Learning: A Psychological Perspective

Learning: A Psychological Perspective

Frank van der Velde (Leiden University, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-018-1.ch003


This chapter reviews research into human and animal forms of learning. It concentrates on two forms of learning in particular. The first is conditioning. The study of conditioning constitutes the first example of experimental research on learning. At first, it seemed to corroborate the view that learning consists of establishing associations. This form of learning was proposed by the early empiricists. The notion of associative learning influenced the emergence of behaviorism, which used conditioning to account for all forms of human and animal behavior. More recent research, however, has shown that conditioning is a more complex form of learning, related to propositional learning. This makes conditioning important for the study of the mechanisms of other, more complex, forms of propositional learning, as found in language and reasoning. The second form of learning reviewed here is visual learning. The study of this form of learning is important for understanding visual processing. And it is important for investigating the neural mechanisms of learning, given the availability of animal models of visual processing.
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In his classical conditioning experiment, Pavlov (1927) showed how an initially neutral stimulus such as the sound of the bell can become the trigger of a response like salivation, that is normally triggered by a food stimulus. The food stimulus is referred to as the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). The salivation response triggered by the food in referred to as the unconditioned response (UCR). Normally, a stimulus like the sound of a bell would not trigger the response of salivation. In the learning stage of the experiment, the bell sound is combined with the food stimulus. That is, the bell sound precedes the presentation of the food. After some time, the bell sound alone triggers the response of salivation. In the terminology of conditioning, the bell sound has become the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the response of salivation has become the conditioned response (CR) when it is triggered by the CS.

At face value, conditioning resembles the process of association proposed by the early empiricists. The CS becomes associated with the UCS (or with the UCR) because the CS and UCS are presented together for some time. This resembles the law of contiguity, one of the association laws proposed by the empiricists. Or course, Pavlov conducted his experiments with animals (dogs) and not humans. But in the mean time, Darwin had proposed his theory of evolution, so animal learning could be seen as a precursor of human learning, because the latter evolved from the first.

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