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MCAT Content / Associative Learning / Biological Processes That Affect Associative Learning

Biological Processes that Affect Associative Learning

Topic: Associative Learning

While many extrinsic factors can influence learning, biological processes can affect associative learning.

Learning is a change in behavior as a result of experience. While many extrinsic factors can influence learning, learning is also limited by the biological constraints of organisms. For example, chimpanzees can learn to communicate using basic sign language, but they cannot learn to speak, in part because they are constrained by a lack of specialized vocal chords that would enable them to do so. It was long believed that learning could occur using any two stimuli or any response and any reinforcer. But again, biology serves as an important constraint. Associative learning is most easily achieved using stimuli that are somehow relevant to survival. Furthermore, not all reinforcers are equally effective. Humans and organisms have some kind of biological predisposition: we are predisposed through evolution to learn some associations better than others. A dramatic example of this is illustrated by food aversions. If an organism consumes something that tastes strongly of vanilla and becomes nauseous a few hours later (even if the nausea was not caused by the vanilla food), that organisms will develop a strong aversion to both the taste and the smell of vanilla, even if the nausea occurred hours after consuming the food. This aversion defies many of the principles of associative learning because it occurs after one instance, it can offer after a significant time delay of hours, and it is often an aversion that can last for a very long time, sometimes indefinitely. In studies, researchers tried to condition organisms to associate the feeling of nausea with other things, such as a sound or light but were unable to do so. Therefore, food aversions demonstrated another important face of learning: learning occurs more quickly if it is biologically relevant. Should an organism (or human) try to overcome this aversion through operant conditioning, there is a chance they would experience instinctive drift. Try as they might, organisms have a tendency to revert to unconscious and automatic behavior that could interfere with learned behaviors from operant conditioning.

Learning and memory are two processes that work together in shaping behavior, and it is impossible to discuss how learning is processed in the brain without discussing memory. Certain synaptic connections develop in the brain when a memory is formed. Short-term memory lasts for seconds to hours, and can potentially be converted into long-term memory through a process called consolidation. Newly acquired information (such as the knowledge that a reward follows a certain behavior) is temporarily stored in short-term memory and can be transferred into long-term memory under the right conditions.

Practice Questions

 

MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Sample Test P/S Section Passage 4 Question 19

Section Bank P/S Section Passage 12 Question 95


Key Points

• While many extrinsic factors can influence learning, learning is also limited by the biological constraints of organisms.

• It was long believed that learning could occur using any two stimuli or any response and any reinforcer. But again, biology serves as an important constraint. Associative learning is most easily achieved using stimuli that are somehow relevant to survival.

• Humans and organisms have some kind of biological predisposition: we are predisposed through evolution to learn some associations better than others.

• Instinctive drift occurs when organisms have a tendency to revert to unconscious and automatic behavior that could interfere with learned behaviors from operant conditioning.

• Learning and memory are two processes that work together in shaping behavior. Certain synaptic connections develop in the brain when a memory is formed. Short-term memory lasts for seconds to hours, and can potentially be converted into long-term memory through a process called consolidation.


Key Terms

associative learning: a type of learning in which associations are made between events that occur together

biological predisposition: when a subject (human, animal, plant) possesses some internal quality that gives them an increased likelihood of having a condition

short-term memory: the capacity for holding a small amount of information in an active, readily available state for a brief period of time

long-term memory: where lots of information is stored for us to recall at a later time

consolidation: when newly acquired information (such as the knowledge that a reward follows a certain behavior) is temporarily stored in short-term memory and can be transferred into long-term memory under the right conditions

operant conditioning: initially described by B. F. Skinner, is the learning process by which a response is strengthened or extinguished through the reinforcement or punishment of a behavior

reinforcer: something that increases the likelihood that specific behavior or response will occur

aversion: a dislike to

instinctive drift: the tendency of an animal to revert to unconscious and automatic behaviour

synaptic: the end of an axon or a neuron between neurons



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