What is learning?

  • "Learning is the process by which experience produces a relatively enduring and adaptive change in an organism's capacity for behaviour" - Holt et al 2012
  • "Learning represents a process of personal adaptation"
  • We learn because the behavioural reflexes which we're born with are limited in number and are inflexible. Learning mechanisms are vital to survival. To adapt to our environment, each organism must learn: (1) which events are or aren't important to survival and well-being, (2) which stimuli signal that an important event is about to occur and (3) whether its responses will produce positive or negative events
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Studying learning

  • Studying learning is difficult. Learning processes are often unobservable. A solution to this is that researchers sometimes use neuroimaging to observe the interior processes
  • Learning is usually studied in naive subjects (i.e animals and infants) in order to avoid introducing social and higher cognitive components.
  • Simple learning: Habituation. Habituation is a decline in the tendency to respond to a stimulus that is presented repeatedly/continuously. The purpose is to divert attention away from irrelevant information, preventing us from being overwhelmed by stimulation. The habituation effect is useful for psychologists: it can be used to study infant cognition as babies cannot talk, but we can observe their behaviour.
  • Sensitisation is the opposite of habituation. It is an increase in the tendency to respond to a stimulus that's presented repeatedly/continuously. The stimulus is typically aversive. Sensitisation is adaptive. It is important to attend to some stimulli in the environment, particularly aversive ones
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Habituation and Sensitisation

  • Groves & Thompson (1970): Dual-process theory of habituation and sensitisation. Sensitisation and dishabituation happen at the same time and compete to determine our behaviour. Behavioural performance is the net outcome of these two learning processes. Arousal = sensitisation; decrease in arousal = habituation
  • Bashinski, Werner & Rudy (1985): Infants' fixation on a stimulus seems to represent the net outcome of sensitisation and habituation. If interesting enough, sensitisation followed by habituation. A 12x12 stimulus activated both the habituation and sensitisation systems. The 4x4 stimulus activated only the habituation system.
  • Habituation and sensitisation: summary. They increase and decrease the strength of a response to a repeated stimulus. They are very simple/basic forms of learning featuring a single stimulus. Both serve adaptive functions: it is overwhelming and exhausting to respond to everything. Interesting and important things attract our attention. Habituation normally follows sensitisation. It allows us to conserve energy and attend to other important things
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  • Associative learning: a more complex form of learning featuring the relationship between stimuli. Classical conditioning is the most simple form of associative learning. It occurs when an organism learns to associate 2 stimuli such that one comes to elicit a response that was originally elicited only by the other stimulus. An example of this is Pavlov's dog experiment. He conditioned a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell by pairing it with the unconditioned stimulus of food.
  • Classical conditioning involves the transfer of an already existing response to a new stimuli. It cannot explain how we learn new patterns of behaviour. Operant conditioning can explain this, by focusing on a type of learning in which behaviour is influenced by the consequences that follow it. Thorndike invented the 'puzzle box' to explore how animals solved problems. Through trial and error, cats learned to open the door and get food. Instrumental learning - an organism's behaviour is instrumental to bringing about certain outcomes
  • Thorndike's Law of Effect: if a response leads to a satisfying consequence it is more likely to  occur. If a response leads to an unpleasant consequence, it is less likely to occur.
  • Skinner built on Thorndike's work. Both Skinner and Thorndike showed how behaviour could be influenced by the consequences that follow it. He designed the 'Skinner box' to study operant conditioning and identify different types of consequence (reinforcement, punishment etc).
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  • Skinner's 3 part contingency: operant learning can be broken down into 3 components - the antecedent stimulus, response, and consequence. The relationship between the response and the consequence is called a contingency, because the consequence is contingent on the response to the antecedent.
  • Organisms generally learn to increase behaviours that are followed by favourable consequences, and reduce those followed by unfavourable consequences
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