Principles of Learning – Chapter 1
- Learning: one of the biological processes that facilitate adaptation to one’s environment.
EX. Reproduction, finding new food sources, etc.
- Learning to withhold responses is just as important as learning to make responses
- Procedural learning: does not require awareness
- Features of the environment gain the capacity to trigger our behaviour whether we like
it or not
- Cognitive science did not grow by taking over the basic learning phenomena of
learning, but by extending psychology
- Contemporary interest in behaviour theory is fueled by growth of interest in neural
mechanisms, the limited role of consciousness in behavior, & the recognition that much
of what takes us through the day involves habitual responses.
- Cartesian dualism: 2 classes of behaviour: voluntary (does not have to be triggered by
external stimuli & occurs because of conscious intent) & involuntary (automatic reactions
to external stimuli, mediated by a mechanism called a reflex).
- Diagram of Cartesian dualism from lecture *
- Involuntary/reflexive: sensory input is reflective in response output.
- Mind-body dualism – mentalism was concerned with the contents & workings of the
mind, while reflexology was concerned with the mechanisms of reflexive behaviour.
- These 2 intellectual traditions form the foundations of the modern study of
- Nativist & empiricist philosophers disagreed not only about what the mind was assumed
to contain, but also how the mind was assumed to operate.
Descartes believed that the mind did not function in a predictable, orderly manner.
Hobbes accepted the distinction between voluntary & involuntaray behaviour, & that
voluntary was controlled by the mind, but he believed that the mind operated just as
predictably & lawfully as a reflex – governed by the princple of hedonism.
Hedonism means that people do things in pursuit of pleasure & avoidance of
- Association: (British empiricists) simple sensations are combined into more complex
ideas by associations – which they considered to be the building blocks of mental
EX. When you hear the word car you connect or associate all of your prior thoughts &
memories you have about cars.
- Aristotle proposed 3 principles for the establishment of associations:
1. Contiguity: If 2 events repeatedly occur together, they will be associated.
2. Similarity: 2 things will become associated if they are similar in some respect
3. Contrast: 2 things will become associated if they have some contrasting
characteristics (although no evidence of this).
- Brown proposed that intensity of the sensations & how frequently/recently they
occurred together influenced the formation of associations. In addition, the formation of
an association between 2 events was considered to depend on the number of associations in which each even was already involved, & the similarity of these past associations to
the current on being formed.
- To study how associations are formed, Ebbinghaus invented nonsense syllables. These
are 3 letter combinations with no meaning. He studied lists of nonsense syllables &
measured his ability to remember them under various experimental conditions.
- Descartes’ concept of the reflex is a very important building block of behaviour theory,
however most of his beliefs about the details of the reflex were incorrect.
- Sechenov (late 1800s) proposed that stimuli did not alwys elicit reflex responses
directly, but in some cases a stimulus could release a response from inhibition, in which
case the response would not depend on the intensity of the stimulus.
Complex behaviour (thoughts/actions) that occurred in absence of an obvious eliciting
stimulus were in fact reflexive responses. Voluntary behaviour & thoughts are actually
elicited by faint stimuli (according to him).
- Pavlov showed experimentally that not all reflexes are innate (like Descartes believed).
New reflexes can be established through mechanisms of association.
- Much of modern behaviour theory is based on the reflex concept of stimulus-response
(S-R unit) & the concept associations.
The Modern Era
- Motivation for research in animal learning came from interest in comparative
cognition/evolution of the mind, interest in how the nervous system works, & interest in
developing animal models to study certain aspects of human behaviour.
- Interest in comparative cognition & the evolution of the mind was sparked by Darwin’s
- Darwin attacked Descartes’ idea that only humans have a mind. He claimed the
evolution of physical traits as well as psychological/mental abilities, & thus that the
human mind is a product of evolution.
- Romanes (1882) identified intelligence as whether an animal learns “to make new
adjustments, or to modify old nes, in accordance with the results of its own individual
experience”, e.g. its ability to learn.
- Pavlov initiated studies of learning in nonhuman animals to gain insight on how the
nervous system works.
Pavlov committed himself to nervism – all key physiological functions are governed
by the nervous system. Although evidence that contradicted his idea that the pancreas
was controlled by the nervous system, Pavlov decided to ditch the digestive system &
study conditioning of reflexes.