No Nerves Going to the Right Places

Venkataraman - Kokomo, Indiana
Entered on December 6, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: science

About 150 years ago, when Darwin (reluctantly) proposed his theory of evolution, there was tremendous opposition and hostility, with people attacking Darwin with ignorant questions like “Was his grandfather the monkey or his grandmother?” It has taken several decades for his theory to be understood and accepted, though there is still lingering opposition.

Something like this is happening in our own lifetime in the theories of B.F.Skinner, which seem to be even harder to understand and accept than Darwin’s. Academic psychology is the place to investigate the subject matter that Skinner studied — unfortunately, except for a small minority, it has almost completely dismissed his theories largely due to difficulty in understanding them.

Someone once asked, “For all the money that is being spent on psychology, has there been any real progress whatsoever?” He meant the kind of progress that happens routinely in physics and biology, where yesterday’s breakthrough is tomorrow’s calibration. Even though this is seldom recognized, Skinner’s theories and proposals are as fundamentally sound and far-reaching as the best in physics and biology.

How did I come to form these views? I first came to know about Skinner in a 1971 Time magazine cover story, when I was a graduate student in engineering. Based on what I read in that story, I thought that he was completely nuts and that his theories could be very easily demolished. This gave me motivation to get some of his books and start gathering arguments against his views, an activity I kept up for the next several years. Something curious happened though, as I continued studying Skinner: not only did I conclude that there was nothing to demolish, I came to believe that Skinner’s contributions represent a very major advance in the history of human thought.

What are some of Skinner’s breakthrough contributions? Skinner argues (in a paperback book that can be bought for under $10.00) that when a piece of learning takes place, the learner cannot sense it through introspection because there are no nerves going to the right places. He also proposes that thinking is best viewed as being similar to physical activities (even though it has several unique properties, such as the fact that when a person thinks a thought, others cannot directly sense it). Skinner may well partially or even completely wrong on these, but nonetheless, these are breakthrough propositions that deserve to be considered seriously (and a far cry from the “he was able to do it because he wanted it more” explanations in psychology).

Skinner was confident enough in his theories to put them to practical test. He once asked for an opportunity to teach the school children of the entire city of Chicago using techniques based on his theories. His proposal was turned down as being too risky by the man who had just concluded overseeing the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bombs (and who apparently had no such qualms about that project).