A taste of the ABAI 2016 annual convention

Michigan Avenue

Michigan Avenue

I spent Memorial Day weekend in downtown Chicago at the annual convention for the Association for Behavior Analysis, International. We had a great time! Three full days of presentations, over five hundred sessions to choose from, many opportunities to see and talk with old friends, and lots of great food.

The conference covers lots of different topics. Many of the presentations discuss current research with humans or animals, in both applied settings and laboratory settings. Sessions also include theoretical issues, basic tutorials, and panel discussions. It’s hard to choose what to see, as there are dozens of sessions during each time slot.

Here are some brief notes from a handful of the presentations that I attended during the ABAI 2016 annual convention.

Brain-machine interfaces: From basic science to neurological rehabilitation

Every year at the ABAI convention, there is what is called the “presidential scholar address,” where the president of ABAI invites a noteworthy speaker to give a thought-provoking talk. This year, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis gave a fascinating lecture about research on brain-machine interfaces.

Brain-machine interfaces involve connecting the brain of a human or a non-human animal to a computer. The brain (through the computer) is then able to control something in the environment without the use of any body muscles or sensory organs. In short, the brain is liberated from the physical limits of the body. In one study, monkeys were trained to play a computer game by moving a joystick using their hand. Then, the joystick was removed and the monkeys learned how to play the computer game by moving a mechanical limb that was connected to an implant in their brain. By thinking where the limb should move, they were able to move it! This technology is now being used to help people who are paralyzed or who have lost limbs, and the possibilities are endless.

One of Nicolelis’ main points was that the brain is extremely plastic. Given the right experiences and learning history, it can figure out how to do all sorts of amazing things. It can also learn how to do things that its species may never have done before. In another study, infra-red light detectors were implanted into the brains of rats. In just three days, the rats learned how to perceive and respond to infra-red light cues, something they had never experienced before.

Teaching and measuring complex repertoires

Two of my friends from the University of North Texas (Sean Will and Lucero Neri) presented about some of the research they have been doing on teaching problem-solving skills to special education students using a program called TAPS. TAPS stands for Talk Aloud Problem Solving. During TAPS, the student learns to talk out loud while systematically working through some sort of problem. Meanwhile, a second individual, the listener (either another student or the teacher), asks questions and helps to guide the first student, without giving away the answer. Over time, the student learns better problem-solving skills and also learns to be his or her own listener, so that a second individual is not needed. Here’s a great video that shows TAPS in action.

Many special education students score quite low on problem-solving skills. However, this research study showed that with TAPS, special education students’ ability to solve academic problems increased dramatically. Interestingly, though, the research showed that to get significant improvements, both the student and the listener (in this case, a teacher’s aide) had to be trained in how to use TAPS. If only one or the other received training, the student did not show improvement.

Behavioral cusps: Twenty years later

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz gave a wonderful invited presentation on behavioral cusps.

Jesús Rosales-Ruiz

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz

This is a concept that was developed in the 1990s by Dr. Rosales-Ruiz and by Dr. Donald Baer and which has been very important for the field of behavior analysis.

In short, a behavioral cusp is a behavior change that exposes the individual’s behavior to new contingencies that, in turn, produce more behavior change. So, sometimes you learn a behavior, and now you know how to do that behavior, but it doesn’t lead to anything else. But other times, you learn a behavior and, as a result, you are now exposed to new conditions or environments that make it very easy for you to learn lots of other behaviors. This second scenario is what is called a cusp.

For example, when a child learns to walk, the child can now move around her environment. This brings her in contact with lots of new things and lots of new opportunities for learning. Similarly, when a child learns to read, he now has a way to access lots of information that was not previously available. This also leads to much additional learning. So, behaviors that are cusps open up a whole new world to the learner and make additional learning possible. If we can identify and teach behavioral cusps, we “get more bang for our buck,” so to speak, as future skills will be easier to teach, and the learner may be able to learn certain behaviors on his or her own, without direct intervention from the teacher.

Bees and wasps, oh my!

I attended a presentation by Christopher Dinges and Charles Abramson that discussed hands-on teaching activities they have developed at Oklahoma State University in their Laboratory of Comparative Psychology and Behavioral Biology. Several decades ago, it was common for introductory psychology students to receive hands-on laboratory experience working with rats or pigeons. However, the funding has been cut for many of these types of labs.

Abramson, Dinges, and others in their lab have been developing activities to teach students about behavior and learning that make use of earthworms, bees, wasps, houseflies, and other small critters. The presentation described two main activities in detail — using classical conditioning to train a proboscis extension reflex in honey bees and using wasp nests to teach students how to define, observe, and measure the behavior of individual animals.

