Learning and Motivation

Recognition of the meaning of a moment is a perception evolved from one's neurological equipment, past experience shaping the perception, a mixture of hormones in the blood stream, and the extent of knowledge to which one is aware. Most people consider learning as a level playing field that is available to everyone as just something we do. We are faced with a stimulus, something happens, and behavior comes out the other side. "Learning" is the process that happens between the stimulus and response. Since the process of learning has been found among humans and most animals, we can assume that it is part of an evolutionary agenda.

Philosophy tends to examine cultural concepts as rational constructs; but, there's something deeper than that. For instance, the theist and the atheist can look at the same thing, as a friend and I were both enjoying a sunny afternoon in the backyard, and both drew support from this same experience for our very different concepts. We were both in awe, but one found no doubt that this glorious experience had to be created, while the other saw no indication of a creator.

When the temporal lobes are excited, as in temporal lobe epilepsy, the result is an intense heightening of the patient's sensory appreciation of the world and intense empathy for all beings to the extent of seeing no barriers between himself and the cosmos. This might be a clue as to the neurological basis of religious and mystical experiences: a neurological effect not experienced by the atheist. Einstein said "the most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness."

We can see in this example: it can be the perception, or the experience, that is causal to the concept. Due to the philosophical tendency to categorize, and deliberate concepts through reason, we can ignore, or do not understand, the role of perceptual variations. Understanding the variation of perceptual processing is necessary for understanding how and what we learn.


Ethology is the study of "fixed action patterns" of behavior among animals in their natural setting. Ethology introduced the concept of inherent perceptual equipment. Examples include: suckling by infant mammals, the dance of honey bees returning to their nest to communicating the location of nectar, and the imprinting of ducklings on the first moving object that might be a mother duck among many other examples. The Ethologists carefully observed animals to describe what these fixed action patterns of behavior were; their adaptive value to the species; the trigger or "releasing stimuli" that precedes the behavior; the embodied physiological mechanisms that produce that behavior; and what supportive learning is necessary to shape the behavior. The Ethologists found there is virtually always some amount of experience and resulting reinforcement to shape the fixed action pattern beyond the initial inclination.

The importance of Ethology is that neurological "hard wiring" is an additional consideration to the Behaviorist's various strategies of reinforcement in the development of behavior. This study of the capabilities of numerous species and their species specific behavior underscores the importance of having the necessary equipment for certain behaviors: flying requires an aerodynamic physique and an appropriate nervous system to use it; just as literacy (a human capability) requires the ability for symbolic perception and the appropriate nervous system to interpret, and use it. This means that each species, even each individual, including mankind, is limited in capabilities by their nature.


Pavlov's experiments
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) in 1927 performed an experiment that demonstrated the conditioned reflex. In this experiment a dog was prepared with a cannula in a saliva gland. The dogs were not fed and were hungry. In the first part of the experiment a light was lit just before a drawer of food was opened in front of the dog. Naturally, the saliva gland reacted to the sight of food. At the same time the dog associated the light with the appearance of the food. After a short training period the dog would salivate at the sight of the light without the appearance of the food. The lessons to be learned are:

1. Glandular secretion can be due to stimulation through association in the cortex. An associated stimulus can lead to the secretion of glands, including those associated with emotions. Later understanding has lead us to believe that this is the case with virtually every stimulus. Even our thinking can produce a variation in hormonal levels in the blood. The hormones in our blood are one method our internal cells communicate what we think is happening in our environment. There are hormonal combinations for stress, freight, sex, success, and failure.
2. The dog's responses were inappropriate to the associated signal (the light). The dogs responded to the signal (light) with ptyalin in the saliva, pepsin in the stomach, and trypsin in the pancreas. This association, or sequential memory, is a very primitive capability. In this case, the dog was shown to have sequential memory in that it quickly learned that the appearance of a light was followed by food. Even a flat worm can learn some significant sequences. An electric shock preceded by the appearance of a light will eventually cause the animal to curl up at the appearance of the light without the electric shock. The flat worm is avoiding the shock.
3. The dog has specialized cells that detect the need for food and signal that message to the dog's mind. Since the time it was a puppy, the dog has learned from an inclination (fixed action pattern) to identify food with his nose, eyes, and motor skills. Pavlov's dogs had their food appreciation shaped to value the Russian dog food and started preparing for eating by exciting their digestive glands and attempting movement against the harness toward the food tray. The dog's cortex associated the light with the food as sequential events, and eventually prepared for the food with the appearance of the light.

