Tuesday 8 October 2013

80 years on: classical and operant conditioning: the genetics

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.


  1. Professor Thompson,

    I know this is off topic but I'd appreciate your thoughts on this subject

    No Life Is Good



    1. Can one defeat his arguments logically?

    2. If so where are his flaws?

    3. Or conversely, if you agree with him, why?

    From a straight dispassionate reading of life's pleasure and pain balance sheet, as Benatar says, we see chronic pains, but pleasures are always fleeting; a lifetime's learning can be wiped out in a second but we cannot gain a lifetime's learning so easily. There are always an infinite number of ways in which things can go wrong, but very few in which they can go right. So, the observation that we mostly feel upbeat about life calls for an explanation I think.

    I think we all still carry some of that pre-Darwinian illusion about life being rosy in our heads. The universe is a chaotic place and as humans trying to create order out of chaos, we have the odds stacked against us from the outset. That we exist at all is highly improbable. What Benatar does in his piece is a little bit of telling it like it is, it cuts through our illusions, in the same way that an atheist cuts through theist illusions about a loving fatherly God and an afterlife in Paradise.

    Most people, for most of the time, feel good about their lives, but I think this feeling comes courtesy of a range of psychological strategies taken in combination with a finely tuned hormonal balance. Theism is the mother of all psychological strategies, a mindset that people cultivate to enable them to believe in an impossibly wonderful future, thus mitigating the harsh realities of their lives. But I think we all cultivate such delusions, on some scale or other; it's all part and parcel of being human. These strategies combined with elevated endorphin levels keep us artificially happy when by rights we ought to feel wretched. In the end we all only take on as much reality as we can deal with comfortably.

    Looked at "neutrally" I think Benatar is mostly right. Life doesn't seem worth the candle and, rationally, it would be difficult to justify bringing more children into it.

    However we don't normally operate in that neutral fashion. Our hormones usually override actual experience and, at some point or other, most people feel that it's a good idea to have children. In fact, as I've mentioned before on these fora, we are evolved to have an optimistic bias and to experience things spiritually so that we feel that our lives are meaningful!

    There is no particular reason to think that life is going to teach you anything or should or will be an enjoyable experience, it's only that if you do you might feel better about getting through it, and may have kids who will keep this pyramid scheme going.

    1. Thanks for your question. I can't really add much to these philosophical discussions. There is a psychological literature about whether there is selective recall for good or bad events. The last time I looked at the literature I think it showed that bad events are recalled more vividly. This makes sense because there is survival value in paying particular attention to things which may injure you or threaten your life. However, that selective recall does not influence most people into feeling that all life is bad. However, philosophical discussions are very different from the findings of empirical psychology. I would regard those philosophical matters as outside my expertise.

  2. "That we exist at all is highly improbable." What on earth can that possibly mean?