Interestingly, the students also learn about classical conditioning and conditioned reflexes during the wasp lab. During this teaching exercise, the wasp nests are in big tubs. The students can easily see the animals, but there is a solid wall separating humans and insects. However, at the end of the lab, the students are offered the opportunity to hold a male wasp in their hand. Male wasps have no stingers. So, although they look and act just like a female wasp, they cannot hurt you at all. Most students, however, are very cautious and tentative about holding a wasp, and so, they get to experience and discuss their own conditioned reflexive responses!

The amazing HeroRATS

I also got the chance to see a great presentation by Alan Poling. For the past handful of years, Alan Poling has been involved with an organization called APOPO and their HeroRATS training program. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s pretty cool. APOPO trains African giant pouched rats to detect landmines and also tuberculosis. The rats are great at finding landmines because of their wonderful sense of smell, and their small size means they won’t set off a mine. And, current microscope tests often miss positive cases of tuberculosis, but the rats are able to help increase detection rates.

During his presentation, Poling discussed much of the research he has done to assess and improve the performance of the rats and their trainers. One interesting thing he discussed was the importance of selecting your samples carefully during training. For example, high-concentration TB samples were often used when training the rats because these were readily detected by microscopes and could be obtained easily. However, this meant that the rats were being trained to detect samples of this high strength, and they weren’t always as good at detecting lower-strength samples. When the trainers added more low-concentration TB samples to the training program, they were able to increase the rats’ sensitivity so that they were able to detect TB at much lower concentrations.

Poling also discussed that when the rats are working, their performance deteriorates significantly when fewer than 2% of the TB samples provide an opportunity for reinforcement. So, sometimes extra samples (that are known to be TB positive) have to be added in, to increase the rate of reinforcement. In scent detection training, as in any other sort of training, there are lots of different variables to think about!

Looking ahead: Denver 2017

I hope you enjoyed this small taste of the ABAI annual convention. The presentations this year certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I also have some neat ideas now for some projects that I would like to do. Next year, the ABAI convention will be heading to Denver, Colorado, and I’m already looking forward to it!

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  • Jessica B Gibson

    Wow. Some amazing stuff. I wish I had known about the conference…is it open to anyone interested or do you have to have a PHD? I do not think my brain could follow all that but so amazing. I’m taking an online class about dog cognition and it just amazes me how much smarter my dogs are than me! Good read thanks for sharing, maybe next time the conference is near I will check it out

    • Hi Jessica,

      The conference is open to everyone! (Although, I think the pricing is a bit more expensive if you are not an ABAI member.) It can be a little overwhelming at first since there are SO many sessions, but it is a lot of fun, and it also is a great way to network and meet new people. I’ve gone every year since 2011!



  • Bryn Nowell

    These sessions sound amazing! It must have been tough to have to choose! Thanks so much for sharing some information from your recent experience!

  • Tricia Clements

    Sounds like a weekend full of great information. I had no idea that male wasps can’t sting you.

  • Tenacious Little Terrier

    Lots of great presentations! I remember reading about the hero rats before. It’s interesting how they need a higher rate of reinforcement and variety in samples. Something to think about with dogs and nosework.

  • What an amazing converence! I love events that you can learn a lot from. My favorite topic is the HeroRATS project. Isn’t that amazing? Thanks for sharing!

  • sherri

    This is interesting. I think most of my students have problem solving issues. Did they have sessions about animals specifically?

    • Hi Sherri,

      Yes, there were some sessions specifically about animal behavior and animal training. I went to a session that was about reducing barking in an animal shelter, another that discussed analyzing and treating problem behaviors in shelter dogs, one that researched the benefits of therapy dogs for children with autism, and another that examined the effectiveness of petting/affection as a reward in dog training, just to name a few!



  • Hertha James

    Thanks Mary, I always look forward to reading your summaries. Have a granddaughter on a major learning cusp – just learned to crawl everywhere :-).

    • That’s great that your granddaughter is learning to crawl. Crawling is definitely a huge cusp!

      • sherri

        Wow. You should do a post on each of these. I’d like to know how to reduce barking when two dogs get together and make each other crazy….

        • I’m hoping I’ll have time to write up some of my other notes from ABAI!

          Barking can be difficult… !
          What they basically did in the shelter was teach the dogs to be quiet when the main door to the kennel area opened and a chime sounded — the dogs learned to be quiet when a person walked through and they would each get a treat.