The Cloud: Metaphors from a Systems Biologist

I am always in search of good metaphors.  Lately I have been collecting some gems from the sciences.  That seems an appropriate place to look for them since clicker training is science-based.  The two newest additions to the collection come from systems biologist, Uri Alon. The first is The Cloud and the second is “Yes, and . . . Learning to Grab a Whale By The Tail”.  I’ll describe The Cloud first and leave you guessing about the other for another day.

The Cloud
Imagine yourself as a graduate student just beginning work on your thesis project.  You have spent thousands of hours studying the results of other people’s research, but you know next to nothing about the research process itself.  That was the situation Uri Alon found himself in when he entered graduate school.

He had a question and some assumptions about what his results should be, but when he began his experiments, the results did not follow a straight line trajectory towards the expected answer.

He became so frustrated and depressed by his project that he began to feel that he did not even belong at the University.  He had read about great research results, but not about the process that brought researchers to these discoveries.

Somehow he made it through his first project only to find himself floundering about again in the same emotional turmoil when he embarked on his second thesis project.   When he asked other graduate students what they were  experiencing, they confirmed that it was much the same for them.

The frustration did not end there.  When he became a professor, he again encountered the uncertainty of what to do.  How do you choose a research project?  How do you mentor others through the process of doing research?  All those thousands of hours of study that had brought him to his own lab were not enough to answer those questions.  Journal articles reported on the end product, not the hundreds of tedious hours researchers spent going in wrong directions.

Does this sound familiar.  I can so easily rewrite this:

Imagine yourself as a first time horse owner.  You have read everything you can get your hands on about riding.  You have spent who knows how many hours reading about the results of other people’s training experience, but you have very little direct knowledge of the training process itself.  You know how to ride, but you have always been on horses someone else has trained.  You know how to direct them literally from point A to point B, but you know very little about what was done to get their training to this point.

But not to worry.  You have bravely bought your first horse, a youngster who presumably was started under saddle.  You are slowly discovering that your basic assumptions about how much this horse knows are not quite a match with reality.  But that’s all right.  You’ve read the books.  You subscribe to all the popular magazines.  You’ve memorized the steps the authors describe for dealing with the problems you’re encountering, so you head out to the barn filled with confidence that you will soon have your horse sorted.  That’s when you discover that A does not always lead directly to B.

Back to physics: Alon had a mental map of how things should turn out:  he had a question.  He formed a hypothesis around that question.  He did some work to test the hypothesis which he expected to lead to the set of conclusions he had predicted.  It should have been a straight line trajectory.

Uri alon a leads to B
A (the question) leads to B (the answer).

Except that it didn’t.

And when it didn’t, he experienced stress.

Whether it is with theoretical research or practical horse training, we crave internal consistency.  We want our expectations to match our reality.  When they don’t, we become uncomfortable.  We look for ways to reduce the inconsistency, or to avoid situations and information that might increase it.

Uri Alon A to B tangleThis drawing, borrowed from Alon’s presentations on the cloud, illustrates the way a research project often unfolds.  You start off expecting a straight line to B, but instead your first assumption doesn’t work, so you try something else, and when that doesn’t work, you try again – and again.

Equally, the drawing can also describe horse training.  In the books you’ve read, it says that if you can get your nervous horse to move his feet, he’ll calm down.  You follow the basic recipe outlined in the books, and not only doesn’t your horse calm down, he seems even more agitated than he was before!  Oh dear.  This doesn’t match what the books described at all.  You try something else, and that doesn’t work.  So you throw that book away and try a different author’s approach.  That doesn’t work either, and now you’re feeling more and more in a muddle.

In both cases you try experiment after experiment, procedure after procedure, but nothing works.  You become increasingly stressed.  I’m sure we’ve all read (or perhaps even written) posts to on-line forums where the person was clearly experiencing just this kind of emotional turmoil.  If you are new to the training process, and especially if you are also new to horses, it’s easy to get in a muddle.  You don’t understand why your horse walks away from you when you go out to catch him; why he pins his ears and bites at you when you groom him; why it’s a wrestling match every time you want to clean his feet or put on his bridle.  Why, why, why, is your lament.