Pavlov's Dog
Pavlov demonstrated this in several digestive glands. In other situations, danger causes the secretion of epinephrine, the hormone of fear. A threatening situation causes the secretion of norepinephrine, the hormone of aggression and anger. An attractive potential mate causes the secretion of ethylphenylamine from the hypothalamus and causes feelings of love. It should be noted that hormones both affect behavior and are produced by behavior. For instance, exercise increases testosterone in females as well as males. Then the testosterone sensitizes aggressive parts of the brain and builds muscle tissue. Of course, these were not the conclusions that Pavlov drew. But there is no reason that in the light of subsequent findings regarding hormones and learning that we should not apply more sophisticated interpretations than he possibly could.

Individual Learning Variation

Every individual human falls within a variety of capabilities that makeup their learning performance characteristics. The secret to a good education is to expose that individual to as many subjects as possible so they might discover where their talents lie. A great education allows a person to reach their ultimate potential capabilities. Some of these capabilities, such as the acquisition of language, or the establishment of attachments and bonding, emerge during a window of time during the maturational development of the individual while others are able to be developed at anytime during the life of the individual. Even though there have been many misdirected biases and prejudices established over time, such as the idea that males are better at math than females, each of us, even the most gifted, have limitations. We are limited by our established collection of knowledge, by what we are inherently able to comprehend, by what we believe is our ability to comprehend, and by our fears.

When I was in graduate school, and behaviorism was the answer, I was required to virtually memorize a book of hundreds of animal experiments trying to decipher what learning was all about. One experiment jumped off the page, even though I have not seen it since. This seemingly insignificant experiment explained the difference between positive (reward) and negative (fear based) reinforcement. It is a simple experiment with two white rats in two shoe box sized containers. The idea was to train them to jump through a sliding door from one side of the box to the other. In both cases there was a light turned on just prior to the delivery of the reinforcement. The only difference was the motivation for learning this trick. For rat "A" they placed food on the other side of the door. This encouraged him to make the jump. For rat "B" they electrified a grid under his feet. He jumped around till he realized that he could escape the shock by jumping to the other side. This encouraged him to make the jump. It took both rats about the same number of trials to learn the trick. The rat that learned to jump for the food was experiencing "positive reinforcement" while the rat that jumped to avoid the shock was experiencing "negative reinforcement".

The important lesson in this experiment was shown during what they call the "extinction trials". Why they chose that name, I do not know. During the extinction trials, the light was turned on, but no food or shock was delivered. Soon the rat jumping for food no longer associated food with the light and began sniffing around for another solution. However, the rat jumping to avoid the shock continued to jump and jump for many trials after the shock was turned off. The animal's behavior was rigid and did not change even though the shock was no longer present. The rat which learned with positive reinforcement was adaptive and flexible while the rat which learned with negative reinforcement became rigid and fixed. Similarly to Pavlov's dogs, there is an inappropriate response to an associated signal (the bell or light) when the original stimulus is gone. One of the characteristics of neurotic behavior is that it takes place inappropriately. Neurotic behavior and neurotic emotional reactions can often be traced back to a negatively reinforced experience.

Another important aspect of learning was introduced by B. F. Skinner who illustrated general learning principles with pigeons. Skinner probably was too enthusiastic about the application of his concepts. The Behaviorist movement overlooked the fixed action patterns of behavior and attributed everything to reinforcement. As you are introduced to these few experiments of the many he produced, you will easily be able to identify with the experience of the pigeon.

In all his experiments Skinner deprived the pigeons of food for twenty-four hours to insure the need for food would be a good motivation. The animal was then place in a cage with a small target disc attached to a lever in such a way that when the pigeon pecks at the disc, a pellet will drop into a nearby tray. The number of pecks on the disc per minute is recorded. As would be expected, the hungry pigeon discovers the disc pecking behavior, and the number of pecks per minute increases over time to create an upward inclined graph. This is called the "learning curve".

