An Educational Account of Stanley Coren 

Nick Meikle
Camosun College

 


These days, perhaps on a daily basis, UBC’s Dr. Stanley Coren might typically be asked “what can I do to get my dog to listen to me?” The reason he is asked for advice so often is because this professor of psychology is most notably recognized for his thorough research and knowledge of dog behaviour, intelligence, and personality. Coren is highly skilled in the art of behaviour modification of dogs and has published over 10 books helping us further understand our canine companions. Although the media has typically portrayed Coren as the distinguished “dog expert”, he has  had a long and notable career at various highly esteemed universities. Coren has investigated many aspects of human psychology including research in visual perception, laterality through handedness, cognitive processing, sleep patterns, behavioural problems and more recently, biopsychology. One would wonder what started Coren on such a diverse pathway.  The value of Coren’s later work can be better appreciated when the development of his interests are followed through his early life, his published work, and his academic career.

 Coren was born in the historical and cultured city of Philadelphia in 1942. He grew up in a somewhat strict household due to  his father being an ex-military soldier.  A good education was crucial in the Coren household , and Stanley and his brothers knew from a young age what was expected in them in regards to their academic achievement. Fortunately for Stanley, he was clearly a gifted child, in fact, his mother taught him how to proficiently read by the time he reached kindergarten (UAlberta, 2005). School was not only an enjoyable experience for Stanley, but it came quite easy for him as well. He would frequently finish his work early and get bored in class thus causing disruptions a common characteristic amongmany highly intelligent youngsters . However, contrary to the average “troublemaker”, Stanley took advantage of his punishment time to do what he loved to do the most, reading (UAlberta, 2005). Coren describes his attachment with dogs and curiosity about canine behaviour during his childhood as something that actually foreshadowed his career many years later.

Coren’s love for learning progressed to another level once he attended the historical University of Pennsylvania (U Penn), a private, Ivy League institution with a vast portion of funding in advanced research facilities, where he enrolled in the honours physics program. Shortly after Coren began his studies in physics, he  realized that the thought of never actually “seeing” his experiments bothered him (UAlberta, 2005). In addition, physics did not include the real interaction that he was in search of. In the meantime, Coren was also taking some first year psychology courses with some talented professors and quickly became enthralled with every different subdivision of the disclpline. He realized psychology was his true calling. Early on in his studies within the field, he got involved with research regarding the human sensory system and visual processes. Some of Coren’s early research on depth perception and the effect of enriched environments as an undergraduate  led to the publication of an article when he was just 22 years of age (Coren Home Page, 2004). This article was later published in Science when the results challengedthe initial findings of the visual-cliff test (Eichengreen, Coren & Nachmias, 1966). Coren apparently performed so well during his undergraduate studies at U Penn, that he was accepted directly into his PhD program at Stanford University in California in 1966, bypassing the Master’s degree altogether (UAlberta, 2005).

During this era, the Vietnam War was enraging many Americans and consequently violence erupted at many Universities across the U.S., including Stanford. Nevertheless, Coren continued his research on human perception, despite the political climate. Whether Coren was involved in any of the unrest unknown. In regards to his research with humans at the time, he explained in an interview that “I needed a beast that could talk. I needed something that could tell me what it saw. That is the essence of perception” (UAlberta, 2005). In the early part of his career, Coren was more interested in the human sensory system  than that of  dogs, the latter being the work that he is most recognized for these days. One of his main studies at Stanford considered the Gibson Normalization Effect demonstrated in the 1930’s. Coren and Festinger (1967) conducted an experiment that provided potential evidence for an alternative to the Normalization effect. After earning his doctorate in 1970, Coren was persuaded by his Stanford administrator that he should apply for an opening teaching position for the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research, in New York City (Coren Home Page, 2004; UAlberta, 2005). Coren took this opportunity and moved once again across the country to a new cultural environment.  

