Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 4.4]

At first, I barely missed Trey not being around school. I was busy being an R.A., a job I found fulfilling because, as it turned out, I was a good mentor to younger people. By simply being there for them, I made friends without trying. Finally girls seemed to like me. Besides that, I loved my schedule that fall. My favorites were psychology and animal behavior, and I did well enough in those to persuade one of the professors to let me audit his graduate level classes in learning theory and animal cognition, which I considered a great honor. I became enthralled with all there was to know about philosophy, religion, and culture, too. So much so, that I didn’t have time to take all the classes I was interested in, so I snuck into classes like anthropology and classical music, which I wasn’t able to take.

Although a lot of things interested me, I found my abnormal psych class to be wholly therapeutic. Most of my knowledge of psychology before college was confined to behaviorism and other learning theories. I hadn’t been aware of the number of mental and emotional disorders and all their intensities, let alone that dysfunctional behavior often occurred in a pattern that had a name. I’d sometimes had the feeling that behaviorism couldn’t explain some forms of “crazy,” and now it seemed there might be biological, chemical, or genetic causes for behavior. I knew Dad would say labeling a person as a narcissist doesn’t explain why a person behaved a certain way or how they came to behave that way—it just described the person’s behavior. Still, it was comforting somehow to know there were standard labels out there for some of the behavior that I hadn’t understood. Maybe it was simply comforting to know there were other people out there acting odd, besides my own family members.

For example, one of my uncles was strange. He drank a lot and had a terrible temper. In his twenties, he spent time during the Vietnam War stationed in Germany. He did a lot of acid there and had pretty terrible dreams—which later turned into false but solidified memories of him killing people he hadn’t really killed. In his thirties, after his wife left him and took their two kids, he collected guns and picked fights with people he thought were “after” him.

It scared me to death once when Dad beat him at chess, and he went berserk, almost hitting my dad in the head with the marble chess board. In his forties, he smoked a ton of pot and became a recluse, and by fifty he had panic attacks every time he left the house. Sometimes, he could make it all the way through a McDonald’s drive-thru. Other times, he’d get as far as ordering at the speaker, but then he’d speed past the next window, unable to pick up his food. He began hearing voices that told him to do violent things like hit my dad over the head with a cast-iron frying pan and he thought there might be people living in his attic. Dad convinced him to see a psychiatrist, who put him on several meds, including lithium to control his moods. Something was wrong with his biochemistry or perhaps he’d been living with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, agoraphobia, or something. Whatever it was, it helped explain why some behavior, mostly of the abnormal kind, just don’t seem entirely “lawful” all the time.

I also found the factitious and psychosomatic disorders, like hypochondria, fascinating. Grandma Jane met all the criteria for somatization disorder in the DSM-IV, most notably she’d had every possible non-vital organ removed. I especially thought this information could be of great comfort to my mom. Maybe she could see how Grandma’s behavior towards her wasn’t an entirely personal attack. Grandma seems to have a mental disorder that has nothing to do with my mom.

On my next visit home, I did relay all this to Mom, hoping that she might believe, even a tiny bit, that Grandma might not have been trying to hurt her on purpose. Maybe Grandma’s behavior was part of a larger disorder she couldn’t help. But I failed. Mom couldn’t let go of her belief that Grandma had hated her personally—due to some flaw she must have had—and had tortured her knowingly because she had no real love for her. After all, Mom watched Grandma be nicer to her other children. Mom just couldn’t forgive, forget, or move past it; her scars were way too deep for that.


Since there were no sea creatures within 600 miles of me, I began volunteering in two land-animal research labs at the university. In one, I assisted a very intense female graduate student in building a sensory-deprivation sandbox for her kangaroo rat subjects. Her research objective was to humanely and temporarily “knock out” a different sense, one-by-one, of each rat and record how this affected their ability to hunt crickets, their favorite food. In order to ensure the crickets didn’t hop away, I had to tether their tiny, juicy bodies to a thin piece of string—a task that set off my gag reflex.

If that wasn’t unpleasant enough, the rats were nocturnal and from California, so their sleep cycles were all screwy. I had to conduct the experiments with them in a pitch black room at a particular time of day, wearing heavy, archaic infrared goggles. I tossed the crickets, which were really too dark and small to be detected through my goggles, into the sandbox with a rat and shoddily recorded how long it took the rats to catch them with their impaired sense. The kangaroo rats themselves were challenging because once they tasted freedom in the sandbox, they were almost impossible to catch again. They had super strength in their legs, and one jumped so high he bounced right off my chest. And the time one did escape my grip, it took an hour and four people to catch her.

