Learning and Adaptation: The Role of Experience
Learning- is the process by which experience produces relatively enduring change in an organism’s
behaviour or capabilities.
Measure learning by actual changes in performance
Adapting to the environment
Learning makes to possible for us to adapt to changes.
Learning as a process of personal adaptation to the ever changing circumstances of our lives.
How do we learn? The search for mechanisms
Learning was guided by two different perspectives on behavior: behaviourism and ethnology
for a long time.
Behaviorists focused on how organisms learn, examining the processes by which experience
Assumed that there are laws of learning that apply to all organisms
Treated organism as a tabula rasa, or blank tablet, upon which learning experiences were
Most of research done in lab settings with non-human species.
Explained learning solely in terms of directly observable events.
Behaviourists explained learning solely in terms of directly observable events and avoided
speculating about an organisms unobservable ―mental state‖
Why do we learn? The search for functions
Ethology arose within the discipline of biology, in Europe
Ethology focused on animal behavior within the natural environment.
View organism as anything but a blank tablet, arguing that because of evolution every species
comes into the world biologically prepared to act in certain ways.
Focused on functions of behavior, in its adaptive significance (how does a behavior influence
an organism’s chances for survival and reproduction in its natural environment?)
A new born herring gull chick will peck most frequently at objects that are long and have red
markings, even if they are inanimate models or do not look like an adult gull’s bill. This fixed
action pattern is present from birth and does not require learning. The stimuli that trigger a
fixed action pattern are called ―releaser stimuli‖
Fixed action pattern- an unlearned response automatically triggered by a particular stimulus.
As ethological research grew, it was discovered that
o 1) Some fixed action patterns could be modified by experience
o 2) In many cases what appeared to be ―instinctive‖ behavior actually involved learning.
Ethnologists noted ―what they learned in order to survive‖
Experiment was done called indigo bunting to see if birds instinctively knew where ―north‖ is.
If they did, the north star would seem to be a fixed action pattern.
They were raised in a planetarium, one with a true sky and one with a false sky.
The buntings raised with a true sky moved away from the North Star, but the other groups
moved away from the ―false‖ stationary star, indicating that environmental changes could
modify the buntings navigational behaviour.
Conclusion- bunting is genetically prewired to navigate by a fixed star, but it has to learn which
specific star is stationary through observation and experience.
Crossroads of learning: biology, cognition, and culture
Behaviourism and ethology have converged in recent decades, reminding us that environment
shapes behavior in two ways:
o Personal adaptation
o Species adaptation.
Personal adaptation occurs through the laws of learning that the behaviourists examined, and it
results from our interactions with immediate and past environments.
o Going on a date, driving etc.
The environment also plays a role in species adaptation.
Environmental conditions faced by each species help shape its biology.
Learned behaviours are not passed down genetically from one generation to the next
Through natural selection, genetically based features that enhance ability to adapt to the
environment, survive and reproduce are more likely to be passed on to the next generation.
The ability to learn is a powerful tool
Species that learn have the potential to adapt to changing environmental conditions or expand
into new and different environments.
Although the learned behaviours themselves are not passed across generations by the genes, the
ability to learn is.
The brain structure and function that allows learning are under genetic control.
Human brain acquired the capacity to perform psychological functions that have adaptive
values and enable us to learn.
We have become prewired to learn.
Every organism’s environment is full of events, and the organism must learn:
o Which events are, or are not important to survival and well-being
o Which stimuli signal that an important event is about to occur
o Whether its responses will produce positive or negative consequences.
The resurgence of the cognitive perspective and emergence of cross cultural psychology also
have expanded our understand and have challenged the behaviourist assumption that learning
does not involve mental processes.
Cross cultural- highlights the impact of culture on what we learn from customs to our basic
Habituation is a decrease in the strength of response to a repeated stimulus.
May be simplest form of learning
It serves a key adaptive function
If an organism responded to every stimulus in its environment, it would rapidly become
overwhelmed and exhausted.
By learning not to respond, organisms conserve energy and can attend to other stimuli.
Also plays an important role in enabling scientists to study behavior.
It is different than sensory adaptation which refers to a decreased sensory response to a
continuously present stimulus.
Habituation is a simple form of learning that occurs within the central nervous system.
You may habituate to a stimulus but the sensory information is still available if it becomes
Ex- the sounds have been presented frequently with no imporant consequences, and you no
longer notice them
Classical conditioning: associating one stimulus with another
Classical conditioning- an organism learns to associate two stimuli (e.g. a song and a pleasant
event), such that one stimulus (the song) comes to produce a response (feeling happy) that
originally was produced only by the other stimulus (the pleasurable event).
Basic form of learning, but unlike habituation it involves learning an association between
Pavlov’s pioneering research
To study digestion, Pavlov presented carious types of food to dogs and measured their natural
He noticed that the dogs began to salivate before the food was presented, when they heard
footsteps of the approaching experimenter.
Dogs do not have a natural reflex to tones. Yet when a tone or other stimulus that ordinarily did
not cause salivation was presented just before food power was squirted directly into a dog’s
mouth, the sound of the tone alone soon made the dog salivate.
This is called classical or Pavlovian conditioning.
Classical conditioning alerts organisms to stimuli that signal and important event.
Refers to the period during which a response is being learned.
Sounding the tone initially may cause the dog to per up its ears and stare, but not to salivate. At
this time, the tone is a neutral stimulus, because it does not elicit the salivatory response. If
we place food in the dogs mouth, the dog will salivate. This salivation response is reflective
Unconditioned stimulus (UCS)- no learning is required (for food to produce salivation,
therefore the food is the UCS)
Unconditioned response (UCR)- salivation would be the UCR
When the tone and the food are paired, its called a learning trial.
After several learning trials, when the tone is presented by itself, the dog salivates.
The tone has become the conditioned stimulus (CS) and salivation has become the
conditioned response (CR).
UCR- natural, unlearned, unconditioned reflex
CR- learned, conditioned response
Table 7.1 pg 258
Sequence and time interval also affect conditioning.
Learning usually occurs most quickly with forward short-delay pairing: the CS (tone) appears
first and is still present when the UCS (food) appears.
Forward trace pairing: the tone would come on and off, and afterward the food would be
In forward pairing it is optimal for the CS to appear nor more than two or three seconds before