The New School for Social Research University is  known to be highly influenced by European continental philosophy, with a traditional human science background. Coren took this exciting and different opportunity to begin his teaching career unaware of he unbelievable group of colleagues that he would connect with within his 5 years of teaching there. The majority of Coren’s time at the New School for Social Research was spent on teaching, however, he continued to keep up to date with advancements in the area of perception. His efforts in  his dissertation in revealing selective attention of the eyes during brightness tests (Coren, 1969; Festinger & Coren, 1970) intrigued him, leading him to begin testing the visual reaction to various illusions.  Throughout his time at the New School he eventually performed over 20 experiments involving the perception of illusions and various eye tests. Later in his career, he earned the American Academy of Optometry Award for all his contributions to his research of the visual system.

After his first exposure to teaching at the New School, Coren finally made his way to the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1974, where he  conducted many experiments and observations leading towards the formulation of his ideas of laterality within the human body. UBC was a rapidly emerging as a university that boasted some of the most high-tech research facilities of its day. In addition,UBC has always been noted as an open and relaxed environment, which contributed to the scope of his research. Interestingly, much of his early research dealing with perception would be considered natural science, since measurement was often the key focus. Even though Cohen’s research was based on measurement of reaction time, motor skills, eye movement, and cognitive processing, his main underlying goal during this was to identify how much of our personality is affected by our perceptions and observations (UAlberta, 2005). While at UBC, some of his studies on the visual system revealed some key findings. In 1974, Coren and his long time colleague Clare Porac noticed that when a visual stimulus disappeared, a change occurred in the subjects’ eye movement, thus demonstrating a moment when information was potentially being processed simultaneously in areas of the brain. This research has been followed up by neuroscientists and has proven to be true, to some extent.

In the beginning of his time at UBC, Coren was also given plenty of time to research other forms of perception including the auditory and somatosensory systems. Flaherty and Coren (1974) used the dichotic listening paradigm test to demonstrate how semantics are involved with the auditory system as well as selective attention. Coren was able to share his studies on perception together in 1979 when he co-wrote the first edition of “Sensation and Perception” with colleagues Clare Porac and Lawrence Ward. This book included many further explanations of the research articles conducted by the three professors as well as hundreds of other papers regarding the sensory system and perceptual processes. In fact, “Sensation and Perception” has been used for various introductory perception psychology classes as textbooks all across North America, and was released in its 6th edition last year. During Coren’s research on visual stimuli, he noticed a trend throughout his studies: the eyes exhibit a form of dominance and thus laterality, much like the whole body (Porac & Coren, 1975a; Porac & Coren, 1975b; Coren & Porac, 1976). This foreshadows his research on the laterality of the human body leading up to his co-written book entitled “Lateral Preferences and Human Behaviour” (Porac & Coren, 1981).

Though Coren continued to write articles on perception, he began conducting more and more observations on handedness in our society. He started by analyzing thousands of photographs and artistic works throughout history, coming to the conclusion, in conjunction with other research on handedness, that 90 percent of the population is right-handed (Coren, 1992, p35-38). Throughout his research, Coren observed that left-handedness is much less common among the elderly as demonstrated in his study on human laterality with his colleagues Clare Porac and James Steiger (1980). The three studied almost 1,000 people ranging in age from eight to 100 and discovered that 13 percent of the 20 year olds sampled were left-handed with this percentage decreasing by more than half when they reached the eldest subjects. In fact, less than one percent of the 80 year olds were left-handed. This study suggested the possibility that left-handed people have somewhat reduced life spans when compared with right-handed people (Coren & Halpern, 1991). Ok  This subject was not taken lightly within academic circles, and was labelled both contentious and simply circumstantial.