The lab work was engrossing most of the time, but I was bothered by something—the “extermination box” I had to pass on my way in and out of the experimentation room. It consisted of a clear aquarium hooked up to a poisonous gas tube. I squirmed by it, never sure what I’d see in there. On good days, it was empty and I’d feel relieved. On bad days, it was full of dead, white Burrhuses, sixty or seventy of them all squished and contorted together like a ball of tangled up snakes, red eyes still open, paralyzed. They were so jam-packed, I once saw them being put into the trash dumpster still in one big, solid rectangle.

The graduate student explained to me that in learning experiments, it is important to ensure the subject’s brain is “fresh” and untainted by what it might have learned from past learning experiments. Otherwise you can’t determine with certainty what effect the current independent variable being manipulated had on the dependent variable being measured. So, once they’ve been used in an experiment, they’re rendered useless. That made sense, but I wondered about human experiments and how complicated it must really be to figure out why we, with so many past learning experiences, do what we do. Ideally, shouldn’t we study humans with “fresh brains” and only manipulate one variable at a time? As I was learning in my experimental psychology class, it’s difficult to control for people’s past experiences in human studies. That’s why many psychology researchers design studies and randomly select people who come from so many different backgrounds assuming that, in doing so, history might not be the confounding factor after all. This still leaves us with uncertainty and because of that, we are cautioned to not “extrapolate or over-generalize from the data.”

Those still seem like “iffy” assumptions and not very precise methods. I had to admit that perhaps Skinner’s method was the superior option once again: study one organism at a time and manipulate just one variable at a time using an A-B-A-B design. First, a subject’s behavior is observed and measured prior to any variable or treatment. That was called the baseline condition, or the first A. Then the variable or treatment, called B, is applied and the behavior is observed and measured again. We could assume that any change in behavior after B is introduced must be caused by B. However, to conclude that with more certainty, we should remove variable B again and observe whether the behavior trends back towards the baseline A. If it does, and then we reintroduce B one more time and if we see the same change in the behavior as before, we have strong evidence that B is indeed in control of the behavior and is causing A.

In my other lab, the very lab that B. F. Skinner used when he was a visiting professor in the department years before, I assisted a graduate student with her research in trace-delay conditioning in pigeons. The lab was old and it was my responsibility to feed and weigh the pigeons on a very tight schedule. Seven days a week I walked, in snow or rain, across a quiet campus for their 7 a.m. weigh-ins.

Their weight had to be maintained at 85 percent of their free-feeding weight so that the few grains we gave them during their conditioning time would be reinforcing. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the hungry pigeons, but I reminded myself of Dad’s experiments with Fed and Yvonne and how wild pigeons can only manage to stay at 75 percent of their free-feeding weight. So, like Fred and Yvonne, these pigeons were actually eating better in the lab than their counterparts were in the wild.

Although their wings were clipped, they could still be hard to catch if they escaped. To retrieve them for weighing, I’d open their cage door and place the opening of a two-quart plastic pitcher directly in front of them. On cue, they would dive right into it, rendering themselves upside down, with their little feet and wing tips sticking out the top of the pitcher. They were then placed safely on the scales and weighed. To get them back into their cages, I had to firmly grab their underbellies and wings (which may just be the softest and warmest texture on the planet), extract them gently from the pitcher, and tilt their bodies toward their cage opening.

Each pigeon reacted differently to my presence. Some froze, others marched, some shuffled steadily back and forth, some bobbed their heads up and down, and some danced spastically while never taking their eyes off me. They each had a different routine based on whatever they happened to be doing at the moment they’d been fed. Over time, certain behaviors were shaped up and became stronger, more exaggerated, and more deliberate by associations with the food reinforcers. I was watching Skinner’s principles in action again. And maybe Pavlov’s. Do birds salivate? If so, it was funny to think that the mere presence of me had the power to activate the salivary glands of a room full of pigeons. I’d have to remember to ask Dad about that one.

It was times like these, I’d revisit the free will question and bat it around in my head from different angles. Are humans really under the complete control of these learning theories as strictly as behaviorists believed? Are stimuli preceding behavior and the positive and negative consequences in our environments, really the only things responsible for everything we do? I remember something Trey once said. “Come on, Michelle, of course we have free will. We’re highly evolved animals—and surely much more complex than rats. Certainly, with our mental will and awareness, we can override our instincts, or whatever is controlling us, and simply refuse to be conditioned, can’t we? I for one, know I make my own choices every day.”

