Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


43rd Annual Convention; Denver, CO; 2017

Event Details

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B. F. Skinner Lecture Series Paper Session #75
CE Offered: PSY

Peering Into Skinner's Black Box: The Evolutionary Conserved Neurobiology of Operant Learning

Saturday, May 27, 2017
3:00 PM–3:50 PM
Convention Center Four Seasons Ballroom 4
Domain: Basic Research
CE Instructor: Federico Sanabria, Ph.D.
Chair: Federico Sanabria (Arizona State University)
BJÖRN BREMBS (Universität Regensburg)
Björn Brembs studied biology at the University of Würzburg in Germany. His graduate studies on associative conditioning in fruit flies were supervised by Martin Heisenberg in Würzburg. During this time, Björn spent every Monday morning, before preparing his experiments in the library studying not only the neurogenetic and wider biological literature, but especially reading up on six decades of experimental psychology. In 2000, Björn went on to switch organisms for his postoctoral fellowship with John H. Byrne at the University of Texas in Houston, Texas. There, he studied how operant behavior and reward converge onto a single neuron in the marine snail Aplysia. He and his colleagues discovered how this neuron is modified to bias the behavior towards the rewarded behavior. In 2004 he started his own lab at the Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany. Back at working with fruit flies in Berlin, he discovered that operant and classical conditioning have different genetic underpinnings. Björn is now tenured professor of neurogenetics at the University of Regensburg, Germany.

B. F. Skinner argued that neurobiology was not necessary to explain operant behavior. However, some of his most publicized conjectures could only be tested using neurobiological methods. For instance, 1959, in what may be one of the most decisive debates in modern psychology (or cognitive neuroscience), Noam Chomsky gutted Skinner's claims that human language were acquired via operant processes. By understanding and comparing the neurobiological mechanisms of operant learning in different animals, we now are beginning to accumulate evidence that Skinner was at least partially correct: there is a dedicated, evolutionarily conserved biochemical mechanism underlying behavioral learning which does not seem to be involved in the other forms of learning tested so far. This mechanism is also involved in acquiring at least the speech component of language, articulation. Coincidentally, such experiments also solved a technical problem first formulated by Skinner in 1935. Behavioral experiments were performed ~80% statistical power and have been internally replicated before publication. These replications often included different genetic modifications targeting the same biological structure, providing converging evidence for any given effect.

Target Audience:

Fellow researchers, but it is my aim that graduate students should be able to follow and understand the talk nevertheless.

Learning Objectives: At the conclusion of the presentation, participants will be able to: (1) discuss the neurobiological mechanisms underlying simple forms of conditioning, related to forms of learning associated with substance abuse and other behavioral disorders.



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