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Conditioning Self-Control

Updated on December 16, 2011

In this final part of the chapter, let us look at how principles of conditioning relate to bodily functions which until recently were thought to be beyond the pale of conditioning. Psychologist Neal Miller, an influential figure in the field of learning theory, suggested that the differences between classical and operant conditioning were more apparent than real. He and his associates showed quite dramatically how automatic responses could be conditioned by both operant and classical processes.

Laboratory rats were taught to control blood pressure, heart rate, intestinal contractions and even urine formation. In some amazing experiments, rats were actually conditioned to send blood to one ear and not the other.

Miller's work opened up the floodgates for the investigation of biofeedback processes. It is still too early for the practical implications of this ability to have taken root in mainstream therapeutic services. But research carries with it the promise of a greater understanding of such phenomena as altered states of consciousness, self-awareness and self-control.

Biofeedback techniques have much to gain from the East, especially from those cultures emphasizing the importance of meditation, which has long claimed control over autonomic bodily functions. Years of learning and dedication have enabled Yogis and Zen masters to control their brainwaves, heartbeat and body temperature. Western scientists experimenting with these skills have learned much from the daily practices of Zen Buddhists, for example.

It was reasonably assumed that Zen priests should, during periods of meditation, display the physiological concomitants of attentiveness and awareness. In psycho-physiological terms these are reflected by a high frequency of alpha brainwaves (attentiveness) and continual responsiveness to incoming stimuli (awareness).

Both these assumptions are confirmed in an experiment by biofeedback researchers. The Zen priests showed high frequency of alpha brainwaves and uniformly responded to each fresh presentation of a particular stimulus in exactly the same way as they did to the first presentation. (Were they perhaps sensing the world anew at each new sign of life?)

Pavlov's dogs, absentee workers and spoilt children may seem an oddball list, but in this chapter we have seen how they are related through the basic principles of classical and operant conditioning. We have also seen that conditioning can occur without any conscious effort on our own part. The common thread running through all approaches to learning is the search for understanding; for meaning, for ways of making sense. We search for patterns, keys, codes which simplify learning. We learn new things and link them with the old we already know. We look for logic and order in making sense of the learning processes. We are actually learning how to interpret our whole world.

An integral part of this process is our capacity to store all that we experience, ready to be retrieved when needed. Learning engages the brain in different activities that probably leave persisting physical traces of themselves-retrievable information.

This information is 'stored' in memory.

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