Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Activating SEEK and Turning Off FEAR in Horses

In her book Animals Make Us Human, Dr. Temple Grandin discusses the emotions that many species of animals can have.  Animals and people have the same core emotions in the brain.   Dr. Panksepp, a neuroscientist, discovered that localized electrode stimulation of the brain caused  the same well-organized behavior for certain core emotions, which he calls “blue ribbon emotions.”  These emotions are rage, fear, panic, seek, lust, care, and play. (pp. 7-8)  Seeking is defined as “the positive emotions of wanting, looking forward to, or being curious about something…..SEEKING feels good” (p. 7)

In the chapter on horses, Dr. Grandin discusses the research on how horses react in relation to these emotions.  With horses, she posits that you can use positive reinforcement to activate the Seek emotion while turning off FEAR.  Fear and seek are the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.   And with horses, fear can be easily converted to anger or rage.  For this reason, she highly recommends positive reinforcement to shape behavior whenever possible (although positive and negative reinforcement can be used together).  (p. 123) 
One week afterthe equine social intelligence test,
Blessi overturned and did "seeking" for carrots under
the racing barrels--even though I have never put
carrots under racing barrels
As Grandin states, “…when your horse becomes really accustomed to clicker training or other positive reinforcement to keep the SEEKING system turned on, you inhibit the FEAR system overall because the SEEKING system and the FEAR system are opposed inside the brain.  If you’re in the middle of a clicker-training session and a piece of plastic blows into your horse’s face, he’s going to be less likely to panic than he would be if his FEAR system were already mildly ‘turned on’ through negative reinforcement.
It’s easier for a horse to be brave
                                                              when he’s feeling happy than when
he’s feeling nervous or
                                                              afraid” (p.130). 

In many ways, using positive reinforcement is teaching the horse to train us—they learn how to learn.  “With positive reinforcement, the animal suddenly ‘gets it’ –realizes that it can do something to make a good thing happen.  That’s called learning to learn.  When the animal learns to learn, it starts to offer behavior.  That’s what behaviorists call it.  It’ll intentionally run through all kinds of different behaviors looking for one that will work” (Grandin, 2009, p. 131).
Blessi "volunteering" a smile to see if he can
earn a reward

Blessi and I do some training with treats.  I have found that Blessi often “volunteers” behavior such as bowing or smiling.  He is more likely to explore a novel item in his environment than panic over it.  People ask if Blessi is just a calm natured horse or if he has been trained to be accepting of new stimuli.  I have to say that it is probably a combination of both.

Grandin, T. (2009). Animals Make Us Human, First Mariner Book, NY.

1 comment:

MegF said...

That's a really interesting post. Blessi is definitely laid back sounding whether by nature or nurture or both.

Your post and Temple Grandin's book quotes meld right in with what I learned in my recently watched episode of the Charlie Rose brain series on the "Anxious Brain".