There are three factors that he found to affect the learning curve.

1. One to one reinforcement. In this experiment the pigeon received one pellet per peck. The learning curve was fast, but the animal was soon satiated and the curve crashed.
2. Fixed interval reinforcement. In this experiment the pellets were released at regular intervals, such as one every fourth peck. The learning curve is not as steep, but the pigeon had to peck more times before it was satiated. The animal hurried the process along by pecking faster. Do you want faster work? Pay people by commission.
3. Random-interval reinforcement. The intervals were selected from a list of random numbers; so, there was no way to predict how many pecks will be necessary to get the next pellet. In this study the learning curve was the least rapid, but the pecking behavior is eventually the most vigorous by far. This is the principle of the addiction to the unpredictable fruits of gambling. There are other factors involved, of course, but this is one.
All these aspects of learning are motivated by the fulfillment of needs. Each need is initially detected by some neuro-sensitivity that triggers a fixed action pattern. In time, this pattern is shaped by neurologically successful need satisfaction and the resulting repetition. This process can often be a long, subtle evolution of development, beginning in maturation and continuing over a lifetime.

Neurobiology tells us that the continued use of a neural pathway strengthens that pathway with each use. This is why we learn and remember things in school: repetition. Meeting needs on a continual basis is the evolution of establishing pathways. Sometimes need fulfillment is not so immediate. Such as in school. Our frontal cortex has something to do with our ability to keep our eye on a distant goal.

The Role Of Needs

The fulfillment of needs is our motivation for learning. The struggle to fulfill our needs is the driving force of our life as we have evolved. The fulfillment of these needs holds the fabric of human society together by motivating human communication and community work. Needs are the essence of what we pursue, what we strive for, what reinforces our efforts. It stands to reason, in a fruitful society, that each one of us should feel the desire and the possibility of successfully fulfilling our needs. Karl Marx postulated that it is the frustration of need fulfillment that leads to aggression and revolt. The association of stress and aggression has been biologically linked. Some examples of our needs are: food, shelter, waste removal, activity, sex, safety, belongingness, power, achievement, knowledge, encouragement, beauty, and creativity. The order is not important. Everyone has these needs, but to different degrees depending on environment, culture, and individual variation. All these roads to need fulfillment are shaped from some original fixed action pattern or heritable inclination that emerges during the maturational development of the individual. The achievement of need fulfillment is the reinforcement necessary for learning.

The Effect of Generalization

Generalization is a vague concept describing a combination of neurological events. We are generalizing when we see an object in different positions and we can recognize it as the same object. This is known as "gestalt". We generalize when we have an emotional response to a specific subject through experience and then ascribe that emotion to all other similar subjects. As we have shown, this would be more lasting with a negatively reinforced experience than with a positively reinforced experience. An example of generalization is people who say, "all women are the same!" as a person ascribes a characteristic to every member of a class. On the other hand, generalization could be the prejudicial application of a characteristic of a class to a specific member.

Here we have examples of two natural neurological events, both propensities are evolved through time by nature because they are beneficial to survival. Once again we see problems of rigidity when negative reinforcement is involved. This generalization characteristic is the basis for racism and prejudice. It has been a primary ingredient in the dehumanization of a class of people as a preliminary preparation for their eradication in warfare. On the other hand it is the basic requirement of a positive philosophy, or religion, that includes all people.

Reading and Writing

This is an interesting subject because of its correlation with general intelligence and education. I say "correlation" because the two do not always go hand in hand. For instance Charlemagne, an important leader in the eighth century Europe, was credited with many letters but was noted by his biographer as not being able to write his name. On the other hand, I have known a few families with children who learned to read, with little encouragement, a couple of years before they entered school.

Reading and writing are, without a doubt, tied to the maturational development of specific parts of the brain. This is part of the post birth recapitulation of humanity's evolutionary development through the threshold of literacy. Most children begin to learn to read, with instruction, by age six. About five percent of the children learn to read on their own by age four. Twenty-five percent will not learn to read till age ten; but, will have caught up to the others by age twelve. A small percentage of children will never learn to read. The lack of acceptance of this simple principle of the maturing brain has cost untold thousands of academically shattered lives. Since the pressure has been on the schools to show results by second grade, teachers have been trying every method they can think of to cram reading down the throats of students who are slow to mature. As a result, when they finally do mature, they don't want anything to do with reading.

