Natural Selections: May 2019

by Ryan Sain

It’s high time we moved on past some basic research methods and take a different tack in today’s gentle breeze (writing this as I sit on my porch in the beautiful northwest sunshine). Let’s head back a hundred years or so and look at some really awesome science that you come into contact with every day. 

A large part of my educational focus during my doc program was on the field of Learning. Learning is horrifically broad and woefully defined – but loosely “Learning” means any changes that an organism shows by the experiences that said organism has. There are many caveats to this; losing a toe in a snowmobile accident is not learning, going temporarily deaf because of the Def Leppard concert isn’t learning either. But almost all ‘relatively permanent’ behavior change IS learning. I’m saying organisms for a reason – because the principles that I focused on apply to ALL ORGANISMS – the mechanisms by which you learn, your brother learns, your parents learn, your dog learns, pigeons learn, fish learn, are all the same. Some principles are even shared by single celled amoebas! 

This is not to say that a dog can learn to recite Shakespeare – it just means that they way in which all organisms learn are the same – kinda like the fact that you have a heart, and so does a cat, and a fish, and does a worm, etc. You get the idea. Nature conserves. Two of these basic categories are called classical and operant conditioning. Today we’ll have a little fun with classical conditioning (the article by Natalie in today’s paper ironically focuses on operant – a cute unplanned coincidence).

Y’all know what it is already – and you can probably tell me about it’s origin story. It’s Pavlov’s stuff! You know – the dogs salivating? Yuppers – over 100 years ago that discovery happened and the research has expanded dramatically. First off – contrary to popular belief, he did not get dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. It was a metronome (much more consistent sound than a bell). 

Let’s go over the basics super fast: when dogs are presented with meat powder, they salivate. This is expected and is a reflex. Pavlov was actually studying this process when he accidentally stumbled upon the finding we all know. The story goes (as written by Pavlov himself) that his laboratory assistants would bring the dogs the meat powder – but one day, the dogs salivated before the meat powder arrived – they were having a reflex to the sound of the assistant’s footsteps. That was weird. There is no reason in the natural world for a dog to salivate at the sound of a footstep. But they did. So he dropped an entire career of studying reflexes (Pavlov was already an extremely well  known physiologist and was a leading researcher prior to what we know him for) and began to study this phenomenon. 

What he discovered changed the world (and eventually led to modern advertising). He found that if you carefully pair a stimulus (sound, sight, smell, touch, flavor) with something that causes a reflex then that new stimulus can now elicit a reflex when it couldn’t before! In his lab it  was the dogs salivating to the sound of the footsteps. In other words – and the take home message – is that reflexes are changeable. They can be modified. Reflexes are subject to learning. 

How does this apply to us? Well, classical conditioning is the building block of all sorts of more complex learning. It’s  also tied into much of what we experience on a daily basis. “See” a picture on the billboard of that awesome burger – notice the golden arches next to it? They are pairing those things to make you salivate at the site of golden arches. It happens to me in Priest River – each time I see the Welcome to Priest River sign I immediately salivate (classical conditioning) why? Because of those darn huckleberry milkshakes at Burger Express.

It happens with more than just salivation. How about emotions? A favorite cologne – paired with loving date? A favorite song and the memory of a loved one. These are called “conditioned emotional responses” and  they are absolutely the realm of classical conditioning.  And boy are they powerful. Classical conditioning even plays a role in PTSD. 

Today, classical conditioning  is everywhere – from drug treatment, to advertising (ever wonder about the phrase “sex sells?”, to emotions, to basic learning, to never drinking tequila again, to accidental drug overdoses (future article on that by itself) – the work of Pavlov pervades our modern world and is being constantly utilized by others and experienced by ourselves. All because some dude accidentally figured out that a reflex can be modified which ruined his day, yet created a legacy. 

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