The Mindful Rat

What if I told you that we are behaving like conditioned rats inside a Skinner Box?

Let me go back in history a little bit. About one hundred years ago, Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning in his famous experiments with dogs. The dogs heard the ringing of a bell and then received food. After several of those pairings, the bell alone was sufficient to elicit salivation in expectation of food. In the same way an unpleasant stimulus (e.g., electric shock) can be paired with the ringing of a bell (or anything else basically), resulting in a panic reaction. Like here:

Fun With Psychology: Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning (D.D.P.)

A few years later, B. F. Skinner coined the term operant conditioning to describe how voluntary behavior could be modified using reward and punishment. Most of his experiments he conducted on rats by putting them into an operant conditioning chamber, now known as Skinner Box. Desired behavior was rewarded and undesired behavior was punished, with the result that the rats showed that specific behavior more or less frequently, respectively. Another demonstration with humans:

Sheldon Shaping Penny in Big Bang Theory

Behaviorism was born, basically saying that all that should be of interest to psychologists is observable behavior, what the physical body does. And although behaviorism has been complemented by cognitive psychology, for instance, and psychology has moved on in many fields, it is still highly influential and any standard textbook defines psychology as the study of behavior.

Now, what if I told you that we are basically behaving like that rat inside a Skinner Box (I know I asked this before, just repeating it to create some tension…)?

Let me explain. Generally, we are pleasure seekers and pain avoiders. Agree? If there is something we like, we want more of it, start craving it. If there is something we dislike, we want it to cease as quickly as possible and we develop an aversion towards it. Cravings and aversions. Even our appetite for food is a craving, as is our motivation to do work that we don’t like in exchange for money. And our unwillingness to get started with the work we are supposed to be doing (instead of procrastinating) is an aversion, just as we are inclined to not park our car in a no-parking zone because we don’t want to pay the fine.

So, the behaviorists were right? Well, I must admit that in many cases behaviorism describes my own behavior pretty well and that therefore the behaviorists have a good point with their theory. However, that’s also where it stops, at describing observable behavior. One reason why behaviorism has been so influential is that it has enormous applications for rulers, corporations, advertisers, parents, teachers, your boss, and the list could go on and on… It has become a philosophy, deeply penetrating our society. Our whole life we have been trained to do things in order to receive rewards and to avoid punishment. You go through a red light? You get a fine. You want to be attractive? Buy that new perfume/after shave. You want your pocket money? Clean up your room. You want to get good grades? Write/say what the teacher wants to hear. You want to get promoted? Be nice to your boss and work overtime. I am not saying that all of this is bad. It is an essential part of conforming to society to show certain behaviors. But these examples show how powerful behaviorism is. We have been conditioned to play by certain rules.

Anyways, the root of the problem goes even deeper. Even without governments, advertisers, marketers and the like our own body has conditioned our mind to play by certain rules. Why is that? We have come to associate certain stimuli that come into contact with our consciousness with a valuation that we give to them when they are perceived. We find them either pleasant or unpleasant. This valuation results in a bodily sensation and we react accordingly with craving or aversion towards that sensation depending on whether we find it pleasant or unpleasant, further strengthening the link. To summarize:

consciousness –> valuation –> bodily sensation –> reaction (like/dislike)

You might say: so what? It is good to seek pleasant sensations and avoid unpleasant ones. The former are beneficial for us and the latter make us stay away from things that are bad for us. For example, I need to eat in order to sustain my body and I must stay away from pain because pain is the result of something harming my body and I don’t want my body to be harmed. True, but our cravings for pleasant sensations and our aversions towards unpleasant ones also make us unfree, make us slaves of our own mind-body complex. Instead of acting we are merely re-acting in response to certain stimuli because we have conditioned ourselves to do so. And with every automatic reaction in response to a bodily sensation, the link becomes stronger, we become more and more conditioned. In fact, we have become over-conditioned in such a way that often, by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, we end up creating misery for ourselves. Just think of the many occasions when you were supposed to finally get that work done (whatever it is) but instead you chose to do something else and you ended up being very stressed. Or remember that last time somebody said something mean to you and your reaction was to throw back some harsh words, leaving you unbalanced for the rest of the day. These are the obvious things and they may not apply to each one of us but there are many instances when we create misery for ourselves because we automatically react to our bodily sensations and many of those instances actually go unnoticed because we are constantly busy with one thing or another.

Okay, enough with that depressing talk! Because, what the behaviorists did not tell us, is that there is a cure to this and that the rat can escape from the box. In fact, the cure is older than behaviorism itself, much older. This shows that the conditioning about which Western scientists only found out about one hundred years ago, is an old phenomenon. Of course, since they did not invent it but merely discovered the principle. The name of the cure is Vipassana (or mindfulness), of which the origins go back to the time of the Buddha, about 2,500 years ago. Vipassana is a technique that is being taught in meditation and it is basically the objective and non-reactionary observation of one’s bodily sensations which are arising and passing away while maintaining perfect equanimity. That is, one observes one’s bodily sensations and whenever a thought enters one’s mind, or one feels an itching sensation, or a pain, or any other sensation–pleasant or unpleasant–one does not react to it, one just observes neutrally, like a scientist for a moment and then returns one’s attention to the object of meditation, to the bodily sensations. All the while, one keeps in mind that the inherent nature of all sensations, all phenomena is to automatically arise and pass away. Some of them may stay for some time while others may pass away quickly, it doesn’t matter. By simply observing, one slowly gets rid of the deep-rooted conditionings that one has acquired in the past. Vipassana puts in front of us as the ultimate goal nothing less than one’s complete liberation from all conditionings, which is definitely quite an ambitious aim to have. However, while the goal defines where the journey is going, the effects of Vipassana are to be felt instantaneously, although they can be quite subtle to begin with.