Reading readiness tests are very accurate and well developed. Children who are determined to be unready to read should be deferred from reading instruction. By fourth grade virtually all children are ready for reading instruction and by sixth grade those children are performing as well as the other students. Recognizing this phenomenon, a talented teacher, who introduced me to these realizations, started a private learning facility specializing in reading instruction to only fourth, fifth and sixth graders. He was careful to use teaching methods that were different from their previous schools. The teaching methods were actually no more effective, but were able to introduce the student to reading in a way that the student had not been previously negatively conditioned.

With people who cannot draw, cannot spell, cannot sing, cannot learn foreign languages, it is amazing to me that it is difficult for some people to understand there are people who cannot read, or are poor readers. Low reading ability is a perfectly natural and normal occurrence for a percentage of the population just as is advanced reading ability. For the poor readers, the written word makes as much sense as a blackboard full of advanced calculus does to most of us. The percentage of nonreaders and poor readers is growing; but, it is not the fault of the schools or the parents. Reading is not a heritably guaranteed ability. There are powerful political forces which are unfairly punishing teachers and schools who happen to be populated by children of low reading ability.

Some would like to think that anyone can be anything they want to be; that every human is capable of becoming a college graduate, a physician, a classical musician, a fighter pilot, or an author. Unfortunately, this quixotic idea comes under the heading of "unrealistic idealism" for it is opposed to all evidence. Every attempt to measure the performance of any human behavior (when displaying performance measure against numbers of people) always produces some sort of Gaussian curve (a bell shaped curve) as would be predicted by the requirement of variation in biological evolution. The majority of the performers fall in a range around the average while the high and low performers fall off in number.

A Case Study

Late one night while passing a patient's house, I noticed a light burning in her bedroom. I later asked her about it and she confessed that she was afraid of the dark. At another time she was late for her appointment because she walked and was delayed by a thunderstorm. It turned out that she was afraid of confined spaces to the extent that she could not ride in a car. She was afraid of big cities because she was afraid to ride in elevators. At that point I suggested that she could overcome her claustrophobia by clearing out a small closet and putting a chair in it. She was to use a stop watch and time how long she could sit in it with the door closed without bursting out. I advised her that, if she would do that, she would get over most of her aches and pains, and save a lot of medical bills. She wanted to try it! I must emphasize that she wanted to try it. If I had hired three men to throw her into the closet, it would have driven her mad. I loaned her a stop watch. Her first experience in the closet lasted seven seconds, but in as little as three days she could sit in the closet as long as she liked without fear. Soon the light went out in her bedroom. She bleached her hair, began to use make-up, and became president of the local PTA. Her whole life turned around! From a dependent, timid person, she became independent and active in society.

I was surprised to get a phone call from a psychiatrist who had an office up the street from my patient's house. He inquired if I were breaking into psychiatry, and scolded me because I didn't have the proper training for the work. He had missed her, and phoned her to find out what had happened. He warned me: that to cure one neurosis that way without finding the reason for it, would only cause it to break out somewhere else. However in this case the desensitization apparently worked.

This patient also disappeared from my practice except for annual physicals. She told me she had no fewer aches and pains, but they no longer frightened her. She figured, correctly, that they were part of a normal course through life and no longer ran to me when she had them. The up shot of the case was almost fantastic. Her husband was used to a clinging vine for a wife. When she became independent, it wrecked their previous relationship. Because he wasn't used to such a woman, he took his wife's place in my office, and it was through him that I kept track of his busy wife. Unlike his wife, he did not want to change. He didn't want to accommodate to his wife's new personality. He wanted the old state of affairs restored, but there was no way.

For those people who have been exposed to traumatic negative reinforcement, such as chronic emotional abuse, violence, or war (post traumatic stress disorder), the resulting neurotic behavior and fears can be crippling. Even when the "electric grid" is unplugged they will continue to jump. For the less traumatic fears, I tell mothers to teach their children to be brave. Strength to fight fears may also be obtained in strengthening our faith and understanding.

Copyright© Alden Bacuzmo

Chapter 16. Extinct Humans

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