Despite these setbacks, Coren’s studies have revealed some startling information about handedness. For example, left-handers are more likely to suffer from insomnia, allergies, asthma, and immune-system problems (Halpern & Coren, 1993, 1994). According to Coren, on average, left-handers have a slight chance of dying younger than right-handers. Many psychologists feel his findings were all coincidental evidence, but when Coren conducted an unpublished study of over 2,000 people, he discovered that “lefties were 85 percent more likely to be injured in auto accidents than righties and 54 percent more likely to suffer injuries in accidents involving tool or implement usage” (Bacon, 1989, p. 116). These statistics support at least a consideration of the possibility that our world was simply not designed for the left-handed and that they might consequently  die before right-handerst. This notion, leads to the assumption that manufacturers oftendo not create products geared towards left-handers and therefore left-handed people may suffer more accidents.

Throughout his studies on handedness, Coren developed a hypothesis that trauma at birth may in fact contribute to left-handedness (Coren, Searleman & Porac, 1982; Searleman, Porac & Coren, 1982; Coren & Searleman, 1990). This is demonstrated in his research of birth stress where he discovered that breathing difficulties, premature birth and low birth weight are twice as common in left-handers as right-handers (Coren & Porac, 1980; Porac, Coren & Searleman, 1986; Searleman, Porac & Coren, 1989). Ultimately, years of research on laterality, handedness, and its correlation to birth stress led to Coren’s publication of “The left-hander Syndrome” in 1992. This was a concise conclusion to the numerous studies and observations Coren did on handedness. In this book, his research still suggests that left-handers do in fact live shorter lives than right-handers. Although this notion is more respected within the psychological community in more recent timess, some of Corens’ research is still being labeled as the left-handed “curse”..

During the nineties, Coren delved back into research on the connection between perceptual processes and personality, as well as sleep patterns and the consequence of lack of sleep. In regards to sleep patterns, his studies revealed that humans are much more susceptible to disease and have a decreased immune system when sleep deprived (Coren, 1996). Coren also found that getting at least 9 hours of sleep will easily make us smarter, more productive, and  generally happier people. He also reported that 25,000 deaths in America per year, two percent of all accidental deaths, are a result of sleep deprivation.

Coren also continued to do his research on the human sensory system duringthis time. In a study of 1,148 subjects, Coren and Harland (1995) presented the theory that reduced visual acuity was associated with lower extraversion, whereas reduced color discrimination and hearing sensitivity were associated with increased neuroticism. His second experiment using the “NEO Five-Factor Inventory” personality test on the same subjects revealed lowered openness to new experiences for hearing reduced individuals and increased extraversion for individuals with poorer color discrimination (Coren & Harland, 1995). Therefore, as supported by this research, various sensory perceptions did seem to correlate with overall personality.

Even though studies on dogs were not frequent in his early career, Coren had been conducting years of observation on canine behaviour as a pastime. He began to research dogs in depth and wrote the highly acclaimed book “The Intelligence of Dogs” in 1994. Coren uncovered  some groundbreaking discoveries that had not been looked at in detail ever before. He postulated an accurate detail of communication between dogs through vocalizations and gestures. Many psychologists believe that his vivid description of the language of dogs is the best translation thus far. In his workCoren explained the combination of sequence, pitch, and tone as the language that is used among canines (Coren, 1994, 2006). He also investigated the types of intelligence that dogs are born with and acquire in life such as instinctive, adaptive, obedience/working, and a mixture of the types. He produced a comprehensive list of all dog breeds that describe not only the intelligence, but the average personality and behaviour of each breed. This directory is used frequently today and has been cited in many popular newspaper articles and magazines across North America. Coren’s ability to connect with dogs and people, became quite well known as he appeared on various American TV programs while promoting his book on dog intelligence. Coren’s work was so widely publicized that lawyers involved with the O.J. Simpson trial tried to persuade him to come to L.A. to “interview” the late Nicole Brown Simpson’s dog Kato to somehow identify the murderer! Coren found this notion quite amusing as he explained in an interview (Coren, 1997): “Forgetting that some lawyers lack a sense of humor, I quipped, ‘You mean something like getting him to bark once for yes and twice for no?’”

