Reed Magazine February
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2003

Greg Jensen ’03, psychology

Despite their questionable reputation, who would think that pigeons have it over rats when it comes to the cleanliness quotient? Greg Jensen, working with professor Allen Neuringer on his psychology thesis, is using these feathered subjects to study the effects of number of responses on ability to emit random responses—is it easier to be random on two choices than eight because it is a “simpler” decision? The pigeons are put in a box (operant chamber) that has had its back walls removed and replaced with a computer screen equipped as a touchscreen. They peck at squares that appear on the screen in a circular arrangement around a center point. The computers that are attached to these screens are programmed to reward behavior that meets a randomness contingency designed by Jensen.

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In setting up this experiment, he has been truly inventive by using available technology to do more with less. The computers are several years old, the operant boxes are more than a decade old, and the language being used to code the boxes is an archaic version of the programming language TrueBasic. But this anachronistic equipment works because it supports the key software for the experiment, preventing Jensen from having to write new programs and allowing him to spend more time on housekeeping—for the pigeons, that is.

He admits that animal subjects “are not renowned for their kind, clean treatment of electronics, though the pigeons have been quite a bit cleaner than the rats I used in earlier years.” Between the feathers and the dander, it is necessary to clean out the circuitry on a regular basis, and it is often “a grueling hunt for the problem in which any of a dozen individual things might be wrong.” If time allows, Jensen hopes to run a version of this experiment with humans standing in for the pigeons. . . . and one would hope that they will be lower-maintenance subjects.

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Reed Magazine February
Go to Page 1 go to page two go to page three You are on Page 4go to page 5 go to page 6 Link to Reed Mag  Home
2003