Anticipatory/Conditioned Side-Effects of Treatment (Cont’d)

Following on from my last blog on this subject matter, it might also further aid our understanding to just briefly take into account something of what we mean when we refer to a “conditioned reflex”.  Actually, the power of association or “conditioning” in everyday learning is a reliable means of bringing and bonding items, events and/or experiences occurring contiguously·. In consequence, it has become a basic and essential “building brick” in the process of learning for each and every one of us, from infancy on.

Most people will have heard of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physician/physiologist who once observed that when his dogs were given meat, they would salivate in learned anticipation as the keeper approached.  Not to put too fine a point here on his experimental design, Pavlov “paired” or associated the sound of a bell, with the awareness of meat, e.g. smell, sight etc. In other words, a bell was rung as the dogs salivated to their awareness of the approaching keeper bearing food. Soon the dogs learned to salivate to the sound of the bell alone; i.e. they by now were successfully ‘pairing’ or associating the bell with the meat.  Pavlov referred to the meat itself as the “unconditioned stimulus”: salivation to the meat he referred to as, the “unconditioned response”.  Since it was in fact the sound of the bell, which he paired or associated with the meat and to which the dog quickly conditioned, he called this (the bell) “the conditioned stimulus”.  Salivation to the bell alone, he called the “conditioned response”.

Pavlov and those who replicated and developed his work found that another important aspect in learning, known as “transfer of training”, was also potentially present. This he discovered when he substituted the sound of the bell for something not quite the same but sufficiently similar in sound e.g. a buzzer (if you see what I mean). The animal then salivated to this similar sound (although not quite as much as it did to the original sound).

Thus was established a further important principle of learning, namely that of “stimulus generalisation”. In fact it might just as well be called “stimulus similarity” since in the very strictest sense, without it we should fail to learn anything. (And this is quite essential, since experimental evidence shows that we rarely experience precisely the same, i.e. identical stimulus, in the same way, twice). Pavlov’s colleague’s also showed (via their continuing experimental studies) that so long as the pairing, i.e. bell (or whatever) and food were intermittently reinforced, the conditioned response would endure indefinitely.

I hope that I have written the above account with clarity enough to allow you to apply it to both historical and present time events and happenings concerning psychogenic or anticipatory vomiting and the like.  However – and just in case this is all now becoming a trifle ‘heady’ – I will bring things back to earth with an example of precisely what I mean in the next blog.

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