Some readers met this with skepticism. Maybe my explanations made sense, maybe they didn’t, but let’s be honest: logic and anecdotes alone are not always convincing. That’s fine; I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and in fact, I would find that rather boring. But when one of those skeptics found this hour-long lecture, she remembered my post and emailed me.
The lecture, given by neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, explored what makes humans unique. His entire talk is fabulous, and I urge you to watch the entire thing. Personally, I really enjoyed his discussion of how language affects our perceptions of others because of the insular cortex, but what’s relevant today is what he shares about dopamine (starts about 30 minutes in).
|Throw it... throooow iiiiiitttttttt.....|
However, when scientists actually studied what was going on, they found something very different. Sapolsky described an experiment in which chimps could receive a food reward if they press a lever when a light turns on. The dopamine levels in the chimps’ brains increased not when they completed the task, but rather when the light went on.
In other words, what the chimps found pleasurable was the opportunity to receive a reward, not the reward itself. After they pressed the level, their brain quit releasing dopamine, even before they received the reward. Anticipating the reward was better than the reward itself.
That light signified an opportunity to receive a reward; press the lever now, it said, and you will be reinforced. This is exactly what we do in dog training. I say “sit,” and if my dog does, she’ll get a treat. So the light was acting as a cue. The study Sapolsky cited says that it was the cue that made dopamine levels rise, which means that my dog will feel good when I say “sit,” not when I give her the treat. The cue is reinforcing.
I suspect that clickers work the same way, although Sapolsky didn’t address that directly. He did, however, say that dopamine is about the anticipation of the reward, not the reward itself. If cues can cause that anticipation, it seems that a sound could, too. Can a click cause dopamine levels to increase because the dog is now expecting to receive his reward? I don’t see why not.
What scientists found even more remarkable, however, was that when the food was given in response to the correct behavior only half the time, the chimps’ dopamine levels went through the roof. This wasn’t exactly surprising to me; dog trainers often talk about how a variable schedule of reinforcement creates stronger, more durable behaviors than when the dog gets a treat for every correct behavior. B.F. Skinner and his students proved that over and over again in the lab, although of course they couldn’t know that it was the result of dopamine. As Sapolsky put it, “maybe is addictive like nothing else.”
Finally, the scientists also found that if they blocked dopamine production in the chimps’ brains, when the light came on, the chimps didn’t care. Instead of eagerly pressing the lever, they sort of shrugged it off. The chimps knew they’d get a reward if they did, but they just didn’t seem to care. Could this be a possible explanation for why a dog doesn’t respond to a cue? Maybe. But I'd point out that there are many, many other reasons dogs don’t perform a behavior, and most of them are probably more logical. Still, it is fun to think about.
I found all of this really interesting. Not only did it support the concept of cues being reinforcing- something I find pretty fascinating in and of itself- but it also suggests that there is more at play in clicker training than just the food. In fact, it would seem that anticipation is what's truly powerful, an idea I find amusing since trainers often get upset when their dogs anticipate what's coming next.
To be fair, having the dog act before we ask them to can be a problem. Still, is that indicative of a corresponding spike in dopamine? And if so... how can we use this to our advantage? What can we do to harness our dog's natural brain chemistry to create a more favorable training outcome? I'll admit, I don't have an answer here, so I turn it over to you: have you ever used the power of anticipation to your advantage? And if so, how?