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The Neurophysiology of Clicker Training

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Author's note: In 2000 and 2001 I gave several talks in which I mentioned the topic of how the click in clicker training might be processed in the brain. Many people e-mailed me to find out more. They usually wanted to know when I was going to publish a paper on this topic, or where they could read about more about the research. Alas, there was no research specific to the clicker at that time, nor has any been done to the present date: May, 2005. The evidence was circumstantial. However, people deserved an answer, and I responded by posting a fuller explanation on one of the e-mail lists devoted to discussing clicker training. Here is the post. I've added some comments at the end.

German scientist Barbara Schoening is a clicker trainer and a veterinary neurophysiologist in private practice. It was she who drew my attention to the relationship between clicker training and research on stimuli and the limbic system. The paper that Barbara Schoening and I are working on is a hypothesis paper only, putting forth our concept. [I confess that in the ensuing years since our first meeting Barbara and I have not pursued the task of writing a joint paper, although both of us have presented on the topic to scientific societies in our respective fields. KP]

Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concommitant emotions. The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a cover story surveying this research in 1999.

We clicker trainers see similar patterns of very rapid learning, long retention, and emotional surges, albeit positive emotions rather than fear. Barbara and I hypothesize that the clicker is a conditioned "joy" stimulus that is acquired and recognized through those same primitive pathways, which would help explain why it is so very different from, say, a human word, in its effect.

If this is true, another contributing factor to the extraordinary rapidity with which the clicker and clicked behavior can be acquired might be that the click is processed by the CNS much faster than any word can be. Even in the most highly-trained animal or verbal person, the word must be recognized, and interpreted, before it can "work," and the effect of the word may be confounded by accompanying emotional signals, speaker identification clues, and other such built-in information.

That is the hypothesis, based on various previously unconnected bodies of research; it is not data or evidence. Dr. Schoening and I have both put the hypothesis forward at scientific meetings and at lay meetings like APDT and IMATA (Int. Marine Animal Trainers Assoc.) in order a) to see if others find this interesting and likely and b) to possibly stimulate others into doing some research. Both lay and scientific audiences have reacted with interest and curiosity.

We have not yet submitted a joint paper for publication, mostly because we are both very busy. When we do, from submittal to publication in a scientific journal takes, usually, at least a year, though things are a bit faster on the internet these days. Actual research would come next. Poking around in the brain is not what I know how to do; Barbara might. I would say that hard data is five years away, after someone gets interested enough, in some lab, to start looking at the question.

Meanwhile, there are many simpler pieces of field work that various people are undertaking. For example, some clicker instructors have done informal comparisons between using the voice "Yes" as a marker, in some pet owner classes, versus the clicker in others. Empirically, the outcome is usually that the class curriculum is covered in much less time, with a higher degree of success, in the clicker class. The difference is apparent because it leaves the teacher with two or three weeks at the end of a six or eight week course and nothing left in the teaching plan! (People usually go on to tricks, introduce agility, or move into their intermediate curriculum, to fill up the weeks students have paid for.)

It would be interesting, though not necessarily easy, to analyze such comparative situations, if only to show that the difference is real (if it is). What causes the difference is another question: the dogs perhaps learn faster and more accurately, but the people also get feedback from the clicker. The clicker increases their attentiveness to the dog, improves their timing, and for all we know, triggers nice feelings in their amygdalas.

There many additional possible neurological and biochemical side effects of clicking. Here's a comment from Pat Robards, clicker trainer and editor of Dogtalk Magazine in Australia :

Any time a dog receives a treat, it causes the animal's other autonomic system to kick in: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This section of the nervous system is sometimes called the vegetative function of the organism (processing foods, digestion, etc.).

Humans experience episodes in which the PNS is active, as nice warm feelings, relaxation, contentment. Anytime that a previously neutral stimulus, like a clicker, or a kind word, gets paired with one of these parasympathetic reactions, through Classical (Respondent conditioning) the clicker acquires the ability to produce the same pleasant effects. This is why treats (and soon the clicker) can be used to calm a dog, make him less fearful, cause the whole training process to be a happy experience. One of the reasons clicker training is at the cutting edge! I use it to mark Calming Signals for a fearful dog thanks to Karen Pryor.

So, yes, clicker is better. Why? Hmm. We are just beginning to know what questions to ask.

Author's comments: That was the post. It seemed to satisfy the dog trainers. It did not interest anyone in brain research, as far as I know. From my standpoint the difference between the response to a click and the response to a word continued to be of interest, and I continued to feel that the click operates, as does reinforcement in general, through the older part of the nervous system rather than the cognitive part of the brain (though cognition might follow). By 2005, however, we had acquired a whole new population of learners conditioned to the clicker as a "joy" stimulus: human children. And they can report on the experience.

The reinforcement-based teaching system that uses the clicker is called TAGteach, Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is being used in gymnastics, dance, team sports, physical therapy, classroom skills, golf, tennis, music, speech training, and therapy—almost any place where precise physical actions are needed. The click sound is used as a marker signal, exactly as in clicker training, but there's a major difference: the learners can be told what specific move or part of a move will elicit a click.

As with clicker training, the teacher who understands how to use the TAG correctly soon finds that there's no more need to correct mistakes; mistakes disappear when you can reinforce the correct move. People appreciate that; children and adults laugh and visibly enjoy being tagged. They quickly learn to TAG each other for specific goals, as well: something you can't really expect animals to do.

However, the neurophysiological symptoms seem to be the same. Quick acquisition: as long as the TAG points are within the learner's ability, we see new moves being learned in two or three clicks. Long retention: once the move is learned, it's not forgotten. An emotion of elation, a feeling of success, at the instant of hearing the TAG. "I like the TAG," said one child, "Because I WIN ." And there's another strong non-cognitive response: Gymnastics coach Theresa McKeon reports that when her students, flipping around in midair, get a TAG, their pupils dilate. You can see it on the video.

Karen Pryor, May 2005

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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

Learning from conditioned joys

Street drugs are another kind of stimuli that reach the amygdala before the cortex, immediately producing feelings of elation or contentment that leave lasting, indelible associations. The user learns rapidly, often from a single trial, to repeat the behaviors that led to these feelings. Stimuli associated with the drug--something as a rolled-up dollar bill--will later cause emotional surges. And the learned behavior of using drugs is resistant to extinction even when the drug itself becomes a predictor of punishments [i.e. the hangover].

Why does 'a click' teach faster, last longer, w/better results?


WONDERFUL hypothesis!!!

A click reaching straight into the CNS more quickly than a word (or other action) could possibly be intrepreted by the 'thinking' part of the brain explains why the use of exercises or 'games' based in domination in natural horsemanship are less effective (in my studies) than behavioral shaping with click-enabled positive reinforcement.   Simply brilliant!

Cynthia Royal, Equine Behaviorist

Equine Psychology Center - Home of Lord of The Rings Shadowfax movie star horse 'Blanco'

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