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Harvard Psychologist Dr. B.F. Skinner, Ph.D. Studies of Pigeon Intelligence
Mankind has been teaching birds to talk for thousands of years. Man has also been using birds to deliver messages for just as long. But new research on the intelligence of birds suggests that they might be more intelligent than we suspect.
Researchers studying pigeons have learned that they can read all of the letters of the alphabet and they read them in a way similar to people. Scientists became convinced that pigeons see the world in much the same way as we do when they discovered that pigeons tend to confuse the very same letters that people do. What's more, it took only four months for pigeons to learn to distinguish all the letters of the alphabet. For years pigeons have been used to spot and reject defective items on assembly lines, where they have better records than human beings.
Scientists recently announced that they have discovered that the human brain is laced with tiny magnetic particles made of magnetite. Magnetite is the same mineral that occurs naturally in lodestones. While the particles are distributed throughout the brain, they seem to be more concentrated in the membrane that encloses the brain. Scientists said that they had not seen the particles before because they are so tiny. The smallest are about a millionth of an inch in diameter while the largest are a hundred-thousandth of an inch in diameter. Added together, all the particles in the average brain amount to only one millionth of an ounce.
The particles are identical to those found in many bacteria, pigeons, salmon and whales. The particles help those creatures navigate using the earth's magnetic field. Scientists are not prepared to say that they serve the same purpose in humans. Instead, they continue to study the particles to learn what purpose they serve.
Based on evolutionary theory, scientists naturally conclude that the recognition of abstract forms such as letters of the alphabet requires the larger brain. But this is an assumption and we might be reminded of the work of Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner who made extensive use of learned behavior using pigeons. Brain size has little to do with intelligence. Real science and experience show this and disprove evolutionary views. The only alternative is that it is the Creator who gives His creatures their intelligence.
Dr. B.F. Skinner, Ph.D.
American Psychology Association:
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of influential behaviorist B.F. Skinner, the first psychologist to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from APA and a key shaper of the evolution and practice of psychology in the modern world.
"[His work on behaviorism] opened a completely new approach to psychology that nobody had ever heard of," says Charles Brewer, PhD, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology at Furman University. "The work he did with pigeons and rats in the laboratory has been applied more widely in real-world applications than any other psychologist's," he adds.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in literature and trying to make a living as a writer in New York City, Skinner went to Harvard University's psychology department for his graduate studies. He worked closely with the university's new department of physiology because he was more interested in animal behavior than in internal mental processes.
Skinner built on the behaviorist theories of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson as he studied the connection between stimuli and observable behavior in rats, which led to his eponymous Skinner box. With its levers and food pellets, the box allowed precise measurement and control of experimental conditions.
Skinner received his PhD from Harvard University in 1931 and spent several years at the University of Minnesota and the University of Indiana, but he returned to Harvard in 1948, remaining there for the rest of his career. During World War II, Skinner convinced the military to fund his research--the famous Project Pigeon--to train pigeons to guide bombs and torpedoes. Skinner favored pigeons over rats because they live longer and he found them easier to train and handle. He believed the methods could be used to train humans--by presenting new subject matter in a series of graduated steps with feedback at each step. Modern computer-based instructional methods are based on his findings.
According to Michael Wertheimer, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, "The main spotlight on Skinner's work was during the period from about 1950 to about 1980, but ever since the late 1970s it has shifted to cognitive phenomena and theories." That behavioral analysis like Skinner's has been marginalized in recent years is detrimental to the field, in the view of Donald Dewsbury, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida.
Still, the fact remains that B.F. Skinner is a household name, and his theories will always be an important part of psychology, says Brewer. "If you want to know whom students will be reading about in another 100 years, it will be Skinner," he says.
© 2004 American Psychological Association