The Trees In Our Forest

Modern behaviorism is heavily weighted toward neuroscience. In neuroscience, a researcher becomes particularly excited when they detect a single neuron firing in response to a given stimuli. They then trace the route of the impulse as it travels through the brain in the hopes of parsing the circuitry down to the finest grain of resolution. This is the microscopic reductionist approach. Each neuron is treated as an electromagnetic dynamo, generating an action potential that triggers a cascade of subsequent action potentials that selectively connect affiliated neurons in a burst of energy. Researchers put aside the notion of intention and simply trace this movement of force. They follow the flow of energy. The microscopic reductionist approach has revealed much about the internal structure and its functions. However, in its application by behaviorism, the brain is seen as the forest revealed by its trees.

Every scientific discipline seems to have a microscopic view in conjunction with a macroscopic view. Particle physics is complemented by Astrophysics, Microeconomics is partnered with Macroeconomics, Newton mechanics counterbalanced by Quantum Mechanics, psychology with sociology; so is there a macroscopic extrapolative approach to the animal mind as counterpart to the microscopic reductive approach of modern brain research?

Yes. By considering the entire brain as but one tree as opposed to it being the entire forest. In a macroscopic extrapolative approach, just as each neuron is treated as an electromagnetic dynamo that generates a pulse of activity that is not invested with intention, but as a traveling action potential that induces subsequent action potentials in those it interacts with; we likewise put aside the question of intention. On the most basic level, the brain is seen as a dynamo that generates an action potential, that is then expressed as a behavior as a traveling action potential which induces action potentials in those it interacts with. The resulting chain of interactions is an external cascade of neurochemical events.

When an organism becomes energized, i.e. when enough neurons in the brain fire so that the individual acts, to a neurologist this is almost a non-event because it’s the sub-structures and isolated neurons they want to unveil and parse apart in order to reveal the brain’s internal architecture. This is how they hope to see the forest. But in a macroscopic approach, on the most basic level, the brain is viewed as a single neuron, as a dynamo that generates activity, an action potential that destabilizes those it comes in contact with, just as is a single neuron firing in an MRI scan going on to destabilize its neighbors. As the impulse of activity in the form of a behavior radiates through the environment, we resist the temptation to invest the actions and counteractions with intention, just as neuroscientists do not read intention into the neurochemical chain of cascades that radiate through the brain.

In the microscopic approach, does anyone actually believe that when science breaks the brain down and trace the pathways to every last neuron, gene, hormone and neurochemical, that we will have arrived at the irreducible essence, the unique spark, the individual pixel of consciousness that kindles the mind into the subjective, purposive and meaning-seeking experiencer of reality? Particle physicists for example don’t believe that when they isolate the Higgs or “God” particle that unites gravity with electromagnetism, that they will have arrived at God. They’re merely one step closer to a deeper understanding and hopefully the development of a more coherent model. They haven’t confused the tree with the forest. So while a microscopic reductionist approach to the doings of the mind is indeed vital research, a macroscopic approach is a necessary adjunct when reductionism fails to yield the fruit it seeks.

Modern behaviorism should situate itself on top of a foundation comprised of both a microscopic and macroscopic view of behavior before it addresses the phenomenon of intention. In Natural Dog Training, we put intention aside in order to first trace the activity of the individual animal that radiates into the network as the movement of energy, the recapitulation of an action potential. This reveals the forest and now the trees make sense.

Published May 16, 2013 by Kevin Behan
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5 responses to “The Trees In Our Forest”

  1. If you ignore intention, then you don’t have to address intention. It’s just another way to dance around the elephant in the room, and justify a pharmacological solution, versus a behavioral one. The reasons for an (inappropriate) behavior matter, but in the end, they also don’t… because regardless of their causes, the behavior is happening and needs to be addressed. SUCCESSFULLY addressed!

    I’m not against the use of chemicals in dog training, but lately I’ve read the writings of many well known behaviorists who talk about a case, and its pharmacological solution, without ever mentioning behavior modification, either from the canine, or human, point of view.

  2. kbehan says:

    I agree completely that there is too much emphasis on the pharmacological solution. When we listen to Panksepp that is exactly where his research is headed, better drugs in that they will target more specifically defined sites. That is not going to end well in regards to the behavioral health of our fellows not to mention their pets. Just to be clear, I don’t argue for ignoring intention per se, but rather setting it aside for as long as possible in order to explain as much as possible before bringing it into the discussion. My complaint with modern behaviorism is that it immediately reads intention into a behavior without looking for more parsimonious explanations for intelligent action. I’ve long read that survival and reproductive strategies of genes are the driving force in the evolution of social behavior. Yet recent simulations with insensate machines and algorithms demonstrate complex social structures and swarming behaviors simply in accord with principles of physics. These simulations contradict the central argument of modern behaviorism that behavior is driven by genetically rooted rationales. In my view, emotion and feelings are the physical embodiment of the laws of nature, this is how organisms are able to evolve in sympatico with their environments. I believe that the new field of embodied cognition demonstrates that emotion and feelings are a domain of intelligence falling outside the scope of cognition, and furthermore, provides the template into which all cognitive expressions of intelligence take their shape.

  3. Josh D says:

    In regards to Panskepp – I have only begun to read his “Archaeology of Mind,” but he seems to suggest a multi-modal approach to rectifying emotional imbalance. I woul imagine for most researchers a pharmacological solution is the “holy grail” in terms of income as well as wider recognition whereas other non-pharmacological approaches are much harder to promote. Not to mention research investment dollars steering where the research gets focused. Of course this is getting at the root of a huge social driver for our society which doesn’t need to be rehashed here… I just wanted to mention that my initial look into his work doesn’t reflect a solely pharmacological answer to emotional imbalance.

  4. kbehan says:

    Thanks for the amendment to his philosophy. I did hear him say his research will lead to better drugs, but as you point out that doesn’t rule out other modalities of therapy as you’ve found in his writings. I am very excited about his findings, not because I believe neurology gets to the bottom of things, but because his seven affective systems seem to me to be subsets of emotion as a “force” of attraction, the brain having these modules for ready response independent of a true emotional/feeling response which can take much longer to evolve into a coherent expression relative to external circumstances. My interpretation of behavior leads me to believe that these neurological modules are not emotion proper, but are the necessary hardware to execute the underlying software as generated by the interplay between body, brain and most especially, heart.

  5. cliff says:

    I just read a review of Temple Grandin’s new book “The Autistic Brain” (The New York Review of Books, June 6, pp. 40-41). The reviewer notes how Grandin describes things “…in accessible metaphors…” For example, she compares brain research to dismantling an old t.v. and cutting a wire that turns the picture off. However, there may be more than one wire related to image reception—”…The picture depends not on one specific cause, but on a collection of causes, all interdependent.” I think this speaks to a more holistic approach to understanding what makes us, and dogs, tick, and gets closer to, if you will, the “heart” of the matter.

    I look forward to reading the book.

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