In his findings, Coren went into detail explaining how early experiences are crucial in a puppy’s life and can easily change their “personality” or temperament (Coren, 2005, 2006). He clarified many of the misconceptions about dogs that are portrayed in the media and popular culture. Coren explained how dogs are less dependent on sight than humans typically think. Most people tend to believe that dogs must have great sight because of the successful use of guide dogs and hunting dogs, and the fact that  canines can easily track down a frisbee. Through his research, he exposed two main differences between dogs and humans is  within their respective visual systems; there are both a smaller visual cortex and a very sparse arrangement of photoreceptors in the retinas of dogs (Coren, 2005). In addition, the belief that dogs are colour blind is completely false. Dogs do in fact see colour, but their interpretation of colour is less rich than it is in humans. Coren further explained how dogs rely on their other senses in order to function. For instance, a dog’s olfactory system is four  times larger than a humans system and has 40 times the smelling capacity (Coren, 2005). Sense of smell is also used as a communication mechanism, as illustrated by the fact that dogs smell one another to interpret each other’s emotional state (Coren, 1994, 2005, 2006). A dog’s sense of smell is extraordinary, for example police dogs can easily sniff out narcotics even when they disguised in all sorts of foul matter.

Touch is the first sense that dogs acquire as newborns,  and through evolution they have developed superb outside sensory abilities especially in their feelers or “whiskers” as they are commonly known (Coren, 2006). Many people also wonder why dogs seem to eat almost anything you put in front of them besides citrus fruits and sour foods. This is because dogs have approximately 1,700 taste buds, limiting their range of taste. Comparatively humans have over 9,000 tastebuds, and (Coren, 2006) cats have around 400, consisting primarily of meat areas. Many people also believe that dogs demonstrate unbelievable hearing.  Coren’s reseach foun d that this is, and isn’t the case,depending on how you look at it. Using the BAER hearing test, Coren (2006) reveals that dogs simply hear on a different frequency than humans. Therefore, they often notice high pitch sounds in a distance but ignore obvious sounds in the next room. Besides these main differences in the dogs’ senses, many people wonder  about the supposed sixth sense that is often spoken of in reference to dogs . Coren believes that we can attribute the early earthquake detection in dogs, as well as other strange accounts to their special sensory system (Coren, 2005, 2006). Clearly, dogs do sense unusual events long before humans do, but Coren does not feel that this is some mysterious extra sense doing the work.  (what is doing the work then? What does Coren think?)

As well as his scientific researchs regarding dogs, Coren has extensive experience with the training aspect of canines. For instance, his entertaining, comprehensive, and humourous approach to dog training led him to host the TV series “Good Dog!” on Slice network in which the cameras follow Coren to solve various people’s dog issues, much like the “Supernanny” for children. Step by step, Coren conducts an interview with the family pinpointing the problem behaviour and observes the dog in its surrounding to identify the dog’s reinforcement. He not only fixes the dog’s behaviour, but he thoroughly explains to the family why the dog is behaving that way, and how to prevent this from re-occurring.  Coren stresses the notion of reinforcement as the key to the majority of cases he performs. “Good Dog!” is currently in its fourth season.  

By no means, should Dr. Stanley Coren only be referred to as the “dog expert”. His research in sensory perception has not only earned him awards, but has clarified many outstanding issues regarding the perceptual processes of the human brain. Coren has clearly demonstrated how laterality affects us all more than we think. He has put forth many different possible notions for the reason behind left-handedness; many of which are being used in various experiments today dealing with laterality and handedness. His   theories regarding birth stress as a factor of laterality is still something that is being investigated today. Coren’s thorough research on dogs has been highly praised, especially as he continues to excite the public with new findings in every book he publishes. These days, Coren continues to teach introductory psychology courses at UBC, and is currently the Director of the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory there. Students describe him as extremely knowledgeable, as well as funny, much like he appears on his TV show.. To this day Coren is involved with the Vancouver Dog Obedience Training Club on a consistent basis, as dog behaviour modification still remains a passion in his life. He is also planning onreleasing a series of children’s factual books on dogs in the near future. It’s no wonder that Dr. Coren is considered on of Canada’s greatest psychologists. (one of our “Top Dogs”)


 

Bacon, Doris K.Psychologist Stanley Coren's bad news comes out of left field - lefties lead riskier, shorter lives.”People Weekly 6 Nov. 1989: 115-118. <

Coren, S. & Festinger, L. (1967). An Alternative View of the ‘Gibson Normalization Effect. Perception & Psychophysics, 2, 621-626.

