Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Our mind and Pavlov's dog.

I am almost certain that anyone who is reading this is at least aware of the term classical conditioning. Let me recap the concept for you- Classical conditioning was a form of learning that was identified by Ivan Pavlov. It was a major discovery of its times (early 19th century) when he described how associative learning took place in a dog when an unconditioned stimulus (US) was combined with a conditioned stimulus (CS) to give a conditioned response (CR).


1. Food (US) + Ringing Bell (neutral stim.) = Salivation (CR)
2. After a few trials, only Ringing Bell (CS) = Salivation (CR)

Fast forward 109 years later, I sitting in my neuroscience class listening to this whole concept of classical conditioning and I learned something new about it. Typically classical conditioning occurs when the stimulus is presented externally. What if this conditioning was occurring internally as well? Are we classically conditioning ourselves without realizing that we are our own Pavlov as well as his dog?

Apparently the answer is YES.

Most of our fears and our superstitions are the result of our mind's classical conditioning on itself. Its quite simple to illustrate, imagine this if you can- you are walking alone at night and you hear the howling of a dog followed immediately (and co-incidentally) by a cat crossing your path. For a split second you get scared, you start to get nervous and suddenly your protective instincts take over, because for years you have been exposed to baseless superstitions and associations that something horrible or uneventful occurs after such events. This is nothing more than your mind getting conditioned to totally unrelated stimuli - dog bark and cat cross!

Now, lets glean on this topic a little more. If we can step back and look at this event from outside the box, it would only be intuitive that we analyze this situation by breaking it down to its tiniest occurrence. When we do that, we realize that a dog's bark is nothing more than a dog's bark and a cat crossing your path is just that- a cat crossing your path! The point to take home from this is, every little fear we have or every fanciful whim we cradle, may be nothing more than our mind playing tricks on us. We as modern beings, tend to associate everything with everything- a tendency that is automatic and subconscious, because we strive to gather meaning out of things we do not understand. What we don't realize is that this struggle for comprehension might not really help us get stronger.

The funny thing is, this change in behavior does not have to be in association to any action- it can occur even if an unpleasant thought or an emotionally charged memory is triggered. That's how deep seated our conditioned responses are- a process that we gave rise to, but never really figured out how to control. So ask yourself before you start feeling bad about something that you had no control over- is this really "me" or is this my mind playing tricks on his dog!