I know, all of this sounds quite technical and theoretical. It is one of the reasons why Vipassana is not only to be understood intellectually but to be practiced because only then true understanding can occur. Vipassana is called a form of insight meditation because by practicing it one gains insight into one’s own nature. The level of insight is fairly limited to the interaction between mind and body as that is what the technique focuses on. However, I can say from my own experience that the technique is very powerful and useful–and that Vipassana and similar techniques are a necessary step in our development as a human race. We are the result of millions and billions of years of evolution and nature has evolved us to a point at which we have come to a point that we are able to take evolution one step further by getting the control over our mind-body complex and ultimately rise above it. In order to be able to get rid of greed, anger, aggression, envy, jealousy and so forth which are the result of our perception of being a separate entity (our ego) that needs to struggle against other egos to survive in this world, we must develop qualities of true cooperation and compassion that enable us to move on. Just imagine that once all the cells that now form our bodies existed as separate entities until some of them decided to come together and form something greater, to take evolution to the next phase. We are at that point right now where we can give up our egos for a united global human society.

Mindful rat meditating in Skinner Box If Skinner’s rats had known Vipassana meditation…

This post might seem somewhat unrelated to India. In probably the next post I will explain how this relates to Sri Aurobindo’s ideas and to Auroville, a universal city taking shape in close proximity to Pondicherry where an attempt is being made to live these ideals of human unity.

2 thoughts on “The Mindful Rat

  1. Hi David,

    I’ve been following the blog posts here with great interest. IPI has such a wonderful vision, of building a bridge from present day psychology to a deeper, wider, greater spiritual/integral psychology.

    I thought you might be interested in the recent publication of a book with a new theory about parapsychology. It’s called “First Sight”, by Jim Carpenter, a psychologist who does therapy in private practice and has also been associated with psi research at Duke University for many years.

    You may be familiar with the work of cognitive scientist Francisco Varela. Varela observed that recent neuroscience on the process of perception shows a striking resemblance with the Buddhist notion of “skandhas”. The idea is that any percept, before it reaches ordinary conscious awareness, goes through a series of stages, from simple sensation and feeling through more complex perception, interpretation, and finally self-consciousness.

    Interestingly, this is very similar to the process of perception described by Sri Aurobindo in his commentary on the Kena Upanishad. He describes an initial process of Samjnana and Prajnana (these terms are, as I understand them, more properly associated with supramental processes, but Sri Aurobindo alludes to them as being reflected in our ordinary mental processes). These initial processes are quick, as they have been well-developed in the evolution. The subsequent processes of Ajnana and Vijnana (equivalent to the stages of interpretation and self-consciousness referred to above) are “slower” and more tentative, and preparatory of a greater mental consciousness which ultimately will be a pure channel of supramental knowing.

    Sri Aurobindo makes a striking statement in his commentary, that there are “secret operations’, subconscient and superconscient, which if we could be aware of them, would change our whole sense of the working of the mind.

    Well, Carpenter has taken one step toward bringing some knowledge of these secret operations. His whole First Sight theory is based on years of research showing that prior to the initial sensing that conventional neuroscience detects, there is a “psi” consciousness (I forget the exact term; you can find some of his articles on “first sight” on the net if you search his name plus that phrase). This “psi consciousness” operates all the time, and is, according to Carpenter, a foundation of all of our perception though we are for the most part unaware of it.

    It is an extremely interesting theory and I think could provide an interesting bridge to Sri Aurobindo’s work. In fact, I have sent passages from the Kena Upanishad and from Letters on Yoga (a passage describing the subconscient, subliminal and superconscient sourcers of our surface consciousness) to him. He was extremely interested in them, and agreed that they are very much consistent with his understanding of the research.

    Closely related to this is neuroscientist J. Alan Hobson’s observation that consciousnss is “graded” over 3 time spans – (1) over the course of billions of years; (2) over the course of a life time and (3) in each moment. The moment to moment unfolding of consciousness was described above, and #2 has been shown in much of the developmental psychology literature. Interestingly, in just the past 10 years, there has been an explosion of research showing a very clear increase in the complexity of consciousness going back to one celled organisms, and unfolding pretty much the way Sri Aurobindo describes it in The Life Divine, Letters on Yoga and other writings. There are some excerpts from my book on Sri Aurobindo’s yoga psychology over at (Go to the “Reading Room” and search “Salmon” to find them). One of them has a chart of the recent research on consciousness in creatures from amoeba through reptiles, mammals and primates, which has more detail on the parallels between the 3 “time spans” over which consciousness unfolds.

    Well, those are just some initial reflections inspired by this blog. Wonderful work and I look forward to more. I’d be particularly interested to see someone work out the connection between the work Ulrich Mohrhoff is doing in quantum physics and some of these recent developments in psychology.

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