Category Archives: how the brain works
Check out this utube TED talk, by researcher Dr Kristen Neff on “compassion toward self” and the benefits. She goes on to explain the difference between “self esteem” that is based on being better than someone else, v.s. self compassion. Research on the tangible benefits of self compassion for happiness, psychological health and achievement is discussed.
Her explanation (and numerous studies) are in agreement with the first principle of learning theory: 1. Behaviors that are followed by a positive outcome increase. And behaviors that are followed by an unpleasant outcome decrease. Makes sense if you think about. If, what you do works, you’ll do it again. If what you do does not work, than you’ll stop and try something else.
Our brains have evolved to use behavior to effect the world around us and to adapt to changing circumstances. Being kind to yourself as you strive toward change, just works better.
https://www.youtube.com/embed/IvtZBUSplr4“>Dr Neff on compassion toward yourself
Wonderful news from science on the treatment of anxiety in both animals and humans. Fluoxetine, (a medicine for the treatment of anxiety) has been shown to stimulate the growth of new nerve cells. Specifically, cells in the memory storage and sorting area of the brain. As new cells grew, individuals were able to calm down more quickly. They were able to tell the difference between old (anxiety) memories and new (positive) memories. Several studies were done where positive memories were created in people and animals. The circumstances that trigger an anxiety memory were copied, but with a slight change (like room color or smell) . Plus, and most important was that the events in the new circumstance ended with something positive for the individual. (This type behavior therapy is called desensitization/counter-conditioning). Individuals who grew more new cells, more quickly reduced their anxiety or fear.
How did new cells result in less anxiety? There is increase of new cells available to remember new events. Then, new, but similar events are paired with a positive outcome. Sequences of events are stored in the brain as “memory patterns” The individual remembers, both the old and new memory patterns. With practice or repetition of patterns with the positive outcomes, the individual will learn the difference between old, fearful, v.s. new, more positive, memory patterns. The new memory patterns compete with the old pattern and the best outcome wins. The result is less and less fear. This works, as long as the outcomes of similar events remain positive.The new cells, that were stimulated to grow by an anti-depressants, more quickly create new memory patterns. The final observation was that the new, positive, memory patterns are then stored long term in the brain and remain after the medication is stopped.
Then the rule “use it or lose it”, comes into play. Anxiety can return if old memory patterns are practiced more than the new memory patterns. This leads to a regression or return to fearful behaviors and emotions. A little regression is normal, whenever life is stressful, but long term stress or just lack of practicing the skills, that once work, lead to more serious regression.
This is the first evidence that shows a rapid change in fear/anxiety is directly proportion to new cell growth and that medications increase growth of new cells.
In summary: Anxiety emotional states change more quickly when two things happen together.
1. Beneficial change in the environment, so that situations that creates fear/anxiety are changed and have positive outcome. (or at least block/prevent a negative outcome).
2. Anti-depressant Fluoxetine at therapeutic dose.
This study explains, what has been observed, in behavior medicine for a long time. First, that medications alone are not enough to change anxiety. Second, the combination of medication and behavior modification (or therapy) are the quickest treatment for anxiety. Finally, that the improvement is permanent.
Here is a link to the study:
A fun informational video introducing the concept of reinforcer strength and its affect on behavioral choice, by James Fritzler and Susan Friedman, PhD.
For a given learner… Dog, human, mouse etc.
in a given environment,
presented with a given cue…
there are always competing rewards (reinforcers) available,
for a wide variety of behaviors.
Some are weak… some are stronger…
but the strongest reinforcers produce the strongest behaviors.
So listen up: life is full of choices. The behaviors that produce the strongest reinforcers are the behaviors our learners will do more.
This is called The Matching Law!
Great talk about why we struggle to allow into our world, new information when, “we know what we know”.
Takes about 15 minutes to watch this video about how we and creatures map reality.
