From the time of the Middle Ages until well into the Renaissance, alchemists sought methods for transforming lead and other base substances into gold. Isaac Newton himself pursued such studies and even chronicled his findings with meticulous detail in a private journal.

The ultimate conclusion of centuries of experimentation weighed heavily on more than one heart: lead remains dull stuff.

And yet, not all that glitters is gold.

In fact, we are quite good at transforming life’s duller offerings into the shining objects of our hearts’ desires: forty hours a week becomes a new car, a sweat-drenched workout turns into a wardrobe several sizes smaller, and careful application of technique produces a beautiful painting – all, of course, over time.

We are not alone in preferring short cuts.  Every culture has stories of wish fulfillment through wand-waving and wizardry. But honestly, these things take time. Even Harry Potter had to get a few years at Hogwarts under his belt before he could produce an effective patronus charm.

As it turns out, the more gradual (and real) mental magic of associative learning can be used in remarkable ways.

Seem impossible to get your kids to eat their oatmeal? Try a bit of psychic magic. It worked pretty well for several Navy dolphins challenged to a government-sponsored taste test a few years back.

Navy dolphins, like other armed services personnel, are world travelers.

They regularly catch ships and planes to destinations around the globe to participate in field exercises with their human counterparts. Of the two species, dolphins in the field generally fare better at chow time. An assortment of restaurant-quality fish for Flipper versus a vacuum-packed MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) for the dining pleasure of G.I. Jane or Joe.

Of course, fresh fish in bulk create headaches in the field. Frozen fish have to be thawed; thawed fish have to be kept cool. And then there’s the really big question: who has to do the dishes?

So the Navy experimented a few years back with a dolphin equivalent to the MRE that informally became known as dolphin chow. It was mostly fishmeal held together by someone’s secret family recipe for easy-to-stack rectangles of a gelatinously slimy consistency. Oh yeah. Plus, they came in an appetizing shade of particleboard brown. Ready to order yet?

Oh, sure, some dolphins sucked them down with a gusto that would do any hungry enlisted man proud. But then again, there were the vehemently opposed projectile spitters as well as the more discrete underwater regurgitators.

The solution? A simple matter of psychic magic.

As animal trainers and behaviorists know, almost anything can become reinforcing over time.

For example, we don’t work for paychecks because we really, truly care about dyed bits of paper. In fact, the first entrepreneurial Neanderthal to offer the sweat off his considerable brow in exchange for such compensation was actually voted the weakest link and shunned from the cave. True story. I swear.

It wasn’t until later (much later) that we humans collectively refined the notion of postponement of gratification to the point of willingly accepting a paycheck as substitute for a side of beef or a cozy apartment.

The things we innately want, like food and shelter, are known as primary reinforcers. They take care of our human needs. Paychecks, on the other hand, become conditioned reinforcers over time – so much so that when you ask most people what it is they are working for, the instantaneous response is, “Why, a paycheck, of course!”

That’s the psychic magic of associative learning.

To condition a reinforcer, simply follow a desired action with a reward, preferably as quickly as possible.

For the Navy’s chow-spitting dolphins, that meant immediately following a swallow of experimental chow with a tasty fresh fish or two. At first, to make the bargain worth the dolphins’ efforts, fish rewards far outnumbered swallows of chow.

Over days and weeks, however, the dolphins became eager for the chow because they had come to associate it with fish. That’s when the time was right for gradually phasing fish rewards out of the picture. In the end, most dolphins dined on fish or chow with equal willingness.

So, if junior is pulling faces over his bowl of porridge, dress up the oatmeal with a liberal sprinkling of marshmallows, the more the merrier – at least for a time. It won’t have to last forever, and it doesn’t have to be marshmallows specifically. It can be anything your child finds rewarding and fun. Transformative alchemy really does exist. The key to unleashing it is to be creative and open-minded. In time, the whole family will be wolfing down oatmeal faster than you can say “Expecto Petronum!” 

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012

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