Dr. Laurie recounts a time when she did her internship at Parkwood Hospital in London, ON. The one thing she learned was when not to visit patients. One of the most interesting psychological connections that she was able to have first hand experience of was that of Classical Conditioning.
How do we learn from experiencing rewards? How does that experience then reinforce the behaviors that lead you to that reward?
At Parkwood Hospital, what Dr. Laurie noticed was that when she was visiting patients there were specific times to avoid. Those times coincided with the impending approach of lunch and dinner. Just before lunch and dinner she found that patients would be intently listening to the sounds in the hallway, unable to concentrate on anything else. The carts that held the food would be wheeled down the hallway. There was a specific sound of clatter as dishes were jostled when being wheeled, stopped, unloaded and then wheeled for unloading for the next room.
This is a great example of Classical Conditioning. Classical Conditioning started with Pavlov’s dogs. Ivan Pavlov, developed an experimental set-up in which a bell was rung as food was being brought in to his dogs. The dogs would start to salivate long before the food entered the room, even though the dogs could neither smell or even see the food, they would start to salivate. The dogs had learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food. The more frequently these two elements were presented together, the stronger the association was found to become.
In Dr. Laurie’s description of her experience, we are very much like Pavlov’s dogs. The clanging of the dishes on the cart was the sound of the bell for the patients. The longer the patients stay, the more the patient started to associate the two, and the stronger and stronger that association became.
It is important to pay attention to what your ‘dinner bell’ might be. The truth is, that we all have been classically conditioned as to when it is that we are going to eat our meals or otherwise. For some, it might be that the bell is the sound of the TV, the time of day, the sign seen at the side of the road, etc.
The Classical Conditioning says to the brain, I can’t see the food, I can’t smell the food, but it is time for me to eat! The more you allow those cues to reinforce your behavior to achieve your reward (food), then the more and more they become ingrained, so that if A happens, immediately do B, without even having to think!
Putting something in place to intervene in that cycle actually doesn’t work. Taking extra time, drinking more water, doing a different activity, eating something healthy instead, doesn’t actually have any impact on the original cue. This is called blocking. The brain ‘blocks out’ the next cue that we try to put in place as an intervention. We ‘block out’ the attempt at an intervention and end up going directly from A to B, anyway. We don’t learn the association between the attempted intervention and the reward (food) because the association between the two has been blocked.
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