How Consequences Affect Our Body, Brain, and Behavior: A New Book Reveals All

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

Have you ever wondered why your dog, cat, bird, or 3 year old child are so adept at whining, screeching or complaining until you finally give in? Or why you always fall into that cycle of resisting at first but later bend to their wishes?

Now, biopsychologist and behavior analyst, Dr. Susan Schneider, has written a fascinating book titled, “The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World,” that reveals it all. Schneider’s area of study focuses on nature-nurture relations, mathematical modeling of behavior, and the principles of learning from consequences, which, along with the practical clicker training of her budgies and rats, and her friendship with the father of operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner, makes for the type of author who has plenty to share. I had a chance to interview the engineer-turned-behavior-analyst to learn more about her book.

Q) What inspired you to write this book?  

A) Consequences are everywhere, and so are the principles that apply to them–and they're an integral part of the nature-and-nurture system too–but seldom does that message seem to be getting through.  When I first taught Introductory Psychology years ago, for example, you'd never guess that the “incentives” in the chapter on psychology and work had anything to do with the “positive reinforcers” in the chapter on learning.  We're starting to do better at integrating all the scientific information we now have, but we still have a long way to go.  In the 21st century, a “systems” approach incorporating genetics, epigenetics, neuroscience, etc, with behavior principles is not only essential in understanding the bigger life/behavioral sciences picture, it's awesomely flexible and empowering–and the science of consequences is a very large part of it.  (No wonder my book took 10 years to research!)

Q) What is the science of consequences?

A) Imagine if you *couldn't* learn from consequences–if instead you kept repeating your failures and not taking advantage of your successes. You'd be in trouble.  This adaptive ability appears to have developed early in the history of multicellular life, and it's been built upon ever since. In its broadest sense, the science of consequences includes all the ways in which this learning ability works, including its huge array of applications.  My book includes chapters on everything from genetics and neuroscience to more practical topics like signals for consequences, delayed consequences and self-control, learning through observing, human education and work, and animal applications (including clicker training, of course!).  Consequences are everywhere, and so is the science that applies to them.

Q) What are the main themes of the book?

A) There are two.  First, consequences are everywhere, influencing us every day, and there’s a well-established science that applies to them.  So, best to know something about it and the many benefits it makes possible (plus, it’s fascinating!).

Second, nature-nurture relations form a highly complex system in which behavioral consequences play a significant role.  The implications are profound.  Learning from consequences rewires the brain, for example, and is an important part of a successful therapy for stroke victims.

Q) How does the science of consequences apply to dogs and family pets?

A) Positive reinforcement methods have revolutionized animal training and are supported by the Humane Society of the United States and many more organizations, as readers of this blog are well aware.  Toss those choke collars . . .  Create a positive, fulfilling relationship with your animal companions at any level you choose.

That can even mean teaching sophisticated language skills, as in the case of the female border collie Chaser.  Her human companion, a retired college professor, worked with her for several years on this, with her reward being the chance to play with a ball.  He and a colleague published a scientific article last year showing that she had demonstrated that she'd learned the names of over *1000* objects, and a number of different verbs as well.  Whew! (On this Nova ScienceNow segment, Chaser is featured from about 2:00 minutes to 5:30 and again from 10:45 to 13:10)

Q) How does it apply across species and even to humans?

A) Throughout my book, I give examples of similarities in these behavior principles across species (and also, not surprisingly, in the underlying neurophysiology, genetics, and epigenetics):  such as in the way that variability can be a reinforcer, in the effects of delays, and in how our choices are influenced by consequences.  I will be the keynote speaker at The Art and Science of Animal Training on Feb. 2 at the University of North Texas, and my title is “The Science of Consequences: What We Share with Animals and Why It Matters.”

To see her book tour and speaking schedule go to: www.scienceofconsequences.com.

 

2 responses to “How Consequences Affect Our Body, Brain, and Behavior: A New Book Reveals All

  1. I was aware before reading your post that our brains, our cells and our bodies change according to what we practice. It is clear that everything we [living beings] go through in our daily lives effects us and will be reflected in our actions in the next hours/weeks or lifetime.

    It was interesting to read about your interest in the research of changes in behavior stemming from life circumstances.

    You ask the question “do strays dogs have different behavior than dogs who live within our families” “do consequences effect behaviors” etc.

    And yes I have noticed both. I have also noticed different behaviors in small breed dogs who’s every need are attended to and who never have the freedom to be self-reliant; those dogs show very different behaviors also; behaviors that arose from being raised as incompetent beings, dogs whose behaviors change very little because consequences are immediately attended to and become a muck to translate. Example: dog takes slippery stairs to quickly, slips, falls. Human screams picks up dog kisses dog gets very emotional then gives treats to dogs and carpets/blocks stairs. I would say it would be difficult for anyone to be clear about consequences!

    Recently you posted on FB a ambush interview by Alan Titchmarsch of Cesar Millan. I am not a fan of Millan which by the way I always thought it funny that he’d be called the ‘dog whisperer’ since most dogs would bite if an unknown human was putting their face so close to a dog’s to whisper anything…However I am not fond of ambushes either, although it was fun to see the bully squirming.

    I think the mistake Cesar makes over and over is to not educate himself in the new techniques available to retrain dogs. Techniques that use respect towards a different species we humans are only now trying to truly understand instead of imposing our wills and ways regardless of their needs, learning abilities, and past behaviors, which in some cases, insured their survival. Cesar is guilty of continuing training methods hurtful physically and emotionally to dogs, and in many cases methods that work only when continued threats are applied. Cesar Millan is a dog bully.
    What I do not understand is why his clients remain silent. I am guessing that many of his very aggressive dogs are put to sleep within a year of his training and people don’t want to advertise that even if it would expose the failure of Millan’s training.
    Also it is ridiculous in this age and time, with all the information available, that he not understand and teach that dogs are not wolves, that old studies of wolves were not reliable because the pack was a forced pack of unrelated individuals, that a natural pack consists of parents and their pups and some relatives and that their behaviors with each other mirrors most other mammal families, instead of teaching the erroneous old fashion belief that dogs want world domination.

    I have observed how very difficult it is to change the behavior of a dog who constantly looks for food outside and inside the house when that dog was a stray who had to find food to survive. An other example is the behavior of a retired dog for the blind who never regains fully his/her canine playfulness etc. I don’t believe those cases are only behavior related I believe their physiology was indeed changed.
    The good news is that the brain can reroute itself and living beings certainly are able to radically change, as some rehabbed fighting dogs have shown.

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