able to do the task properly. Finally, and often the most important concept, the learner must be motivated, or have the desire to learn.

As discussed in class, children are great observational learners. One experiment in particular, Bandura’s experiment, showcases this well.  In the experiment, an adult proceeded to hit a BoBo doll violently with a hammer and mallet. Next a child would enter the room, and perform the same exact task that the adult has previously displayed. This rectifies that children are great observational learners. This is why often when working with children you must watch how you act, what you say, and how you interact with co-workers.

I work at a summer camp full-time during the summer with about five other counselors. Most of us know how to act properly in front of the kids, but one person in particular displays questionable behavior in front of the children. He often uses foul language and talks about adult topics in front of the campers. But worst of all, he displays rough behavior while playing in the pool.  Rough housing in the water is a very dangerous act to engage in.  I noticed that when he displays this behavior, the campers soon after catch on, and start pushing, shoving and tugging at others while in the water.  Not only does this put the kids and others in dangers, but it also makes reprimanded the children a lot more difficult. Since they saw someone in authority perform this act, they think that it is acceptable, and often argue this when getting scolded by another counselor.

Overall, observational learning is often taken for granted by humans because it comes so naturally to us. It also puts us higher above other animals in the animal kingdom in regards to our learning abilities. Observational learning helps us learn new ideas quickly but this is also a negative when it comes to children picking up bad behaviors when exhibited by adults.

The Psychology of Love

Songs are written about it. Movies revolve around it. There is an entire day dedicated to it. What am I talking about?

Love. It’s everywhere, in everything, virtually inescapable. And just when you think you may be the last person on earth to find it, it slaps you in the face and you’re swept up in its romantic embrace. Your heart beats faster when your sweetie is around, you can never catch your breath, and somehow that special someone always manages to give you butterflies when they’re near. It is exactly what everyone said it would be.

Along with many people, I’ve experienced love, or at least extreme like, many times. I can remember my first date, when I had the sweatiest palms and driest mouth I can remember. I felt like I had enough energy to run a marathon and somehow couldn’t make my voice sound normal. Even now, when I have a crush on someone, I can’t get my thoughts together. My body makes it impossible for me to act cool, calm, and collected like I want to.

As it turns out, that nervous response that individuals experience on that first date, first kiss, or even just reaching for a hand is actually a result of the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS. The SNS is responsible for regulating heart rate, blood flow, breathing and digestion. It is an “arousing” system, meaning that it can mobilize the nervous system to experience a “fight-or-flight” response. Because the SNS is a part of the autonomic nervous system (or automatic), it’s very difficult for individuals to control their bodily responses around their significant other. Opposite of the sympathetic nervous system and also part of the autonomous nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down and allows it to “rest and digest.”

Even though it’s hard to control how you might appear to your crush or sweetheart, it’s also interesting to note that it could be possible to judge whether or not you are liked by the other person. Because the sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fight-or-flight” response, you can watch their eyes to see whether their pupils dilate. You can also keep an eye out for sweaty palms and fidgeting, sure signs of nervousness.

So if you along with so many others are going through the sweaty palms, can’t catch your breath sort of phase, just blame it on your nervous system for sending signals through your body, ultimately triggering your primal “fight-or-flight” response.

Neurons and Traumatic Brain Injury

neuronsDuring the first part of class, we discussed the importance of neurons in psychology and the direct relationship between psychology and biology. About 100 billion neurons make up the body’s information system and there are about 100 trillion connections between them. These neurons do not only control biological aspects of one’s body but also affect behavior. Everything we do or think begins as an action by neurons in our brains. Since psychology and biology are so closely related, action or inaction by neurons in the brain can have far-reaching effects on other parts of the body.

A family friend experienced this firsthand. When he was in college, he was sitting on a milk crate in the back of his friend’s van on the way home from a party. Not far from campus, the van struck a tree and, since he was not wearing a seatbelt, our friend was thrown from the vehicle. He suffered a traumatic head injury. My dad drove to visit him right after the accident. Our friend could not speak, eat or perform normal daily functions on his own. My dad and mom, who visited our friend later when he was in rehab, both said it was as if their friend was a child trapped in the body of a 21-year-old.

This change occurred because traumatic brain injury directly affects neurons and can even kill them and the connections between them. Since neurons all work together, these losses can have devastating effects on many areas, since biology and psychology are linked. Different neurons have different functions and control different areas of the body and brain. When our friend experienced head trauma, the neurons for certain functions, such as speech and memory, were negatively affected. He lost the ability to control these parts of his body because the neurons stopped firing and sending information to the brain and other necessary areas.

Fortunately, he eventually made a full recovery after lots of therapy and rehab. This experience epitomizes the link between neuropsychology and biology and shows the importance for all neurons to be working properly. Neurons control everything we do and without some functioning properly, the results can be devastating.