Dr. Robert Epstein: Engineering Complex and Novel Behavior in Animals

Robert Epstein was the keynote speaker for the Art and Science of Animal Training conference this year. (Be sure to read the rest of my notes from the conference as well.) Epstein, who was the last student of B.F. Skinner, researches the creativity process and how novel behavior develops.

All behavior, in some sense, is novel, you never brush your teeth the exactly the same way twice. However, each person or animal develops a repertoire of known behaviors and these behaviors can be combined or altered to create new behaviors. Interestingly, this combination process if quite orderly and predictable and we can alter it’s flow experimentally to create new behavior.

Check out the video below of a pigeon Robert Epstein and his lab trained to solve the classic box and banana problem. The pigeon knew how to move a box and stand on a box and knew that pecking the banana would get it a reward. You can see it’s frustration at the beginning until it realizes (in about a minute!) how to solve the problem using what it has learned in the past.

Animal behavior is orderly and predicable (even if it is often too complex for us to notice that order!) Much of Robert Epstein’s research involved studying the orderly relationships between behavior and past history. Behavior can be established easily by first teaching any underlying component behaviors. Animal training could benefit from this, as we often lump several behaviors together. For instance, some teach an inexperienced horse to stand still by a mounting block for a rider to mount. Instead, first teach the horse to stand still, then teach stand by the mounting block, then worry about getting on! Our shaping and training often is slowed down because the animal is lacking the prerequisite skills.

Similarly to pigeons, most humans do not develop their full potential to express creativity. Creativity is a learned skill and can be strengthened through practice and specific activities. Robert Epstein has developed four core competencies that form the basic skill set for creativity. If we can learn to use these, we are well on our way to increasing our creativity! His four competencies are:

1. Capturing

Capturing means learning to listen to and record our ideas. If you have a good idea, write it down! Better yet, set aside time every day for daydreaming or brain storming. If you capture ideas as they occur, you have a larger pool to select from and better quality to pick from. Capture now, evaluate later.

2. Challenging
Expose yourself to failure and don’t be afraid to fail. If we put ourselves in tough situations that require thinking or problem solving, old behaviors and ideas often surface and link together, creating new behavior. This is essentially what happened to the problem solving pigeon above.

3. Broadening
Learn things well out of your current area of expertise. The more diverse your experiences, ideas and skills, the more potential for creativity and interesting combination. If you broaden what you know, you’ll see connections or possibilities that you might never have thought of before.

4. Surrounding
This principle relates to how you manage your physical or social environment. Unusual stimuli, combinations of stimuli or different environments will often produce novel ideas or inspirations. New situations and environments challenge us to respond differently.

So, if you’ve always thought of yourself as not creative, don’t fear! There are lots of ways to increase your creativity. Also, by training and working with our animals, we can make them better problem solvers and increase their creative ability. Can you think of ways that the above principles might apply to animals or animal training? You might be interested in checking out Robert Epstein’s website. He has written several books on increasing creativity and has information and articles on his site.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy the rest of my notes from the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference or my notes from the 2009 conference. Better yet, bookmark the ORCA website and come to the 2011 conference next spring! Sign up for e-mail updates to make sure you don’t miss any of the great posts from stalecheerios.com.

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