bSci21 Exclusive Interview: Dr. Valero-Aguayo’s Brain Control Interface

In 2014, I had the opportunity to attend the European Association for Behavior Analysis conference in Stockholm, Sweden.  While there, one talk in particular evoked a great deal of conversation regarding the measurement and analysis of private events.  That talk was given by Dr. Luis Valero-Aguayo from Universidad Malaga in Spain.  His work is unique in that he is a behavior analyst who studies how people can control their environment through brain activity alone.

Dr. Luis Valero-Aguayo

Dr. Luis Valero-Aguayo

Below is a recent interview with Dr. Valero-Aguayo, discussing his history in behavior analysis and his current work in BCI or Brain Computer Interfaces.  Below the interview are numerous other links to his work. He is also featured in a previous bSci21 article titled “Mind Control, Neural Engineering, and Behavior Analysis.”

Tell us a little about yourself.  What is your background in behavior analysis?
I completed the Grade of Psychology at the University of Granada (Spain) and later also the Doctoral Thesis in this university. My first contact with behavior analysis was with two professors of that university and the laboratory research with Skinner box working about a model of retarded chicken by hypoxia.  My first professional work was with with retarded children applying ABA programs, especially treating verbal behavior problems. Later in a Clinical Center of Granada I applied programs for children and also clinical treatment with adults, especially in anxiety and emotional problems. At the University of Malaga (Spain) in the Psychological Attendance Center, I continued until now with treatment of adults disorders, especially with anxiety and phobias through multimedia exposure treatment, and a new research and clinical application of third generation therapies (ACT and FAP). At the same time, I developed with other researchers of UMA some works with new technologies in the assessment and treatment of psychological problems, for example: computer assessment, counseling on-line through the Internet, learning on-line, effects of video games, virtual reality treatment, and recently BCI (Brain Computer Interfaces).

Tell us about your current position at the Universidad Malaga.  What research is your team working on?
I started at the University of Malaga in 1986, I have passed through different professor scales, so just now I am full professor at the Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment at School of Psychology. I teach at Grade of Psychology about “Clinical Psychology Assessment” with a behavior analysis perspective, also I have modules with different Masters and Doctoral students. Just now I have two topics in my research: (1) the assessment and evaluation of intervention programs, for example: addictions, eating disorders, results of ACT and FAP psychotherapies; (2) assessment and study of psychological variables in the BCI.

Your research in brain control is particularly interesting. Why should behavior analysts get involved in this research?
I think that for behavior analysts the research about brain, and brain control especially, is a new challenge to show the importance of operant conditioning (including also classical conditioning) with other kind of human responses, not only motor or verbal responses. The behavior is an interaction between a biological organism and the environment; and also the activity of brain is a behavior. With the technologies of BCI, each time more sophisticated, it is possible to measure in real-time the general activity of groups of neurons and also to apply contingencies to that activity. So, as we are shown in our research about shaping in BCI, with that procedure it is possible to change a physiological activity that it was considered “private”. Like all the human responses, the brain responses are adaptives, they change by consequences. The neural plasticity is a reality, and the operant conditioning can shows how the brain adapts itself to environment by consequences, not by cognitive processes.

Is there a boundary between brain and behavior or do you regard them as the same?
The brain is the organically sustenance of behavior, not the behavior itself. Like the muscles, tendons and cells are necessary to movement, but they are no the movement. The behavior is the interaction between an alive organism and the environment. In this case, we are dealing with a more specific behavior, even a more molecular response. Perhaps, it is only a hypothesis, with BCI we are measuring the private event that we name as “thinking”. For example, in the procedure of BCI the experimenter makes the following rule to the participant: “To move the car in the screen to the right, just imagine you are moving your right hand opening and closing, but don’t do any movement”. According with those verbal rules the participant activate some cerebral zones, he is doing a private response “imaging”, but we record the neuronal activity of that “imaging response”. But, also, if we apply contingencies to that neuronal response (feedback visual) we can change it.

Where would you like to see your brain research ten years from now?
It is difficult, because the economical supports for research in Spain are diminishing. Most funds are only for electronic and computer researchers, not for psychologists. But we hope we can continue with these studies in the future. Our principal goal is to apply our system to a wheelchair in order for people with great motor disabilities can control it only with their brain. As psychologists our interest is to contribute to refining the system, introducing the learning principles to manage the BCI.

I think it is safe to say not many behavior analysts are doing research like yours.  Why is this?  How can more behavior analysts get involved in this type of research?
Until now there are only three papers published about principles of conditioning on brain activity with BCI. Cognitive psychologist has taken this research field, and they only publish about “mental processes”, inferring cognitive processes from the neural data. In other part, the behavioral psychologists continue thinking on brain like a “black box” or as a material only for neurologists. Rarely, the behavior analysts consider the brain activity as another kind of behavior.

What would you like readers to take away from this interview?
Perhaps this last idea: the brain activity is also a behavior and it is a challenge to test not only how it reacts to environmental stimuli, but also how it can adapt to that environment through consequences.

How can interested readers get in touch with you?
I am always at the University of Malaga (Spain), they can write me to [email protected].
Also follow my papers at Research Gate, and see our lab web site at:
Personal and curriculum web:
More photos and videos:

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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