Monday, April 22, 2013
On the open forum page of the Catholic Times, the columnist explores a troubling matter that has bothered him since middle school: when is behavior a conditioned response, one that is learned; and when is behavior unconditioned, not learned, but the natural response in the presence of stimuli?
Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), in his experiments with dogs, discovered that though a dog's unconditioned, natural response to food is to salivate, it can be made to salivate to a stimulus that does not normally cause the secretion of saliva. The stimulus he used, as many may know, was the ringing of a bell which the dog would hear whenever food was given. After this was done on numerous occasions, the dog would salivate whenever the bell was rung, even when no food was present. He also was able to show that by manipulating stimuli the conditioning could be changed: increased, decreased or erased completely.
The writer states that since everybody basically has the identical unconditioned responses to stimuli, he finds the conditioned responses more interesting and recounts his own experience playing in a reservoir, when he almost drowned. His fear of the water from that moment on kept him from learning to swim. He doesn't know exactly what happened, but remembers that his feet lost contact with the ground, and he panicked, fearing he would drown. Since then, even in a bathhouse, whenever his foot goes into the water the memory of the near drowning returns, along with a swooning sensation. And this happens not only with water, he explains, but also in tunnels, subways, and in cable cars.
The conditioning present in our lives is not that simple or that obvious, he points out. In his own case, he says the drowning incident has affected not only him but has affected in some way those he comes in contact with. Mindful of this possibility, he recommends that we strive to be conscious of what stimuli we are unknowingly reacting to in our daily lives.
We should be aware of the reflex reactions that others see coming from us. Are we like the dog who was conditioned by the bell to salivate and then not given the food? There is a certain conditioning that has taken place in our lives as a Christian. There are expectations that others have of us: are we disappointing those who expect a Christian response from us and not receiving it? He concludes with the admonition that we not be like a bell heard by the dog without the appropriate response.