You try different approaches and you keep getting derailed.  With each new path you feel more and more in a muddle.  Finally you reach a point where it seems as though all your basic assumptions have failed. It is as though you are lost in a cloud of confusion.  You become frustrated, anxious, depressed.

Alon refers to this emotional state appropriately enough as The Cloud.

Uri Alon the cloud for blob

Alon: “You can be lost in the cloud a day, a week, a year, a whole career, but sometimes if you have enough support, you can see in the materials you have in hand a new answer – C.  You decide to go for it.”

Uri Alon spot c
Your first experiments don’t work, but you persist, and eventually you make a new discovery.

Uri alon get to c
You tell everyone about it by publishing an article:
Uri Alon a leads to CA leads to C is the way the results are presented in a scientific journal, but it leaves out the process of getting from A to C.

Horse Training

The same thing occurs in horse training.  When you read about training in books and magazines, it can sound so straight forward.  You do X and Y will happen.  Easy.  Here’s an exercise that will help your horse relax his top line, become more supple, and go on the bit.  You follow the recipe, and your stiff horse bolts off in rebellion.  You are left literally in the dust wondering what went wrong.  Training can be so unbelievably frustrating in part because it is not about following simple recipes.

In the DVDs that I have produced I always like to include video of someone who is new to the lesson I’m presenting.  It’s all well and good to watch someone who knows the answer take a horse through the lesson.  What does it look like for a new learner?  What are some of the sticky places you might encounter, the skills you will need?

When your own horse doesn’t follow a direct line from A to B, I hope watching these lessons helps you to understand that this is a normal part of training. Even simple lessons can require creativity and innovation.  That’s woven into the very core of clicker training.  From the very first lesson on, flexibility, ingenuity, originality is something clicker training encourages.  That links it both to science and art.

In behavior analysis they talk about the study of one.  That’s what we have in training.  You can look at what others have done, but always it comes down to a study of one – your horse.  And always it is a voyage of discovery.

Alon: “The cloud is an inherent part of research.  It is part of our craft because the cloud stands at the boundary between the known and the unknown.”
Uri Alon 3 known unknown
“In order to discover something truly new one of your basic assumptions has to change.  Otherwise, it’s not new.  And in this light scientists do something truly heroic.  Everyday we try to push ourselves to the boundary between the known and the unknown and face the cloud.

Now notice that B is inside the land of the known because we knew about it before we began.  C is always much more fresh, exciting, profound and also much more important than B, and that’s the wonder of doing research.”

More Connections with Clicker Training

This made me think of the people who are just beginning to explore clicker training.  They start out at  “A” with some basic assumptions about how horses are “supposed” to behave.  These assumptions are based on their previous horse experience and what others around them tell them about training.  These assumptions may include things such as: horses are not supposed to offer behavior; they are to do what they are told; you need to be the alpha, the leader to be respected.

And then they have their first clicker lesson and all these assumptions are turned inside out and upside down.  The belief systems that underpin clicker training are a world apart from what others have been telling them.  Is it any wonder that the difference between what they have been taught and what they are encountering creates confusion.

Sometimes they quit because the people around them are so critical and judgmental.  It’s hard to keep going when you are surrounded by disapproving stares.  Everyone is watching while your horse mugs you for treats.  Aargh!  What do you do!

What you do is find a more sympathetic support team.  If you’re in a muddle, feeling confused, frustrated, annoyed by your horse’s behavior, you’re very much in the cloud.  The on-line clicker community can help guide you safely through your introduction into clicker training. They understand the process because they’ve been through it.  They may not have a word for the muddle of emotions you find yourself in, but they have experienced it and know that things do sort out.

Alon found that having a name for this aspect of doing research was transformative for his graduate students.  They would say to him: “Uri, I’m in the cloud.”

He would respond by saying: “Great, you must be feeling miserable.”