Applies to pet owners because many problem behaviors that happen in the average home are based on the principles revealed in this TED talk. Basically, our prior learning results in ideas and remembered brain images, about a subject within our world. These image-ideas can interfere with seeing what is really happening. Our brains are constantly editing out information that is in the environment, so that we only pay attention to what is judged important. This is a brain based shortcut for daily living. Obviously, we don’t take as long to do activities of daily life compared to when we first learned them. This is the result of editing out any information that is not important to the task. How does this interfere with learning as life goes on? We create a very detailed map of the world as we acquire experiences. This map is brought out of our memory as we go through our day. Visual maps, hearing maps, feeling and movement maps and even thinking and emotional maps. There is even an area of the brain dedicated to making us feel certain about our maps. Even though we know that maps are only a guide, as we gain repeated experiences we begin to feel certain that our personal map is the same as reality. This is how phobias are formed and knowing that repeating experiences creates a new map is also how phobias are treated effectively.
Hopefully by now, someone has taken a photo or video of you that demonstrates that what you remember can be very wrong. Yet we are stuck with feelings of certainty about how we see the reality around us. Luckily neuroscience is pointing out that each persons and each species only perceives a small portion of the world.
Let me explain how this applies to animal training. First, the experience of eye sight, hearing, feeling sensations, smells and second how this information is identified by the brain is very different between us and our animal companions. Many of the difficulties, that happen within human-animal households, can be traced to these facts. We do not see, feel, smell, hear, experience the same World. Modern pet training differs from, the older, so called “Leader of the Pack” beliefs, by applying what has been learned through 200 years scientific study of how animals really experience their world. More importantly, modern science applies the two principles: one – what can be measured can be improved and two – what we know today is just a map of reality so learning never ends.
It is essential to document training ideas, methods and results in ways that can be objectively measured. Renowned Innovators and Entrepreneurs know that accepted thinking gets in the way of discovery. They also know the importance of measuring results. So as you train your animals I suggest that we all; test ideas, document objectively, retest, retest and have someone else look over your methods and results.
Once one realizes that accepted ideas can get in the way of seeing reality this is the best we can do, for now…..
In this article I will answer three questions;
1. Why do puppies or dogs fuss all night or cry themselves to sleep when left in a kennel or other confined area?
2. What to do about the crying puppy in the kennel? or Why does the Kennel not work for my puppy.
3. What not to do.
Unless taught puppies/dogs do not know that the kennel is a safe place for sleeping or resting “quietly”. Like children, puppies go through a period of crying, whining, barking when first left alone for bedtime (when old enough to become aware of being left). Older dogs who have not been gradually taught how to be alone (either in a kennel or home), do not acquired the ability to “self-calm”. They can develop anxiety symptoms that worsen as the time spent alone gets longer and more frequent, like when new owners return to work. Other symptoms of anxiety such as urination, defecation, cage chewing, house damage, broken teeth and worse can happen. Kennel training young puppies gets them ready to feel safe when left alone.
Let me explain further. …
Puppy are born with an unfinished nervous system that continues to develop and grow rapidly through in the first year of life. At birth, Pups do not have the nervous system areas that regulate the “ability to calm down”. Puppies and children have to learn the skill “to calm oneself down”. This happens when the puppy’s is stimulated by short periods on being left alone, that are gradually increased. When challenged by tolerable levels of frustration the brain & nervous system will learn new capacities. Frustration, with trial & error, activates growth of nerve cells that can be used by the puppy to calm itself, called “self soothing”. It is important for survival that this is not present at birth because pups are not able to survive with body heat from either mother or other pups for very long so their cries when left alone the first 3 weeks are important. It is later that the pups must develop the skill of waiting, that is an essential part of day-to-day life.
When puppies are not stimulated by appropriate short absences from mother and owners, the behavior problem called Abandonment Anxiety can develop. I refer to tolerating alone time as a skill, because it is learned and not present in puppies or children or other mammals from birth. It arises as a learned phenomenon if the environment prompts the growing brain that this ability to be needed. The ability to self-calm is thought to be stored in the nerve cell’s DNA, but does not emerge until stimulated by circumstances, as with many capacities that are developed over a life time through learning. Then the areas of the brain involved in emotions will start to produce the chemicals necessary for calming, plus stimulate growth of nerves & connections which increase the speed and ease of using the “ability to calm down”.
