JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 9

Eureka Moments: What is Insight?

Using resurgence – Insight
Yesterday I shared several PORTL games developed by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz.   The games deliberately used extinction.  What was observed was this: when you have been consistently reinforcing behaviors as you establish them in repertoire, and you then remove all reinforcement for them, you get a resurgence of these previously reinforced behaviors.  They reoccur in the order in which they were trained.  

When you instead extinguish the individual behaviors during the teaching phase, you get a different result.  The student will go back to the most recently learned behavior.  If that doesn’t work, he’ll go a little further back, and then a little further back.

In resurgence the behaviors occur in the order in which they were taught, so the oldest behavior in the cluster occurs first.

In regression the order reverses.  The most recently taught behavior reappears first.

So how does this help us?  How can we use this understanding to shape behavior?  To get the ideas rolling Jesús shared several video examples where resurgence was used to train complex, creative behaviors.

The first video came from Robert Epstein’s work. Epstein was B.F. Skinner’s last graduate student.  Together they were exploring the concept of “insight”.  How do we solve puzzles?  Are we truly creating something that has not existed before, or is creativity a product of combining known components to solve a novel puzzle?

Bird Brains
To explore this question Epstein taught a pigeon three component behaviors: pecking a banana, climbing on a box, and pushing the box towards a target.

The pigeon was then put into a chamber with the box and the banana.  The banana was hung up out of reach.  The pigeon couldn’t peck the banana, so an extinction process began. There was a resurgence of previously trained behaviors.  The pigeon was able to push the box under the banana, get up on the box, and peck the banana.

How did the pigeon solve this puzzle so quickly?  What is insight? What really is creativity?  Skinner and Epstein would say the pigeon could solve the problem because it had in its existing repertoire the necessary components.  Pigeons that had no experience pushing the box or jumping up on the box failed to solve the puzzle.

What is Creativity?
Jesús gives us a very process-oriented way thinking about this experiment.  This kind of complex puzzle solving was achieved through resurgence.  Set up the underlying components well, add in a bit of extinction, and “creativity” pops out.

If you leave out one of the components, the individual will struggle to solve the puzzle.  He will experience a much longer extinction process.  Macro extinction emotions will begin to surface, and you have to hope the subject has the persistence to become truly creative.

This is the kind of creativity that is truly stressful.  It’s much better to analyze the end goal – the complex behavior you want to train – break it down into all of it’s component tasks, and then train each of the components separately.  The result will be brilliant looking pigeons that solve in minutes what we might otherwise think would be an impossible puzzle for them.

Jesús’ comment was there is “nothing new under the sun”. The behaviors you try are all built out of things you’ve done before.  All the components of what appears to be a novel behavior have been trained in the past. So let’s consider what happens when a group of people are presented with a challenging puzzle.  When they begin experimenting and find that the usual, familiar things aren’t working, some will give up quickly.

Others will persist.  They will experiment with novel combinations of what they already know, but again most will quit if they don’t come up with a solution fairly quickly .

A few will keep trying until they stumble across a novel combination that works.  We call these people inventors and creators because they are persistent enough to find these novel combinations.  The discovery process can be a painful one, but once the new combination has been found, it’s easy for everyone else to copy the results.

I can absolutely relate to this.  Give me a horse puzzle to solve, and I can be very persistent. My life experience has taught me that persistence pays off.  But put me in front of a computer that isn’t cooperating, and I shut down fast. There my experience has produced a different set of expectations. I’ve been in enough situations where errors in a software program have made a problem unsolvable, at least for my level of computer skills.  I don’t have the programing background that makes wrestling with a software issue fun.  Extinction has gone too far and been too uncomfortable.  So in one situation I can be very persistent and creative.  In another I’m the one going through the classic cycle of emotions that macro extinction produces.

I know first hand both how much fun the creative process can be when the expectation of success is there.  And I also know how painful and unpleasant the extinction process is when that expectation is missing.

What I want to create for my learners is a feeling of confidence.  Whether horse or human, I want them to KNOW they can solve whatever training puzzle I throw at them. Build this expectation in early before others have taught them hard lessons about failure, and you get brilliant, enthusiastic, joyful individuals.  They are the optimists of this world.  Whether horse or human, they are fun to be around.  That’s what an understanding of these concepts helps us to create.

Coming Next: Degrees of Freedom

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  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:          

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