Coren, S. (1969). Brightness contrast as a function of figure-ground relations. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 80, 517-524.

Coren, S. & Porac, C. (1976). Size accentuation in the dominant eye. Nature, 260, 527-528.

Coren, S. & Porac, C. (1980). Birth factors and laterality: Effects of birth order, parental age, and birth stress on four indices of lateral preference. Behavior Genetics, 10, 123-138.

Coren, S., Searleman, A. & Porac, C. (1982).The effects of specific birth stressors on four indexes of lateral preference. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 36, 478-487.

Coren, S. & Searleman, A. Left-handedness: Behavioral implications and anomalies. Oxford, England: North-Holland, 1990.

S. & Halpern, D.F. (1991). Left-handedness: A marker for decreased survival fitness.Psychological Bulletin, 109, 90-106

Coren, S. The left-hander syndrome: The causes and consequences of left-handedness. ; New York: Free Press, 1992.

Coren, S. (1994). Handedness and allergic response. International Journal of Neuroscience, 76, 231-236.

Coren, S. The Intelligence of Dogs: A guide to the Thoughts, Emotions, and Inner Lives of Our Canine Companions. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Coren, S. & Harland, R.E. (1995). Personality correlates of variations in visual and auditory abilities. Personality and Individual Differences, 18, 15-25.

Coren, S. Sleep Thieves. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Coren, S. What Do Dogs Know? New York: Free Press, 1997.

Coren, S. Home Page. “Stanley Coren Biography” 3 September 2004. Retrieved from  http://www.stanleycoren.com/bio.htm

Coren, S. How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind. New York: Free Press, 2005

Coren, S. Why Does My Dog Act That Way?: A Complete Guide to Your Dog’s Personality. New York: Free Press, 2006

Eichengreen, J.M., Coren, S. & Nachmias, J. (1966). Visual-cliff preference by infant rats: Effects of rearing and test conditions. Science, 151, 830-831.

Festinger, L., Coren, S. & Rivers, G. (1970). The effect of attention on brightness contrast and assimilationAmerican Journal of Psychology, 83, 189-207.

Flaherty, E.W. & Coren, S. (1974). Reaction time as a measure of the effect of selective attention. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 39, 755-761.

Halpern, D.F. & Coren, S. (1993). Left-handedness and life span: A reply to Harris. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 235-241.

Porac, C. & Coren, S. (1975). Is eye dominance a part of generalized laterality?  Perceptual and Motor Skills, 40, 763-769.

Porac, C. & Coren, S. (1975). Suppressive processes in binocular vision: Ocular dominance and amblyopia. American Journal of Optometry & Physiological Optics, 52, 651-657.

Porac, C., Coren, . & Steiger, J.H. (1980). Human laterality: A multidimensional approach. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 34, 91-96.

Porac, C. & Coren, S. Lateral Preferences and Human Behaviour. New York: Springer-Verlag New York. 1981.

Porac, C., Coren,S. & Searleman, A. (1986). Environmental factors in hand preference formation: Evidence from attempts to switch the preferred hand. Behavior Genetics, 6, 251-261.

Searleman, A., Porac, C. & Coren, S. (1982). The relationship between birth stress and writing hand posture. Brain and Cognition, 1, 158-164.

Searleman, A., Porac, C. & Coren, S. (1989). Relationship between birth order, birth stress, and lateral preferences: A critical review. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 397-408.

University of Alberta – Psychology Department. “Stanley Coren Biography.” Great Canadian Psychologists. University of Alberta. Retrieved from http://www.psych.ualberta.ca/GCPWS/modules/CorenBio.html