Alon: “[As a mentor] I’m kind of happy, because we might be close to the boundary between the known and the unknown. We stand a chance of discovering something truly new.  The way our minds work,  just knowing that the cloud is normal, it’s essential, and in fact beautiful, means we can join the Cloud Appreciation Society.  It detoxifies the feeling that something is deeply wrong with me.

And as a mentor, I know what to do, which is to step up my support for the student, because research in psychology shows that if you’re feeling fear and despair, your mind narrows down to very safe and conservative ways of thinking. If you want to explore the risky paths needed to get out of the cloud, you need other emotions — solidarity, support, hope — that come with your connection to somebody else.  It’s best to walk into the unknown together.”

The cloud gives us a way of understanding the training process.  It doesn’t matter if others have worked out tried and true methods for working with horses.  That’s their experience.  You have to find your own path.  They can guide you, but again, it is always a study of one.

With your own horse some things may seem very easy and straight forward.  The lessons will unfold exactly as the books suggest, but then you’ll encounter situations that just seem baffling.  “Why won’t my horse go on the trailer; line up next to the mounting block; stand quietly for the farrier.  I’ve tried everything!”  Others can hear the frustration and despair as you tell your story.  You have tried one suggestion after another, and all that has happened is you feel more and more tangled.  You are well and truly in the cloud.

“Great!  You must be feeling miserable.”

Remember what Alon said: the cloud means you are in the boundary between the known and the unknown, and you stand a chance of discovering something new.  When you know the cloud is “normal, essential, and in fact beautiful”, you too, can join the Cloud Appreciation Society.

If you are feeling confused, if your training isn’t going along smoothly on straight line trajectories, there is nothing wrong with you or your horse.

Every learning process is a voyage of discovery.  I may know the answer because I have been on this voyage before you, but you don’t.  I can give you some sign posts to follow, some milestones to look for, but at the end of the day, you have to find your own way.  The path you take may not be quite the one I expected.  Think of the way children learn.  Both parent and child are enriched by seeing the world through their fresh eyes.

When one of Alon’s students tells him he is in the cloud, he knows to step up his support for that student.  “In science it is best to walk into the unknown together.”

The same is true for training horses.  It is best to walk into the unknown in the company of somebody else.  For many stepping into clicker training is very much stepping into unknown territory.  If you are taking that step, having good mentors can be a huge help.  They can remind you that the path you are on is one worth following, even if at times it feels as though you are heading into brambles.  The brambles are just the boundary between what you know and the uncertainty that comes from exploring a new path.

Your mentors may be others in your barn who want the same kind of relationship with their own horses that you do with yours.  Or they may come from connections you make on-line, from reading blogs like this, and other virtual resources. They might even be a canine clicker trainer who knows nothing about horses, but lots about training.

My Own Clouds
I will be celebrating Peregrine’s thirtieth birthday this spring.  Over the years he has sent me into many dense clouds filled with frustration.  Some were the normal things you run into when you are raising a young horse.  Some were directly attributable to the physical issues he had with his locking stifles.

Uri Alon’s description of the frustrations he encountered doing his graduate thesis rang very true with me.  They described very much what Peregrine put me through, especially in his first couple of years.  He was my “graduate thesis”.  I would solve one problem, feel the elation and  satisfaction that goes along with that, and then Peregrine would present me with another, even more challenging puzzle.  I’d be thrown right back into the cloud, trying to figure out the puzzle that was Peregrine.  If other horses now seem much more straight forward to me, it is only because he was so very, very difficult.

We eventually got things more or less sorted. Then Peregrine got Potomac horse fever, and the clouds set in denser and thicker than ever.  The Potomac horse fever damaged his feet.  It took us three years to work our way out of that Cloud and to bring him back to full riding soundness.

Around that time I started experimenting with clicker training.  I had “A” –  the question: what is this and how do you use it with horses?

I set out on the first step, found several easy “B”s.  That encouraged me to keep going.  But as I kept exploring this question – what is clicker training and how do you use it? – I found that the line between A and B was not always so straight. That led to new, different, other ways of solving puzzles.

