Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Both Sides Now

Science fiction is a delicate artform. The author has to create a world that doesn't exist and quite possibly can't exist (think Faster Than Light space travel) while still maintaining an air of verisimilitude. Lesser writers just throw everything into the mix and hope no one notices the holes and logical gaps.

Even poorer quality hacks write some sort of fantasy cum bizarro philosophy, title it The Road To Horsemanship Series, 1.5. Right Brain / Left Brain, and get it published as a work of fact.

The horse, as with all creatures, has two sides to its brain; the left brain or logic side and the right brain or instinctive side. When a horse is thinking it accesses the left side of its brain. When it is reacting or listening to Mother Nature, it accesses the right-brain.

The left brain/right brain split is big news in its many applications to human activities, and is a particular favourite of lifestyle coaches and motivational speakers of all ilks. Never mind that the idea is a gross simplification with no relationship to the reality of brain functioning. As Wikipedia puts it,

One explanation for being so prone to exaggeration and false application, is that the left-right brain dichotomy is an easy-to-understand notion, yet is often grossly oversimplified and misused for promotion in the guise of science. This is often known as right-brain mythology, and is associated with occult notions such as yin/yang, righteous and sinister, and day and night. The research on lateralization of brain functioning is ongoing, and its implications are always tightly delineated, whereas the pseudoscientific applications are exaggerated, and applied to an extremely wide range of situations.

Including totally unrelated and untested situations like, oh, for example, training horses. While asymmetries have been demonstrated in many species, the situation is much more complex than a simple "switching" of brain hemispheres, or even that specific tasks are solely (or even always across individuals) performed in a single hemisphere. For example, people may be left- or right-handed, but the majority still process language in the left hemisphere.

Nonetheless, this horse site informs its readers quite confidently:

When a horse switches from right brain to left he'll do something unique...he'll lick his lips. This is an indicator that he has just learnt something. [...] Signs like licking of lips, blinking eyes and lowering the head are all good indicators that your horse is thinking or down-loading an idea, hence using his left-brain. When your horse is right-brain, his head will probably be high, his ears will be pricked, his eyes will stare, his mouth will be clamped shut and his body will be prone to flight. When the left-brain takes over a gain, you will see the opposite signs; the head will lower, the eyes will start to blink, his body will relax, he will lick his lips. He may even sigh or express air quickly from his nose. These are all clear indicators that he has thought about whatever it was that just happened and logged it away as something learnt. Whenever you are teaching your horse something new, it's important to give him the chance to blink his eyes or lick his lips after you quit. If you try to teach him something new and then move on again without giving him time to digest what you have just done, chances are you'll have to teach him all over again tomorrow.

This is an idea also promoted by Pat Parelli (in an article where he talks about desensitizing, pressure, and reprogramming, but he's really only describing the wellknown phenomenon of habituation):

Watch the way his mind starts to work. Every time he learns something, or his brain shifts from right (instinctive) to left (rational), he will lick his lips. Give him a few moments to do this.

Understanding learning and brain functions in another species is notoriously difficult (no one really knows what a horse thinks, nor is it easy to get a horse into an MRI scanner), let alone the doubts and controversies that still surround studies in humans. This idea of left-brain/right-brain "switching" as a measure of learning in horses seems to be some bizarre bastard child of the pop psychology personality typing, itself a bastard child of legitimate studies into bicameral brain functioning.

EoR checked multiple references for information about brain laterality and learning in horses to confirm these ideas (R H Smythe: The Mind of the Horse (1965), Lucy Rees: The Horse's Mind (1984), Stephen Budiansky: The Nature of Horses (1997) and Andrew F Fraser: The Behaviour of the Horse (1992)). Would anyone be surprised to learn that there was no information about this bizarre idea at all?

Indeed, Mr Parelli's claim (at the site above) that the reason horses need to be worked on both sides to learn something is due to their brain laterality is not supported by science.

"We look for myths that people believe, like horses being colour-blind - which they’re not, by the way," Hanggi says. "And then we test these things." [...] For instance, Hanggi wanted to explode the myth that horses can’t transfer information from one side of the brain to the other because the two sides aren’t connected. The theory didn’t make sense to Hanggi because anatomy shows that the two sides of the horse’s brain are connected. So she set up a board with two openings in it that revealed different shapes. Then she blindfolded one of the horse’s eyes. We [taught] the horse to choose one of the two different shapes until it consistently chose that shape," Hanggi explains. "Then we switched eyes and tested it, and it chose the right one right away."