So, why are we humans so darn certain our thoughts control and determine our behavior? Because, even if they did, doesn’t something control those thoughts? They don’t just sprout up spontaneously from our brain chemistry. Where did they come from? Presumably they come from ourmind,” but what is the mind and how did thoughts get in there in the first place, and why does the mind generate specific ones at any specific point in time? Why is it so hard to believe that the environment we live in, and what’s happened to us in the past, are what causes us to think the way we do? Why is it difficult to imagine that our human brain evolved as a functioning repository specifically to remember information and actions that helped us live to pass along our genes to our off-spring? Even mental actions like thinking for the sake of thinking and learning in and of itself, along with trying brand new behaviors for the first time—what some might call “creativity”—would have been reinforced if it helped us learn to be more effective at survival.

Isn’t “self-awareness” just the observation of our own thoughts, feelings and other behaviors? And, if our thoughts, feelings, and behavior follow the laws of learning theories, then what is so special or mystical about self-awareness? Couldn’t it come from lawful physiological reactions in our brain like everything else does? Does it feel mystical because it’s private to us and no one else can perceive it? Does it feel special because supposedly only humans have such self-awareness?

I had a long talk with Dad about this the last time I was home. Skinner would say self-awareness is only more behavior, just behavior that is private and only stimulates the person that experiences it. Skinner gave an interesting hypothesis for why we developed it in the first place. Self-awareness would not occur—at least to the degree that most humans experience it—in a non-social environment. We learn to be self-aware through the questions the verbal community asks us, such as “What are you doing?” “Why are you doing that?” “What are you going to do?” and “How do you feel?” Simply put, accurate self-awareness provides useful information about the individual to the verbal community and is taught for this reason. Why make it out to be more than that?

As I watched the spastically dancing pigeon, it scared and tickled me to think how often Skinner was right. Even with our more sophisticated cognitive abilities, self-awareness, complex social emotions, and certainty in our own free will—some of us will still pull our pants down and dance naked for an audience. I have to wonder whether Trey—with his free will and freedom of choice—wouldn’t be better off if he WERE to just admit we’re organisms living in a larger environment that causes us to respond.

Personally, it doesn’t bother me to think that I might be a product of my past or present environment. In fact, it helps a great deal. I can look back to my past and identify what has produced my good and bad feelings and behaviors. It helps me design my current and future environments in ways that produce more positive reinforcers and fewer negative reinforcers and punishers. This awareness makes me feel like I’m the master of my own environment—and like I do have freedom.

By senior year, I’d found a mentor in the psychology professor who supervised the pigeon lab. I’d taken all the classes he offered and visited him regularly about the pigeons, so he agreed to supervise a senior thesis project on the work I’d done for him. One day in his office, he gave me some surprising news. He had secretly nominated me to be a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, which of course I’d never heard of. I was accepted, which apparently was quite an honor, with only about 10 percent of liberal arts graduates receiving acceptance. Then he asked me what my intentions were after I graduated. I told him I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. He seemed speechless for a few moments.

“Really? Are you sure that’s what you really want to do? I mean, I really thought you would be considering graduate school.”

“Graduate school? Oh, no. I barely had the money to come here. There’s no way I could afford graduate school.”

“No, Michelle. You wouldn’t have to pay anything if you were given assistantships or fellowships. If you’re accepted, the department typically assigns you a teaching or research position, which will include a waiver for your tuition and pay you a moderate stipend—enough to live on, anyway.”

“Professor, do you think I could really get accepted to a psychology program?”

“Michelle, I know you could. You’re one of the most talented students I’ve ever seen and definitely the most passionate about learning psychology. You would make an excellent professor and researcher. I can help you find a good PhD program and I’ll write you a glowing reference. Your Phi Beta Kappa acceptance will go a long way, too. I just hate to see you underutilize your potential.”

Wow. No one had ever said anything to me like that before. He saw good things in me, qualities nobody had ever seen before and that I would have never recognized in myself—accomplishments I’d earned on my own, without money or people pulling strings for me. He validated my worth in a way no one ever had. Here was a person giving me direction and guidance to do something I would have never thought I could accomplish. I so desperately wanted to be that person he believed in. Stunned, I walked around high for the rest of the day contemplating the idea of graduate school. And, for the first time, I questioned my desire to be a dolphin trainer.

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