A Brief History of Psychology: Hickie the Hun’s Homespun Behaviorism – Part Two

View Part One and Part Two of the Hickie the Hun’s Homespun Behaviorism series.

FerretWithin The Angel of Darkness we meet one of Stevie Taggert’s friends, the endearing orphan and petty criminal Hickie the Hun, who allows Stevie to borrow one of his many animals to assist the team during their investigation. Hickie had originally trained the animal, a ferret named Mike, to locate specific scents in order help him commit his robberies. When Hickie drops Mike off to Dr. Kreizler’s house, the Doctor is impressed by Hickie’s “homegrown methods of animal training” and jokingly suggests that the famous Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, would benefit from talking to Hickie about his training methods. In Part One of the Hickie the Hun’s Homespun Behaviorism series, we examined how Pavlov’s research into animal learning in the 1890s related to Hickie’s training methods, and established that although Pavlov would indeed have been fascinated to learn about Hickie’s methods just as Dr. Kreizler suggested, the learning Hickie was employing was ultimately of a different form to what Pavlov investigated with his conditioning research. As a result, the second half of this two-part blog series will feature another researcher, this time a young American psychologist, who would go on to become famous just one year following the events of The Angel of Darkness when he published the first formal research into the same type of learning Hickie had been employing. However, before we go into more detail, let’s take another look back at Stevie’s description of Hickie’s training methodology:

The Angel of Darkness, 210:

Would Mike be able to detect if the person was in fact in the house, and find the right room? Indeed he would, Hickie said; in fact, it would be a breeze, compared to some of the jobs Mike’d handled in the past. Then I asked about the training, and was surprised to learn how simple it would be: all I’d need would be a piece of clothing from the person I was looking for, the more intimate the better, as it would be that much more steeped in the person’s scent. Mike was already so well trained that when he began to connect a particular object or smell with his feeding, he quickly got the idea that he was supposed to find something that looked or smelled the same; only a couple of days would be needed to get him ready.

As we discussed in Part One, we can see from this extract that Hickie was using meat as a means of rewarding Mike for performing a desired behaviour, a technique that would come to be known as positive reinforcement from the 1930s onwards when another renowned American psychologist, Burrhus F. Skinner, established operant conditioning as the other half of ‘behaviourism’, a field of psychology John B. Watson had popularised in the 1910s on the basis of Pavlov’s classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning. However, three decades prior to Skinner, another American psychologist, Edward Lee Thorndike, was conducting the research that would form the foundation of Skinner’s work. Thanks to Thorndike’s innovative methods, his research would take the world of psychology by storm when it was first published in 1898, and within the year he would have publications in the prestigious generalist journal Science and the equally prestigious specialist journal Psychological Review, and would be invited to present his work at both the New York Academy of Sciences and the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. Little did Hickie the Hun know that he had anticipated what would become one of the most important and revolutionary ideas in animal and human learning — no wonder Dr. Kreizler was impressed! | Continue reading →

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A Brief History of Psychology: Hickie the Hun’s Homespun Behaviorism – Part One

View Part One and Part Two of the Hickie the Hun’s Homespun Behaviorism series.

Within the Alienist books, we are introduced to a wide variety of unusual characters. As Stevie Taggert, Dr. Kreizler’s ward, tells readers in The Angel of Darkness, “It’s always seemed to me that there’s two types of people in this life, them what get a kick out of what might be called your odder types and them what don’t; and I suppose that I, unlike Mr. Moore, have always been in the first bunch. You’d have to’ve been, I think, to have really enjoyed living in Dr. Kreizler’s house…” (AoD 97). Indeed, one of the more endearing of these eccentric characters is introduced in The Angel of Darkness by Stevie when the team require the assistance of a scenting animal to help locate an abducted baby, Ana Linares, in the home of their primary suspect. Known to readers only as ‘Hickie the Hun’, this old friend of Stevie’s is a petty criminal with a trademark lisp and a soft spot for animals. Among the menagerie of animals that Hickie keeps in his basement home on the Lower East Side is a ferret named Mike who has been trained to assist Hickie in his robberies. Entertaining though Hickie is as a character, it is the youth’s “homegrown methods of animal training” that make the strongest impression on Dr. Kreizler when the streetwise orphan drops the ferret off at the Doctor’s house.

The Angel of Darkness, 211-2:

“It’s really rather remarkable,” the Doctor said, after Hickie’d made his good-byes to Mike in my room and then headed back downtown. “Do you know, Stevie, there is a brilliant Russian physiologist and psychologist—Pavlov is his name—whom I met during my trip to St. Petersburg. He is working along similar lines to this ‘Hickie’—the causes of animal behaviour. I believe he would benefit greatly from a conversation with your friend.”

“Not likely,” I answered. “Hickie don’t much like leaving the old neighborhood, even on jobs—and I don’t think he can read or write.”

