Karen Pryor is widely recognized as the initiator of clicker training and continues to be one of the leading authorities on the subject.
In this post she puts forth a fascinating theory about why the clicker is so effective.
Pryor is working with German scientist Barbara Schoening, a clicker trainer and a veterinary neurophysiologist in private practice. Schoening drew Pryor’s attention to the relationship between clicker training and research on stimuli and the limbic system [the oldest part of the brain].
Pryor says that “Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala [part of the limbic system] first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus [italics mine]. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concommitant emotions.
“We clicker trainers see similar patterns of very rapid learning, long retention, and emotional surges, albeit positive emotions rather than fear [italics mine]. Barbara and I hypothesize that the clicker is a conditioned ‘joy’ stimulus that is acquired and recognized through those same primitive pathways, which would help explain why it is so very different from, say, a human word, in its effect.”
So, maybe that’s why clicker training is so effective.