Behavior Modification and Our Belief Systems

January 24th, 2013

My trips through the USA and Europe have been fraught with experiences representing the schizophrenic affects of political upheaval in the West. Along with all of that is a glimpse of the hopes on the part of some of the strongest cultures on earth for recovery. All in all, it resembles a great human experiment in silent warfare on an economic level.

Those thoughts brought me to review the most frequently read post in this blog found here. My interests in medicine naturally directed my attention to the use of humans in scientific experiments. In my travels, I’ve watched social forms of that practice involving unusual forms of bullying among children, the efforts of people working around the clock to remain upright and productive through sixteen hour days and novel shopping habits reflecting political beliefs in terms of brand names.

Part of my education and experience in teaching was in the area of behavior modification. Most interactions involve some kind of learning about the preferences of your communicative or business partner of the moment. Facial expressions, gestures, price codes etc. all reflect the way in which we want others to perform. Back in college, I studied the basic methods by which behavior modification actually worked, studying laboratory rats bred for that purpose.

Our lab group of three students was supposed to teach a rat to more or less ‘dance’, including turning in circles. Since this is not a normal movement pattern for them, the training involved operant conditioning in which you reward an animal each time they accidentally perform an action which is part of the desired chain of movements. Obviously this behavior isn’t productive in rat life so it allows us to see the potency of this teaching technique.

It also demonstrates the degree of cruelty involved in such learning because the reward consisted of drops of water being offered to water deprived animals, the strongest of motivations.

In terms of taking care of the rat, my lab partners seemed to drop out as the rat’s behavior became somewhat angry at this abusive lifestyle. Handled carelessly, the rat bit one student and the third person became afraid of it. I became responsible for taking care of the animal more or less by default, pity overcoming any hesitancy. I observed the lab manager ‘softening up’ each rat by grabbing their tails and swinging them rapidly in a circle. Those fearful, revolutions served as an admission that the rat was merely an object and not a form of life to be respected by students. Buying a pair of protective leather gloves, I was able to gentle the rat once again through careful handling while monitoring living conditions daily for excessive stress.

The rat was in a cage called a ‘Skinner box’, where water and food were provided normally as for a pet, in between learning trials. Prior to scheduled trials, the rat was deprived of water for 24 to 36 hours in a method I would no longer utilize with my current level of maturity and experience. Unfortunately, that was part of the learning curve for college students in those days. I hope this post becomes part of a solution to the misuse of experimental animals on such a large scale. There is sufficient cruelty in the world without desensitizing the ourselves to it for high grades and a modicum of knowledge that can be ethically acquired.

During experimental trials, drops of water were delivered via a hand-held switch. An audible click would accompany the delivery of a drop of water, ultimately informing the rat that relief of thirst was on the way. This kind of reinforcement is called primary reinforcement because it relates to one of the major life requirements: food, water or entry into a suitable environmental temperature range for tolerance. Each step the rat took in the desired direction led to a click, thereby increasing the chance that the same movement would happen a second time.

In retrospect, the deprivation of water now seems totally unnecessary because studies could surely reveal ways of shaping the desired behaviors in a non-verbal species via particular preferences. For instance, perhaps special flavors of water or types of food offsetting a bland diet would lead to equally productive performance. If studies were conducted regarding learning rates in rats utilizing forms of positive reinforcement in non-deprived animals (e.g. using sugared water or cheese flakes), might we avoid the cruelty of traditional research formats? Such studies detract from the humanity of our future professionals. While animal experimentation is justified under some circumstances, an enormous number of animals are cruelly bred just to be tormented in unnecessary studies. This is a shameful commentary upon our educational systems that any ‘4H’ kid in the United States would reject after their projects in raising animals humanely. We can certainly teach future professionals to work without regard for deprivation scenarios. As a former educator, such methods are unethical ways to work with children in any event so the process is not actually replicating future employment conditions (unless you work in a prisoner of war camp!).

The end of the study found our lab rat now dancing as per design in exchange for water. To my further horror, I learned that rats were killed after the experiments were over. I had thought they were retired and used for breeding but was informed that learning alters their brain function and structure. Shifts in DNA might then affect offspring (no longer considered ‘naive’) and render the lines unsuitable for experimental purposes. Apparently rats have to be ignorant to be useful. Some students took their rats home as pets but my colleagues didn’t like the little feller (it’s name escapes me now), and my parents wouldn’t have appreciated the introduction of a rodent into the house. So, can deprivation experiments be reversed to become learning trials in adding ‘more’ to the life of a rodent to develop new behaviors? I’m not suggesting that mice be offered beluga caviar but would a treat on top of moderately full stomach completely scuttle its education (or ours)?

I also took a basic biology class in which we dissected fetal pigs. We weren’t medical students which removed any need for us to acquire a surgical technique. This was merely to study anatomy in its original environment. Today’s kids are proficient in manipulating virtual reality, an interesting application for opposing thumbs. Is there any reason we couldn’t perform ‘virtual’ dissections using simulation techniques on any kind of ‘animal’ form? There is no need to raise animals for such purposes unless you are training future surgeons.

Casual attitudes towards the ‘least’ among our animal kingdom can only lead to greater disregard for the higher forms, including ourselves. The knowledge will still be acquired so why not let the methods for learning also appeal to our reverence for life?

Categories: Letters

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