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Show me the science!

Posted on December 4, 2011 by James Kohl.

Questions from a supporter of my model for classical conditioning of behavior recently turned to criticisms about my unwillingness to learn more about operant conditioning. I think that operant conditioning is simply training that has nothing to do with the biology of classically conditioned brain function. To me, the effects of operant conditioning are neural correlates of learning, which are not directly related to brain function and learning to respond to sensory input. Learning associated with brain function is learning that is dependent on a direct link from sensory cues to brain function. There is scientific evidence for this learning. For example: Fatal attraction phenomenon in humans – cat odour attractiveness increased for toxoplasma-infected men while decreased for infected women.

The protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii causes specific behavioral changes that represent a biologically-based adaptation by a parasite. This adaptation enhances the parasite’s transmission from an intermediate host to a definitive host by predation. Rats lose their fear of predator odor and may become fatally attracted to the odor of the cats that ingest them. This facilitates the life cycle of the parasite. In studies of men and women, “Toxoplasma-infected and 134 non-infected students showed that the infected men rated odour of cat urine as more pleasant than did the non-infected men, while infected women rated the same odour as less pleasant than did non-infected women.”

My comments on this study: Sex differences in the effect of odor on hormones and the subsequent affect of hormones on behavior are modeled in other animals. In fact there is a detailed link between sensory input and behavior assures us that odors directly effect hormones via genetically predisposed organization of environmentally activated pathways that affect behavior. No role for operant conditioning/training is indicated. And, without knowing anything more about operant conditioning, I could still pit it against what is known about the classical conditioning of hormone-driven behavioral responses by odors. This classical conditioning obviously occurs long before any animal can be trained to do tricks. If it doesn’t occur from birth, no animal survives long enough to sexually reproduce, which means their species becomes extinct.

Given what is already known about odors and classical conditioning, it becomes clear that no training is required, presumably because the affect on behavior of the odor is due to its effect on brain function and learning. I say presumably because I have not seen any data for comparison that link effects of training directly to brain function and behavior in any species. Maybe effects of training are due to a pathway unknown to me that directly links training to brain function and affects on behavior, without incorporating sensory input from the environment. But that seems unlikely.

Until such data becomes known to me, I feel safe with the scientifically supported presumption that odors directly effect hormones, which is how they affect behavior, and I am equally comfortable with my beliefs about the explanatory power of biology. For example, I believe that the benefits of understanding the difference between unknown effects of training and known effects of odors on physiology and behavior extend across disciplines. This moves the understanding of biology forward to effects on biologically based brain function. The lack of this understanding was made clear with the moderator of the human ethology group re-titled a post: Human Pheromone Discovered That Attracts Women To Men. The data from this study, which the moderator cited as evidence for a human pheromone, was found in the article, which was appropriately titled to encourage discussion (see below).

Women Exposure to Pleasant Ambient Fragrance and Receptivity to a Man’s Courtship Request clearly address findings from several studies that show pleasant ambient odor facilitates behavior. The effect of the ambient odor is explained by odor-induced mood changes, which have been confirmed.  Sex differences in the effect have also been indicated. Now, we have, for example: “Young women agreed more likely to give their phone number to a young man when they were previously exposed to pleasant ambient odors.” This result suggests that a large range of social behaviors could be influenced by ambient odors as indicated in the article. That influence of odors would not surprise most people, especially anyone who understands the role food odors and social odors play in the behavior of every other species on this planet.

Animal and human studies now indicate that adding pheromones to ambient odors enhances their effect (Do perfumes mask or interact with body odour? Lenochova et al., unpublished). The difference between effects of training and the affects of odor enhancement or pheromone enhancement on behavior is a big difference. Simply put, we know the pathway that directly links olfactory/pheromonal stimuli to changes in the brain and changes in behavior. That’s why, instead of looking only at unexplained effects of odors on mood, research on human pheromones incorporates what has been learned from animal studies to show how both food odors and pheromones effect hormones that affect behavior. For example, the affect on behavior of human pheromones is an effect on brain function in other animals.

Whether it is called operant learning processes, training, or a learning process, operant conditioning has not been directly linked to brain function by any of its proponents. Is everyone else content to keep trying to train humans to behave as they would train other animals? How’s that working for you? I think it makes more sense to learn about brain function and behavior for discussion in a human ethology group. The stated purpose of the group is “…the study of the biology of human behavior…” It is not for the study of how people can be trained to do pet tricks.

When, for example, do human ethologists get to discuss what is understood about the biology of behavior, as opposed to the discussion of training, definitions, theories, and mere conceptualizations devoid of scientific support? I’ve been a contributor to the group for nearly five years, and am about to lose my patience with a few folks. SHOW ME THE SCIENCE! Do not expect me to learn to understand nonsensical beliefs in the effects of training simply because you believe in something called operant conditioning.

An antagonist has since correctly indicated that training is not directly linked to any brainfunction, which is what I was trying to convey. He is also correct in stating “There aren’t many “big picture” ideas out there…“. From a biological perspective, there is only one: it’s the direct link between sensory input and behavior in all species via an evolved gene, cell, tissue, organ, organ-system pathway, like the one found in mammals. Simon LeVay addressed this in his 2010 book, on page 210: “This [Kohl’s] model is attractive in that it solves the “binding problem” of sexual attraction. By that I mean the problem of why all the different features of men or women (visual appearance and feel of face, body, and genitals; voice quality, smell; personality and behavior, etc.) attract people as a more or less coherent package representing one sex, rather than as an arbitrary collage of male and female characteristics.” If all these characteristics come to be attractive because they were experienced in association with a male- or female-specific pheromone, then they will naturally go together even in the absence of complex genetically coded instructions.”

The big picture begins to form when you realize you must first link a sensory stimulus to gene activation. Perhaps what’s missing in my antagonist’s response is knowledge of gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) modulated organization of the brain and the direct effects of olfactory/pheromonal input on GnRH and behavior. Did he simply decide not to learn about the biological core of mammalian reproduction (i.e., the hypothalamic GnRH pulse) and decide instead to focus on training animals instead of on brain function?

He writes about “behavioral laws that behavior analysis provides”. What are they? I suspect they may have been previously provided along with evidence that the behavior of the organisms he’s playing with has allowed them to survive and be trained to do whatever he can train them to do. But that suspicion is based on my knowledge of biology, which included knowledge that you don’t need to train fish to swim. And I think it would be as difficult to train them to play dead as it would be to train a dog to play dead by floating upside down in the water.

The understanding of biology suggests to me there are limits of operant conditioning that depend on biology and brain function. But there are extreme differences in how much longer it may take to understand the link between sensory input and behavior. My antagonist suggests it may take another 100 years. That might be the case if everyone continues to ignore current neuroscientific evidence.

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James Kohl
Retired medical laboratory scientist

James Kohl




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