Human caretakers can, with the best of intentions, interfere with this necessary process. Let me go into getter detail of how this happens. For the brain to be stimulated to grow a new capacity, the puppy must go through a period of distress and frustration where the old method (crying out for mother or others) does not work. Before the brain will seek a change, the puppy will go through cycles of increasing frequency and intensity of the behavior that used to work. Fancy name is an extinction burst. A short episode of intense, extreme behavior that is the last attempt before the behavior ends. The behavioral display will ramp up to a high peak before the animal can stop. Only if they fail will seeking a new solution take place. We, animal lovers & owners, especially when first home with our adorable and helpless puppy, feel the urgent need to rescue when we hears their cry’s. We ar, in fact, hard-wired, to respond urgently to the sound of a crying baby, any baby. In earlier life, this reaction by us or mother is a life saving behavior, that puppies must be able to evoke so mother knows when to come to them. As the pup get older the mother naturally learns that every cry is no longer urgent and begins to ignore her demanding maturing brood. When the crying or fussy behavior does not work, the pup will cry, whine and bark faster, higher & higher pitched and more intensely, sometimes to the point of frantic before it stops. Because it is an instinct driven behavior, it has more brain capacity dedicated to it so it is stronger and more practiced, compared to the newer behavior that must emerge for pups to handle the unpredictability of life. “Calming down” in order to sleep or “learning to wait” are some of the early lessons in internal self-control necessary for a successful life. If these lessons are interrupted or missed, the dog can have a higher risk of developing all kinds of anxiety behaviors.
What to expect in young puppies when first left alone (night or daytime while owners go to work), they will cry for 5 – 15 minutes and then fall asleep. Even though the calm before sleeps is short and came from being worn out the brain chemicals are still released. With a few repetitions, their body will have noticed the calming sensations before the sleep part of the cycle. The puppy physically feels better to be calm compared to how fussing feels. The fussing part of each session get shorter and shorter and then stops, as the more pleasant feeling of calmly waiting and falling to sleep takes the place of fussing. In young puppies 6 to 8 weeks of age this takes about a week. Some pups learn this after 1 or 2 times (lucky owners) and others take 2 weeks or longer.
The first day home with your puppy, introduce them to the kennel with a toys or food given inside the kennel several times (12-20) throughout that first day. Stay with them, leave the kennel door open episode last about 1 3 minutes . Repeat this until pup is happy to stay in and enter kennel on her own. Next add short periods with the door shut, 3- 5 seconds at first, then work up to a minute, 5 minutes, etc. I set up in the living room where I spend the day, a play pen big enough for the kennel and a large area outside it to play. see website “www.dogstardaily.com” for photo of setup. Play with the puppy in the pen. Leave the puppy in the pen, you are still in sight. Leave the room for short periods throughout the day. Your new pup will play intensely for 10 -15 minutes and then rest/nap for 30 -60 minutes. Leave the room during nap times. As the day goes on the puppy will go in/out of the kennel freely. I feed in the kennel also. All serve to teach the puppy that the kennel is their personal room that is fun to be in. This gets puppy ready for the night.
What not to do.
1. Bring the puppy home at end of the day so no time is left for training.
2. Letting the puppy out when crying, fussing happens, once it is bedtime/kennel time. Expect this fussing to happen the first few nights if your puppy is normal. Especially important to ignore when the pups engages in an extinction burst (frantic crying and fussing). Remember the puppy is trying to get you to come, if you do, the behavior will continue because it worked. It is OK to spend sometime playing with puppy in the kennel prior to shutting the door. I keep untrained pups in their kennel in my bedroom, so they can see me and wear ear plugs for the first 2 weeks.
3. Puppies less than 12 weeks of age can’t go 8 hours between voiding. Set you alarm for 6 hours and if pup is awake I take them out. If not awake leave them. Alternate way to house train is to use a doggie litter tray with sod or artificial turf, kept in the kennel or play pen, so accidents have a place to happen. The remainder of the floor should be smooth, not absorptive which dogs prefer to use to urinate.
What happens when adults have not acquired this skill. They tend to add other stress reducing behaviors (chew on legs, feet, tails, breaking teeth on the cage bars, running in tight circles, non-stop licking) with each aroused state as time goes on. Each adult is their own combination of behaviors. But studies have observed dogs that progress beyond normal puppy distress into abnormal anxiety states tend to continue to get worse until they are in a continuous state of arousal. These dogs are treatable with the help of a skilled behaviorist and in some causes the addition of anti-anxiety medications during the re-learning period.