I’m still searching for a point of intersection with the mainstream interpretations of behavior and learning and I’m starting to get the impression the learning theorists are ducking a simple question. I’ve posted it here and on several sites, and perhaps it’s so simple it’s thought of as trivial, especially with all the heady talk of learning theory, but if so, this is a critical error.
Currently on the web site “Dog Star Daily,” which is promulgating the work of Dr. Ian Dunbar, Lee Kelley is engaged in a point-by-point discussion involving neuro-anatomy and learning theory as he argues for a different interpretation of what such evidence reveals.
Lee is being taken to task for an article he wrote on his Psychology Today Blog wherein he entertains the proposition that Operant Conditioning might be losing the intellectual battle against the Cesar Milan media juggernaut because why would there be a media juggernaut if Operant Conditioning model was truly comprehensive. The OC camp counters by saying what battle? And if there is one it’s due to a misapplication and misunderstanding of learning theory. They also argue that whatever technical success Cesar enjoys is due to his inadvertently capitalizing on those aspects of learning theory that he is able to apply correctly.
As I mentioned, on this particular web site there is in depth discussion of neural anatomy as well as liberal use of the term “thinking.” The following quote was posted by “fun4fido” in the above mentioned article and thread that was prompted by Lee’s article.
“…there are two different processes, a dogs behaviour is guided by either emotion or thinking. Two sets of structures in the brain share a very important relationship in canine behaviour. The limbic system is a complex circuit of neural structures involved in the expression and experience of emotions. The cerebral cortex on the other hand is involved in various cognitive functions including learning, thinking and problem solving.
The limbic system and the cerebral cortex have an inverse relationship. When either one is activated, the other system cancels out, or rather gets over-ridden. If a dog is mentally stimulated and encouraged to think, his cerebral cortex will be activated and learning is effective. In this state he is less likely to experience intense emotional responses. Likewise, a dog that experiences intense emotional responses has his limbic system activated and his cerebral cortex inhibited. A dog experiencing an intense emotional response – and I must stress the word intense, is reacting to a given stimulus/event and no longer thinking. This intense emotional frame of mind is not a good place for a dog to be because it can push him/her to react instinctively, and not all instinctive behaviours are helpful to a dog in the human world.
Learning is best accomplished when a dog is in thinking mode, in particular, this is why counter conditioning and desensitisation should always be applied while the dog is sub-threshold, when a dog is over threshold his/her stress level is too high, emotions take over, the dog starts to react, and is unable to learn effectively.”
Now this is a very definitive statement based on drawing an explicit connection between components of the brain, and I can understand the merit of such logic. The fact that dogs and humans share certain critical brain structures that seem central to thinking does present a compelling argument that dogs may be capable of thinking. OC believes this is then confirmed in the phenomenon of learning. Therefore, it seems reasonable to ask the question that such definitive statements beg, what are dogs thinking?
Pet communicators likewise claim that dogs think but then they go on the record and articulate what they think dogs are thinking. So since learning theorists argue that the phenomena of complex and learned behavior is fully encompassed by the science of learning, what are dogs thinking?