A stroke convinced B.F. Skinner that the brain and biology could no longer be ignored

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

By the time I got to college I knew I wanted to learn about animals. That was the 1960s, and the whole field of psychology was B. F. Skinner and behaviorism. Dr. Skinner was so famous that just about every college kid in the country had a copy of Beyond Freedom and Dignity on his bookshelf. He taught that all you needed to study was behavior. You weren't supposed to speculate about what was inside a person's or an animal's head because you couldn't measure all the stuff inside the black box-intelligence, emotions, motives. The black box was off-limits; you couldn't talk about it. You could measure only behavior, therefore you could study only behavior.

For the behaviorists this was no great loss, since, according to them, environment was the only thing that mattered. Some animal behaviorists took this idea to the extreme by teaching that animals didn't even have emotions or intelligence. Animals only had behavior, which was shaped by rewards, punishments, and positive and negative reinforcements from the environment.

Rewards and positive reinforcers are the same thing: something good happens to you because of something you did. Punishment and negative reinforcement are opposites. Punishment is when something bad happens to you because of something you did; negative reinforcement is when something bad stops happening to you, or doesn't start happening to you in the first place, because of something you did. Punishment is bad, and negative reinforcement is good. Punishment makes you stop doing what you're doing, although a lot of behaviorists believe that punishing a bad behavior isn't as effective as rewarding a good behavior when it comes to getting an animal to do what you want him to do.

Negative reinforcement is the hardest to understand. Negative reinforcement isn't a punishment; it's a reward. But the reward is negative in the sense that something you don't like either stops or doesn't start in the first place. Say your four-year-old is screaming and crying and giving you a headache. Finally you lose your patience and blow up at him, and he's shocked into silence. That's negative reinforcement, because you've made the crying go away, which is what you wanted. Now you're probably more likely to blow up at him the next time he starts a tantrum, because you've been negatively reinforced for blowing up at him during this tantrum.

Behaviorists thought these basic concepts explained everything about animals, who were basically just stimulus-response machines. It's probably hard for people to imagine the power this idea had back then. It was almost a religion. To me -- to lots of people -- B.F. Skinner was a god. He was the god of psychology.

It turned out he wasn't much of a god in person. I met B. F. Skinner once. I was probably eighteen years old at the time. I'd written him a letter about my squeeze machine, and he'd written me back saying what impressed him was my motivation. Which is kind of funny when you think about it. Here was the god of behaviorism talking about my internal motivation instead of my behavior. I guess he was ahead of his time, since motivation is a hot topic in autism research today. After I got his letter I called up his office and asked if I could come see him. I wanted to talk to him about some of the research I had done.

His office called and invited me down to Harvard for a visit. It was like going to see the Pope at the Vatican, Dr. Skinner was the most famous professor in all of psychology; he'd been on the cover of Time magazine.' I was very nervous just about walking up to see him. I remember walking to William James Hall and looking up at the building feeling like "This is the temple of Psychology."

But when I went into his office, it was a big letdown. He was just a normal-looking man. I remember he had this plant wired up around his office, growing all around the room. We were sitting there talking, and he started asking really personal questions. I don't remember what they were, because I almost never remember specific words and sentences from conversations. That's because autistic people think in pictures; we have almost no words running through our heads at all. Just a stream of images. So I don't remember the verbal details of the questions; I just remember that he asked them.

Then he tried to touch my legs. I was shocked. I was in a conservative dress, and that was the last thing I expected. So I said, "You may look at them, but you may not touch them." I do remember saying that.

We did get to talk about animals and behavior, though, and finally I said to him, "Dr. Skinner, if we could just learn how the brain works." That's the other part of the conversation I remember specifically.

He said, "We don't need to learn about the brain, we have operant conditioning."

I remember driving back to school going over this in my mind, and finally saying to myself, "I don't think I believe that."

I didn't believe it because I had problems that sure didn't seem to be coming from my environment. Also, I'd taken an animal ethology class at college-ethologists study animals in their natural environments -- and Thomas Evans, the teacher, had taught us about animal instincts, which were hardwired behavior patterns the animal was born with. Instincts had nothing to do with the environment, they came with the animal.

Dr. Skinner changed his mind when he got old. My friend John Ratey, a psychiatrist at Harvard who wrote the books Shadow Syndromes (with my co-author on this book, Catherine Johnson) and A User's Guide to the Brain, told me a story about a lunch he had with Dr. Skinner near the end of his life. While they were talking John asked him, "Don't you think it's time we got inside the black box?"

Dr. Skinner said, "Ever since my stroke I've thought so."

The brain is pretty powerful, and a person whose brain isn't working right knows just how powerful. Dr. Skinner had to learn the hard way. His stroke showed him not everything is controlled by the environment. But back in the 1970s, when I was getting started, behaviorism was the law.

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