The Conditioned Reflex

The Conditioned Reflex

What has been referred to as a radar is an appealing way of describing a conditioned response, or conditioned reflex, to a limited extent. The conditioned response is slightly different, but it is worth mentioning now.

A Russian investigator, Pavlov, many years ago noticed that dogs in the laboratory drooled saliva when the man in charge of feeding them made an appearance. The association of saliva with the man was not a “natural” response, although the saliva would be thought of as flowing “naturally” at the sight of food.

Pavlov went to work on the dogs and found that they could be trained to secrete saliva if a bell were rung every time they were given food. After many such repetitions, he rang the bell without giving the food. Sure enough, the saliva flowed. He reasoned that the bell conditioned the dogs because it had become closely associated over certain nerve pathways with the idea of food.

This was only the beginning of thousands of experiments to understand the conditioning process better. It soon became apparent that cats, rats, pigeons, and other animals could be conditioned to respond to “unnatural” stimuli. Soon the concept of conditioning was enlarged to include the reactions of humans, and it was found to apply here as well, but it was also found to be more complicated for advanced behavior.

An extremely large portion of our behavior seems to be conditioned. Going far beyond the simple case of bells and food, we become conditioned to the colors of signal lights, hardly giving a thought to driving cars in keeping with the rules. Finding our way to a new classroom is an example of how the reflexive response is developed. The first time, we must pay close attention to (think of) the name of the building, the number of the room, and the location of an empty seat. As time goes on, with repetitions of the same trip, we have to “think” less and less.

Presently we find the building, make the proper turns in the hallways and go straight to our seats without hesitation. We have become conditioned to the overall pattern of time, distances and directions in relation to our surroundings.
Conditioned reflexes liberate our conscious minds from routine “thinking” about where we are going. Too much reliance upon conditioning is what gives rise to the amusing things that are said to happen to absent-minded professors!

Studying is a process for creating the patterns which, after repetition, can almost become conditioned responses. If given enough practice, we can almost automatically respond to well-known questions with a well-rehearsed answer. This is what happens in word association tests. It also happens in a well-rehearsed play. Setting up the flags beforehand is a kind of conditioning. Some people have no need for repetition in getting the flags in place, while others must go over and over the flag placement and the pathways leading from them to the information.

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