Chuckling a bit, the Doctor put an arm on my shoulder. “I was,” he said, “speaking rather hypothetically, Stevie…”

Hypothetically, what would Pavlov have thought of Hickie’s homespun brand of ‘behaviorism’ if he’d had a chance to learn of it? With my own background in psychology, I have decided to spend some time in the 17th Street history blogs over the next few months on the real history of the discipline as included in the Alienist books. In this month’s history blog, we will start by overviewing the work of the famous Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, whose work with salivating dogs nearly everybody is at least partially familiar with, in order to examine, first, how Dr. Kreizler may have known him, and second, how his work ties into Hickie’s animal training methods. In order to fully address the second of these questions, however, we will need to expand beyond Pavlov into the broader realm of ‘behaviorism’ as a branch of psychology at the turn of the century. However, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s start back at the beginning with Pavlov. | Continue reading →

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Psychology in the Dark Ages – Part Two

View Part One and Part Two of the Psychology in the Dark Ages series.

Given that Caleb Carr’s latest novel, The Legend of Broken, was released in paperback last month, I’ve decided to spend this week overviewing how philosophers and physicians of the Dark Ages (the time period in which the novel was set, typically considered to span the fourth or fifth century A.D. to the eleventh century A.D.) believed the human mind and brain functioned. To quickly recap what was covered during Part One earlier this week, throughout this period it was generally believed that cognitive processes such as mental imagery and memory (known as particular knowledge) took place in a three-part ventricular system located in the brain. As this theory of the inner senses was the most widely cited theory of human cognition between approximately the fourth and sixteenth centuries A.D., we are returning to the theory today to discuss how it allowed medieval physicians to account for phenomena such as dreaming, and to eventually provide an explanation for certain types of mental illness as well.

However, before diving straight back into the theory of the inner senses, we first need to overview Hippocrates’ humors theory, which was perhaps the most influential theory of medicine prior to the modern age, with aspects still widely believed well into the eighteenth century. Between approximately the twelfth and sixteenth centuries A.D., the theory of the inner senses was typically combined with the humors theory by scholars such as Avicenna who took the strengths and weaknesses of both into consideration in order to produce a unified theory of human cognition that would explain individual differences in cognitive functioning (e.g., memory ability), personality differences, and mental illness. Prior to this point, however, the two theories appear to have remained fairly separate, so in order to understand how mental illness was perceived and treated during the earlier time period under consideration here, we need to overview the theories separately. | Continue reading →

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Psychology in the Dark Ages – Part One

View Part One and Part Two of the Psychology in the Dark Ages series.

With Caleb Carr’s latest novel, The Legend of Broken, released in paperback last month, I thought it might be interesting to take some time away from the Alienist books for the next two blog posts to discuss what was known about psychology during the period in which Broken was set. Coming from a background in psychology, I can attest that almost every history of psychology textbook either ignores or skims over the thousand year period from Rome to the Renaissance with the general argument being that medieval thinking, centered largely in theology, had put an end to scientific enquiry of all kinds, fostered little-to-no interest in matters of philosophy beyond questions directly related to spirituality, and regarded the mentally ill as being possessed by the devil or witchcraft. Although there are certainly elements of truth in these generalisations, to generalise the entire thinking of a people spanning a thousand year time period with such a limited scope does no credit to the scholars who did live during that period. After all, how can medieval theologians such as Saint Barnard and Saint Peter Damien be considered “antiphilosophers” if there were no philosophers during the time period to target?

So, let us take a journey back in time to the year 750 A.D. In doing so, we step into the heart of a period of political and cultural turmoil that would come to be known to history as the Dark Ages, a period generally thought to span the fourth or fifth century A.D. to the eleventh century A.D. On our particular journey, we arrive outside a cave hidden deep in the heart of a forest located at the base of the highest peak of the Harz mountain range in Germany. The sun has not yet risen, the air is still, and inside the cave an old man lies sleeping while his companion, sensing an intruder in their midst, has moved to maintain a silent vigil at the door of their simple dwelling. Looking into the cave past the companion, the glowing embers of a smoldering fire allow us to discern the indistinct shapes of the old man’s most beloved treasures, the items we have come to the cave to find: the collected works of the great minds of antiquity. The large quantity of parchment–some works rolled onto scrolls while others are bound in a rudimentary fashion–rests on a ledge that the old man painstakingly chiseled into one of the cave walls during the years immediately following his exile from the nearby mountaintop kingdom that he once called home; a city known as Broken.

The old man is a scientist, a physician, and above all, a philosopher. He is a rarity in these times, but not altogether unheard of. The old man’s interests span widely, ranging from metallurgy to anatomy to military strategy, but on our journey we are most interested in his knowledge of the mind. Learned though the old man is, the study of the mind as we know it today is foreign to him–indeed, even the term psychology would mean nothing to him, with its predecessor psychologia first coined in 1520–but a fascination with “what animates the bodies and minds of the men and creatures who inhabit [the] world” is certainly not foreign to him. Indeed, looking back at the ledge we see that his collection of works includes volumes by Plato, Plotinus, Aristotle, and Dioscorides, along with Hippocrates, Galen, Praxagoras, Herophilus, and Erasistratus. What did these works by the legendary philosophers and physicians from times gone past allow scholars like the old man to induce about the mind and brain during these ‘Dark Ages’? | Continue reading →

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