Learning isn’t all about memory. You might’ve heard of the (now defunct) ‘different types of learners’; visual, physical, aural. Although that is an example of psychology becoming ‘conventional wisdom’ and almost immediately becoming obsolete in the face of new research, it is useful to point out that our brain processes and learns information in many different ways. This time we’re going to talk about the most primal kind of learning we know about; classical conditioning.
A bonus of this article is that you will learn the names of two ‘legends’ of psychology. Ivan Pavlov and Eric Kandel. You will also learn that ‘legends’ in psychology differ wildly from what might be the traditional conception of a legend.
Ivan Pavlov is probably someone you’ve heard of before. He was very excitingly working on the digestive enzymes in saliva and stumbled across what would become an entire branch of psychology. When trying to get saliva samples (by spraying powdered meat at restrained dogs), he found out that after a while, when he would start to restrain the dogs, they would start salivating before he turned on the powdered meat hose. He stumbled upon what’s now known as classical conditioning (you can produce the same effect in yourself by thinking of a nice, juicy lemon, freshly fruit ninja’d in half). Pavlov recognised that the dogs were anticipating the meat powder because of the association between the meat powder and the restraints. He did some further experimenting with bells, and found that he could (by pairing the meat powder and the bell) get the dogs to drool again regardless of whether the meat powder showed up or not, just like with the restraints.
Eric Kandel separately (and much later than Pavlov) was doing some work on aplysias. No, that’s not a typo, that’s a weird looking sea slug. He found that he could identify this pairing of seemingly unrelated things in the nerve cells of his aplysias. See, these slugs have a withdrawal reflex, and by pairing a poke in the gills with shrimp juice he could get the slug to ‘learn’ to withdraw.
This suggests that we do this kind of learning subconsciously. Think of all the times that thinking one thing will automatically bring up something else. We don’t need to actively make connections between related things in our minds. You don’t need think back to fire school to learn that you should jerk your hand away from heat. Think of all the extra work our brains would have to do if we did (and our brains are super lazy, they just love making shortcuts).
There are caveats however:
- We learn some things easier than others.
- The more noticeable the stimulus (what psychologists call a thing that they’re playing with), the easier we learn.
- The closer together the pairing, the quicker we learn.
- The more noticeable the stimulus, the more likely it is to dominate other, weaker stimulus (so if you pair a loud noise and a small LED light to something, your brain will connect the noise, but not the light). But that only happens if you put the stronger stimulus first, otherwise you’ll pair the weaker stimulus too.
- If the stimulus follows the thing you are trying to pair it with, you won’t pair them.
- Some stimulus seem to actually be something we’re primed for from birth (we learn much faster when we pair things like snakes or spiders – a phenomenon thought to be responsible for some of our phobias).
- If the pairing doesn’t happen for a while, you’ll lose the automatic response (called extinguishing)
- Sometimes, even when a response has extinguished, it’ll happen randomly sometimes (called spontaneous recovery)
- Once you’ve conditioned two things together (like a noise and food, so the noise now makes you salivate), you can use the noise to condition you to salivate to another, previously unconnected stimulus. This is called sensory preconditioning.
Classical conditioning actually can get even more complicated but we’ll cut it there and summarise.
- Our brains don’t always use memory to learn
- Our brains will associate unrelated stimuli to stimuli that cause us to respond.
- We’re more likely to pair some things than others.
- This pairing can extend even further than you anticipate if you’re not careful.
Speaking of learning, why don’t you learn why incompetent people don’t realise how incompetent they are (hint; they don’t learn). Or learn how associating an action with an obsession might just be one of the factors involved in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.