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs says about lip-smacking horses:

Alpha horses confirm their dominance by moving their subordinates into retreat with a threatening gesture. No one has permission to step into their personal space uninvited. After retreating, the subordinate will open and close his mouth in a chewing motion. It is one of the ways he acknowledges the alpha, and we see it frequently in training. [...] The horse has a far smaller ratio of brain size to body size than the human. Much of the human’s comparatively large brain is dedicated to the thought processing cerebrum. This area controls memory, communication, and association. The horse’s brain, however, is largely cerebellum, the part that is responsible for gross muscle co-ordination, balance, and body functions, and thought to be involved in learning patterns of movement. We can’t count on our horses to interpret and reason through a skill that we are teaching them. Horses learn by repetition and drill, and come to associate cues with movements. In the human, there is a mass of neural fibres that connect and communicate between the two hemispheres of the brain. There are relatively few of these connective fibres in the equine brain, which would suggest there’s also less transfer of information from one side to the other

In The Truth About Horses: A Guide to Understanding and Training Your Horse (Viking, 2003), Andrew McLean writes (p107):

When the horse is developing the beginnings of a clear learned response, it may emit a long snort. This shows that it is breathing easily. The horse may even shake its neck slowly, or lick its lips; these are all signs of relaxation, and indicate that a clear response is emerging from the signal. [The training] should be repeated for three or so sets of five improved or correct responses daily for three or four days.

and (p124):

The horse requires repetition and practice to develop clear habits. Most of all it requires time. Too many responses too quickly can mentally tire a young or inexperienced horse. [...] Correctly trained horses usually return from a break in training as good as or better than when they left in terms of their trained responses, because of the consolidation that occurs during the rest period. Some trainers believe that during the turn-out the horse "thinks" about its training, but this is unlikely given what we know about the horse's mental processes. Rather, the consolidation is the result of the maturation of newly laid-down neural pathways in the horse's brain.

In The Horse's Mind Lucy Rees writes (p73-75):

Other mouth movements of a less dramatic kind are seen in horses that are relaxing after being tense. Tense horses tend to stiffen the jaw and neck especially, and when the tension dies down they will often make small munching movements, much as we wriggle our shoulders after they have been held stiffly.

So: is there any evidence that horses learn by transferring ideas from their right brain hemisphere to the left, while also smacking their lips to indicate that the idea has "downloaded" to their permanent file storage area? No. Is ensuring horses are relaxed during training a good thing? Yes. Is the first idea a fabulation based on a misinterpretation, while the second is an observation of actual behaviour. Yes.

Left Brain Right Brain: Fact or Fiction?
'Right Brain' or 'Left Brain' - Myth Or Reality?


  1. Thanks for all your posts about how too many people anthropomorphise animals, and about how too many people use pseudo-science in their dealings with animals.

    I have very little experience with horses, but I'm learning a lot through your posts.

    I've seen enough people treat their dogs and cats as if they were miniature people. And it's amazing to me that people believe that animals can understand their blatherings. The animals may have learned to associate certain sounds and voice inflections with certain things, but that is not the same as understanding speech.

    I've owned cats my entire adult life, and I can assure you that cats are not mentally linked to some "other-worldly" wisdom when they stare off into space. They have brains the size of a walnut. They're simple creatures. I love them dearly, but I have no illusions that they're particularly intelligent, and I certainly don't believe that they have some extrasensory abilities.

    Just want you to know that you have a regular reader here -- I'm an American living in Germany.

  2. Thanks for the comment. EoR isn't so concerned about the woo-telepathy sites (you either believe it in the face of lack of evidence or your don't) but the pseudoscientific approach concerns him more. Often a valid idea (horses learn better when calm than when tense) is taken and extrapolated without evidence (or, certainly, no citation of evidence), or studies in other species (often predator pack species, whereas horses are herbivore herd animals) are automatically assumed to apply to horses.

    Then the misinformation gets repeated as holy writ throughout the internet and trying to track down the origin becomes impossible (and many times there is no origin, in the sense of evidence).

  3. I'm guilty of some anthropomorphizing, but it's often hard to avoid.

    I do the best I can to avoid overestimating the intelligence of my pets. We are talking about critters who bat at the point generated by lasers, after all.

    I talk to them, but only roughly in the same sense I talk to my computer or videogames when they mess with me. Other than scolding (which carries a tone), I try to keep my responses consistent, since they can probably only pick out a handful of phrases to recognize and form associate with.


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