Clicker Puzzles

Picture again Alon’s model:

Uri Alon 3 known unknown
“A” might be a simple question: How do you introduce your horse to the clicker?”

With most horses the answer is a straight line trajectory between A and B.  B in this case is you use targets.  You click and treat as your horse sniffs the target out of curiosity.

But what about the horse who has lived surrounded by loud electric fences and panics at the sound of the clicker?

Okay, that’s easy.  You use a different marker signal.  But he’s still afraid to come up and explore your target.  You try one approach after another.  Finally what works for this horse is sitting quietly with him in his field while he makes the choice to come to you.  You have found your new C.  But once it is found, C sits within the boundary of the known.
Uri Alon c within the known
So now with most horses you know you can begin with basic targeting.  But with very timid horses you may first have to begin by reinforcing them for showing any interest in you at all.

Everything is great until you work with a friend’s horse who panics when she’s separated from the other members of her herd.  Touching targets holds no interest for this horse.  All she wants to do is get back to her equine friends.  And you could sit for days in her field, she has zero interest in you.  So you’re back in the cloud trying to figure out an approach that will work for her.
Uri Alon new d
You try several different approaches until finally, perhaps with some help from your mentor, you spot D, the new solution you hadn’t seen before.  You change the way you have your training area set up, and now you have a horse who is engaged with you.

So now D sits within the known strategies.

Uri Alon new d within the known
Each new puzzle, each new horse, each new venture into the cloud, expands your training knowledge.  What at first seemed like just a tangled mess, now feels like very straightforward, familiar territory.  You begin to know how to deal with a greater variety of situations, but don’t get too smug. It is the nature of horses to throw new clouds at us.  Just when you think you are starting to know something, along will come a situation that sends you into the thickest of thick fogs.

I do love this image because it helps us understand the feelings of frustration that come so easily when we are trying to sort through the puzzles our horses throw at us.  There’s nothing wrong with us, with them, or with the training system we are exploring.  It is okay to feel confused, and frustrated.  When you do, you can now say you are in The Cloud.  And you can also know this is a good time to seek out the help of others.  They may not have answers for you, but they can at least offer you the support you need to stay open and creative.

Expanding Your Training Map
Alon’s map helps us understand training in yet another way.

You began with a simple question (A): How do I get started?

As you worked with the three horses in your herd you found three different answers.Uri Alon confusing mess 2 abcd

This confusing mess sorted itself out in your mind and became . . .

Uri Alon a to b c d

Your first horse followed a fairly conventional path to “B”.  The other two horses were rescues with issues coming from past experiences complicating the process.  They stretched you to find “C” and “D”.

But now each of those solutions becomes the launching point for the another question: What do I do next?

I will leave it up to you to draw out the map.  Each layer takes you deeper into the training process.  You will see intersecting paths. When you come to these again with a new horse, you will know you have choices.  Each has led to successful solutions in the past.  This is how training experience grows, horse by horse, lesson by lesson until you have a complex mosaic of choices all sitting comfortably within the boundaries of the known. You have created a rich tapestry of training connections.  Now when you introduce the next horse to the clicker you do so with the confidence that comes from having successfully navigated your way through many clouds.

You are comfortable stretching yourself beyond the boundary of the known because you understand the cloud. You know that the muddle of emotions you sometimes experience when you are learning something new is not something to be afraid of.  It’s not something to back away from.   It is the sign post that tells you are leaving the security of the known and venturing heroically into new territory.  You are facing the cloud, and you know beyond it is a new discovery and another layer of connection with your horse.

Coming soon: “Yes And . . .  –  Learning To Grab A Whale By The Tail: More Metaphors from a Systems Biologist”

Alexandra Kurland

February 3, 2015

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

3 thoughts on “The Cloud: Metaphors from a Systems Biologist

  1. I wish I knew about the “cloud” in my first year of clicker training. One horse took me directly to B but the other one to me on a journey to D. I really loved this this explanation !

    Like

  2. Very helpful! The cloud is not so scary knowing I will eventually find the right answer. An that I should ask for support more. Thank you !

    Like

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