Memory & Learning

Pavlovian Conditioning

Learning is a change in behaviour resulting from experience. It helps us adapt to our environment. Classical conditioning is a form of learning that is sometimes referred to as “Pavlovian conditioning”. Repeated pairing of bell sounds with food caused Pavlov’s dog to salivate at the sound of the bell alone. Other examples of Pavlovian conditioning would be learning to feel anxiety:

1) At the sight of flashing police lights in your rear-view mirror; or
2) When you hear sounds at the dentist’s office.

A habitual porn user may condition his sexual arousal to screens, viewing certain acts, or clicking from video to video.

This section is based on material from “The brain from top to bottom” an open source guide produced by McGill University in Canada. It is highly recommended if you want to learn more.

Learning is a process that lets us retain acquired information, affective (emotional) states, and impressions that can influence our behaviour. Learning is the main activity of the brain, in which this organ continuously modifies its own structure to better reflect the experiences that we have had.

Learning can also be equated with encoding, the first step in the process of memorization. Its result – memory – is the persistence both of autobiographical data and of general knowledge.

But memory is not entirely faithful. When you perceive an object, groups of neurons in different parts of your brain process the information about its shape, colour, smell, sound, and so on. Your brain then draws connections among these different groups of neurons, and these relationships constitute your perception of the object. Subsequently, whenever you want to remember the object, you must reconstruct these relationships. The parallel processing that your cortex does for this purpose, however, can alter your memory of the object.

Also, in your brain’s memory systems, isolated pieces of information are memorized less effectively than those associated with existing knowledge. The more associations between the new information and things that you already know, the better you will learn it. For example, you will have an easier time remembering that the entorhinal cortex is connected to the hippocampus via the dentate gyrus if you already have some basic knowledge of brain anatomy.

Psychologists have identified a number of factors that can influence how effectively memory functions.

1) Degree of vigilance, alertness, attentiveness, and concentration. Attentiveness is often said to be the tool that engraves information into memory. Thus, attention deficits can radically reduce memory performance. You can improve your memory capacity by making a conscious effort to repeat and integrate information.

2) Interest, strength of motivation, and need or necessity. It is easier to learn when the subject fascinates you. Thus, motivation is a factor that enhances memory. Some young people who do not always do very well at the subjects they are forced to take in school often have a phenomenal memory for statistics about their favourite sports.

3) Affective values associated with the material to be memorized, and the individual’s mood and intensity of emotion. Your emotional state when an event occurs can greatly influence your memory of it. Thus, if an event is very upsetting, you will form an especially vivid memory of it. For example, many people remember where they were when they learned about President Kennedy’s assassination, or about the attacks of September 11, 2001. The processing of emotionally-charged events in memory involves norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that is released in larger amounts when we are excited or tense. As Voltaire put it, that which touches the heart is engraved in the memory.

4) Location, light, sounds, smells…in short, the entire context in which the memorizing takes place is recorded along with the information being memorizes. Our memory systems are thus contextual. Consequently, when you have trouble remembering a particular fact, you may be able to retrieve it by recollecting where you learned it or the book from which you learned it. Was there a picture on that page? Was the information toward the top of the page, or the bottom? Such items are called “recall indexes”. And because you always memorize the context along with the information that you are learning, by recalling this context you can very often, by a series of associations, recall the information itself.

Forgetting lets you get rid of the tremendous amount of information that you process every day but that your brain decides it will not need in future.

“The purpose of memory is not to let us recall the past, but to let us anticipate the future. Memory is a tool for prediction.”

– Alain Berthoz

Why does it matter if boys become hooked on porn? In this 4 minute TED talk called “The Demise of Guys” Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo points out that the historical dominance of boys in education relative to girls has ended and asks why this might be?

The Great Porn Experiment” is a 16 minute TEDx talk by former science teacher Gary Wilson, that answers the challenge set down by Zimbardo, identifying at least one major factor behind the decline of boys’ academic success.

Here are two useful TED talks on the power of learning.

The first is by Stanford professor Carol Dweck on the power of believing that you can improve. Her point is that the “effort and difficulty” of trying mean your neurons are making new connections as you’re learning and improving. This is then combined with willpower to assist building grey matter/ neurons in prefrontal cortex.

The second is by Angela Lee Duckworth and considers the role of “grit” in creating success.