Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Pavlov's Dog Loved the Bell

Ivan Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for work on the digestion of dogs, and is singularly remembered for a series of experiments done in which he gave the dogs food at the same time as a buzzer or bell was sounded or a light was shown. He had developed ways to determine when the dogs salivated, and he found that, after a series of presentations of the signal and the food simultaneously, the dogs would salivate when only the signal was presented. This was the beginning of the idea of conditioned responses. 


Around the same time, two other winners of a Nobel Prize, Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal, had developed procedures for staining nerves, which resulted in the discovery of the neuron, the fundamental cell of the nervous system. In terms of neurons, Pavlov's experiments were showing that a dog becomes conditioned to the signal when it is presented at the same time as an instinctual benefit, food, meaning that the neurons which processed the signal and those causing salivation had become strongly linked. We now understand that recently used nerve pathways become strengthened in response to the release of one of several neurochemicals. The pathway from the food recognition neural set to the nerves releasing these neurochemicals was fired when the food was presented, and all recent nerves became strengthened. The brain cannot disciminate, and It just reinforces blindly. As Pavlov repeated the presentation identically, he was building a strong nerve trunk from the neuron which was fired when the dog's auditory system recognized the sound, or the equivalent for the light, to the salivary gland stimulus nerve pathway. The linkage between the food recognition area and the neurochemical stimulus area were already well secured, even from birth, but the linkage between the signal recognition area and that neurochemical stimulus area were not, and became well linked from the repeition of the experiment. Simply and generally said, things associated with pleasurable events become pleasurable in their own right. By pleasurable, for dogs, is the neurochemical release. The neurochemical does two things, it makes recent connections stronger, and it so doing, it produces a 'like' for the dog. Pavov's dogs developed strong neural linkages between the cap neuron for the signal and the pleasure center, the neurochemical stimulus area. It could be said that the dogs loved to hear the bell or buzzer or see the light. Here we use the verb love in an animal sense, meaning exactly what was listed: a neurochemical response analogous to the one which occurs with the satisfaction of instinctual desires. Had Pavlov wanted to go further, he could have presented the signal along with a different secondary signal, and eventually the dogs would learn to respond to the secondary signal, because of its association with the already strengthened neural trunk related to the first signal.


This happens in mammals, of which humans are the most interesting species, at least to humans. In the 1920's, psychologist John Watkins did what came to be called the “Little Albert” experiment, in which a negative instinctual response, to loud noises, in an infant was linked to the presence of a rat. Prior to the conditioning, the infant petted the rat, but after the conditioning, would cry and withdraw when it appeared. While one example does not make conclusive science, there is no controversy now about the existence of conditioning in humans. We are conditioned, and it happens even at a very early age.


When this was new and exciting new science, back in the 1930's, George Orwell wrote a dystopian book, Brave New World, in which childhood conditioning was used for ulterior motives by the rulers of the empire that existed then. That may have left some negative opinions about it, but largely it has been used for very positive goals. Psychologist Arthur Staats, founder of psychological behaviorism, observed his own children and used conditioning techniques by reading to them and teaching them math at an early age. He found that a child's love for these subjects would be long lasting and lead to an improvement in their academic performance, a substantial one. 


This might even be broadened. If Improved Buddhism is to make better members by teaching, there is no reason not to start it at a very early age. There must be guidelines for parents in Improved Buddhism to understand how to help their child learn good habits, good preferences, wise thinking and healthy choices from an early age until maturity. Unfortunately, the subject of child-rearing has not yet crystallized into clear procedures for all to follow, and it must be part of the process of improving the religion to distill these procedures and then develop ways to teach them to parents. Some of the techniques are obvious and hardly need to be taught to parents, such as reading to children and teaching them math concepts at an early age, such as Albert Staats did. 


The moral code of the religion is where to start in inventorying techniques for teaching the young. The moral code is not yet completely determined, but it should not be a copy of any thousand years old code, but something which reflects the reality of today's existence. 


One element of the moral code is the boundary drawn between members and non-members. How this boundary is defined needs to be determined, but behavior between members should not necessarily be identical with that between a member and a non-member. In the modern world, where false information is used continuously and everywhere to promote personal interests, having a circle of individuals who can be trusted is important. Deception between members must be prohibited. Behavior of a member toward a non-member can be taken to be whatever relationships that non-members have, and in our society with falsehoods going everywhere, there is no need to insist that members take the self-destructive view of granting trust to non-members. The world is what it is, and it is not going to change to a universally benevolent place in any short time. Members must be prepared for the real world, and not taught impractical procedures.


The purpose of Improved Buddhism is not to make fodder of its members for the deceptive and exploitative practices of the world and thereby enrich the perpetrators of these practices. It is the opposite. It needs to prepare members so they have the right amount of skepticism and suspicion where it is needed. They need to understand common methods of being fraudulent, falsely gaining trust, misleading by any of a variety of means, and quantitative methods of checking the claims made by outsiders. 


What fallout does this have toward a choice of the conditioning given to young members? Conditioning is done by associating some object, anything with some sensory effect, or some activity of the subject, some 'operant', with some reaction. The reaction may be positive, such as done by Pavlov with food and Staats with parental affection, or negative as Watson did with loud sounds. These have very different effects on a young person's mind. The positive ones are perhaps easier to list and develop detailed techniques for, but the negative ones may be just as important, although mostly neglected in popular discussions of child-rearing. 


Negative conditioning gives incentives for activities to perform and to avoid performing. One of the difficulties facing us if affluence surrounds us is to train children to largely ignore it, and instead adopt excellent habits such as hard work, perseverance, attention to detail, planning ahead, and others which have led us to the high standard of living that is visible in many locales. The ability to make a promise to another member and then to hold oneself to keeping it might be another. The strength to overlook repeated failure and still maintain one's self-discipline might be another. These can be taught to older children, verbally and with examples, but there may be some parts of these things which are better done with negative behavioral conditioning. 


It is certainly recognized that there are dangers associated with a chaotic use of behavioral conditioning, especially negative. If done poorly, the child may develop a poor self-image, or find himself with too much fear to accomplish certain tasks. That does not mean ignoring it. Many popular writers on this subject simply project their own feelings in this area, about how to make one's child happy while learning and other tidbits only covering a limited portion of what should be done with behavioral conditioning. Improved Buddhism must make it a priority to completely understand how it works, what the pitfalls are, and what the benefits are, and then after categorizing what can be done, how to teach these techniques to parents who will apply them. We are more than a century after Pavlov made his discoveries, and it is time to gather together all this information and make it most useful. 


It is also necessary to understand how behavioral conditioning fits in with other modes of teaching, so that what can be done easier, safer, and more surely by other techiques does not become part of the behavioral conditioning instruction set. There is no reason to deny any member of Improved Buddhism the best possible training and education, and this should be one of the strongest features of the religion.

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