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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What if the Butterfly is a Behaviorist?

In the backyard this morning, all was calm and green and beautiful.

Bow was chewing his cud in his favorite pose, lying on the very edge of the top of the bench. The dogs were pursuing canine interests. For Brownie, this meant digging up and re-burying stones. Then along came the red-spotted purple butterfly. I dropped everything I was doing -- mowing the lawn -- in order to follow it.

I wanted to get a really good picture, but this was the  best I could manage.

Brownie kept coming too close, and the butterfly flew off.

If this had been an isolated incident, why then I would have thought nothing about it. But the butterfly and its mate have been toying with me for days. They keep flying in and out of the yard, as if the eight foot tall fence meant nothing at all to them as a marker of boundaries!

It lies in wait for me, resting on the wall of the house, but when I approach it flies away, leading me on a merry chase.

It rests for a moment on the grass, but as I approach, off it flies.

And there isn't just one -- there are two of them cavorting and plotting together. One acts as a decoy and flies to the roof, while the other remains on the day flowers, just long enough for me to spot it.

It makes itself known not only to me, but also to the dogs and to Bow.

One red-spotted purple stays perched up on the roof as a lookout, while the other leads me on a merry chase.

And the result? The result is that I keep assiduously mowing the lawn every single day, while leaving the day flowers to grow unharmed. My muscles ache with all that mowing. Not because I want to mow the grass so much, but because I long to catch a glimpse of the butterfly.

This is one way to motivate someone to exercise. The other is Pokemon Go. Or maybe it is all exactly the same thing. Does it matter whether there is a real butterfly outside or it's all in the mind of the beholder in a rigged game set up to motivate people to exercise, or go where you lead them, or become targets of ad-men and assassins? The theorizing about this has gone wild on the web the last couple of days.

What if the butterfly is a behaviorist, and my yard is his Skinner box?

When my own recent guest was here, she admired my two cockatiels.

 "Are you studying the birds?" she asked me.

"No," I said. "The birds are studying me." It's true. They love to watch me eat. They have free access to the food all day, but they take the time to eat with me, when I am eating, as if I provide them with a very amusing show. And so my guest was eating, and the birds congregated as close to her as possible, and ate when she ate, and spoke when she spoke.

Just then, one of the birds threw a spent seed, and it landed right in front of my guest.

"What's this?" she asked.

"A gift."

The birds were mimicking our speech, but not well enough to be understood. I do nothing whatever to encourage it. It's just their natural behavior.

 I do know of someone who seriously studies birds. That is Irene Pepperberg. And just recently she published a very short review of the field of animal language research. Here is a link

I requested and got the full paper. And reading it, I realized something that somehow never occurred to me before. My guest was a behaviorist. And I'm not. And this could account for a mountain of misunderstandings between us.

Skinner, I was taught, didn't believe that any of us had minds. Now I don't know if that's actually true, but that's what we had to say in order to pass the qualifying exam at the Rice Linguistics Department. One person could not quite bring herself to say that, and she did not pass the exam. She hedged. She tried to be nice about it. "He wasn't that interested in the mind," she said. And the people in charge thought this was too vague.

Now, from the perspective of those dealing with autism, it is really funny to have a whole school of psychology that does not believe we should act as if anybody had a mind. Autism is characterized by not having a theory of mind! You are said to be autistic to the extent that you do not realize that anybody other than yourself has a mind. And yet ABA therapists, who are behaviorists, do exactly this to their patients  -- they treat them as if they had no minds! ABA therapy is operant conditioning a la Skinner!

I never treat anybody like that. I always give everybody the benefit of the doubt. I don't know if anybody has a mind or not, but I start out by acting as if they do, even if they are just a butterfly. The way I raised Bow was by honoring his mind and not by trying to condition him to do anything.

What if deep down inside, it's the behaviorists who are autistic and not the autistics under their care?

This is all very confusing, and I will have to think about it some more. Meanwhile, I have butterflies to chase!

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