No sooner do I admit that I find it hard to relinquish any idea I have put on a slide and lectured upon more than three times, a message comes through about an ancient debate about the differences between classical and operant conditioning.
Naturally, I always had a slide which compared the visceral nervous system, high emotional tone, basic appetitive focus of classical Pavlovian conditioning with the lower emotional tone, higher cognitive focus of operant Skinnerian conditioning. Classical effects accounted for trauma, operant effects for ordinary learning. So, I had attempted a very crude differentiation, but was aware that deeper work was going on, calling into question this particular divide, and looking at what was happening from an expectations perspective, grounded in the thought that the animals were trying to work out the contingencies in both and all cases.
Now Björn Brembs, Professor of Neurogenetics at Universität Regensburg says that, having stuck with this issue whilst most other had abandoned it, he has come up with a unifying explanation, backed up by genetics. He says:
“Operant and classical processes can be genetically separated, using the right behavioral experiments. What made these processes different was not how the animal was learning (i.e., operantly or classically), but what it learned (i.e., about external stimuli, e.g. Pavlov’s bell, or about their own behavior, e.g. pressing the lever in a Skinner box). Thus, in order to avoid confusion between the procedures (operant vs. classical) and the mechanisms, we had to come up with descriptive terms for the learning mechanisms. We arrived at ‘world-learning’ for the mechanism that detects and processes relationships in the external world and at ‘self-learning’ for the mechanism that detects and processes the consequences of an animal’s own behavior.”
Part of the resolution of the problem lay in realising that the response key in the Skinner box was acting as a Pavlovian conditioned stimulus for food, thus thoroughly confusing the picture. I am sure I gave the learning theory lecture at least fifteen times, and never thought of that, though I often had difficulty working through how the concepts mapped onto the broad range of human and animal learning.
I cannot give you more details, because the paper will be presented at the Winter Conference on Animal Learning and Behavior next February 2014. More details here. http://bjoern.brembs.net/2013/10/operant-and-classical-conditioning/ However, when the paper comes out, I will be the experimental animal. Will I embrace the new finding, or hold fast to my old slide (which I cannot find at the moment).
I have written this note for two main reasons.
1 I often wonder if anyone follows up on old psychology dilemmas. We should be a progressive discipline. We won’t advance as a science if we just abandon difficult issues, so this is a very welcome finding, and very much worth a look.
2 On a somewhat disconsolate note, Björn Brembs accepts that he will be speaking to a few dozen people at most, those being the few who are still interested in the issue and have survived long enough to hear about a potential solution. Perhaps you can drum up some people for the conference.
Now, sit back and relax while I place you in the experimental box.