Learning isn't all memory cover image

Learning isn't all memory

Dorian Minors • July 22, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

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.

Alright, it probably wasn't a meat hose. But I'm not sure what the traditional method of meat spraying would entail. Alright, it probably wasn't a meat hose. But I'm not sure what the traditional method of meat spraying would entail.

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.

Both Pavlov and Kandel won Nobel prizes for their work. The difference between Nobel prize winners and the rest of us is apparently the ability to recognise the fascinating in the mundane. Both Pavlov and Kandel won Nobel prizes for their work. The difference between Nobel prize winners and the rest of us is apparently the ability to recognise the fascinating in the mundane.

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:

Classical conditioning actually can get even more complicated but we’ll cut it there and summarise.

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.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.