Mr. Minsky

“One morning an irresistible force propelled MIT Professor Marvin Minsky to one corner of his class room and pinned him there as securely as a butterfly impaled in a museum showcase. It was a force of habit – a brand new habit imposed upon him on the spot by a group of playfully experimental students. The boys had him at their mercy, as if he were a robot slave and they the masters at the controls.

They ‘robotmized’ Minsky with a psychological ruse much like the methods for teaching rats to run through a maze, or training a dog to fetch a newspaper. Soon after class began, a few students started manipulating him. Whenever he paced to the right, they whispered softly to each other, rustled papers, dropped pencils, and created other minor distractions. But when he happened to take a few steps to the left, they sat up and obviously paid close attention to the lecture. In short they conditioned Minsky by repeatedly punishing him for moving in one direction and rewarding him for moving in the opposite direction.

Within half an hour he stopped pacing altogether and stood like a cigar store Indian near the left hand edge of the black-board. So subtly had he been habituated that he did not realise an experiment was in progress, and that he was the guinea pig – ironically, since Minsky is a leading authority on the theory of automations.”

(Think, November-December 1969)


4 thoughts on “Mr. Minsky

  1. That’s a nice story. I don’t believe it actually happened because I would almost surely have heard about that. However, it certainly could have happened—or at least have been attempted—especially because I have lectured in classes about that reinforcement method, so my students may have tried to use it.

    In any case, so far as I know, this procedure was first developed by psychologist William Verplank. See the article at, in which he describes his research, but does not mention this particular application.

  2. Dear Mr. Minsky,

    I am delighted to read your comment! And undoubtedly, I will read the article link that you have sent me in due course, thank you.

    The story written was actually lifted from a book that I recently bought in India:

    “the mind of J. Krishnamurti”, edited by luis S. R. Vas, Jaico Publishing House, 2007.

    I am sorry if the story is untrue perhaps you can pursue the publishers.

    On another note, I have your book, ‘The Society of Mind” and do enjoy reading it. I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of your latest work or work that you find promising.

    Thanks and Regards,

    Vidyuth Kini

  3. Thanks for the follow-up. I don’t mind the story, so I won’t bother the publisher

    (I looked up some descriptions of Krishnamurti. He must have been a really interesting character with a complex creative personality!)

    Yes, I have a new book named “The Emotion Machine.” It is a sequel to Society of mind, but with new “top-down” rather than “bottom-up” ideas.

    You can read an almost final draft on my home page at

    This draft is almost the same as the printed version, but it actually might be in some ways better. That’s because I did a lot of ‘final’ editing to improve the writing, but also included some new ideas that I didn’t have time to debug enough.

  4. Ok, so a lot of reading to do!

    thanks for the info, I will try and give you some valuable feedback from my quite diverse background on the subject.

    wishing you the best,


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