We Live and Learn
The word 'learning' conjures images of conscientious students pouring over textbooks under the watchful eye of a tutor in a determined quest for knowledge. We are unlikely to think of it in terms of an unborn child, or of an old person rocking quietly in the shadows of life. But to the psychologist, learning is a lifelong process. From the time the human organism starts responding to touch and begins to recognize temperature change as an eight-week-old fetus, learning continues, as unceasingly as the heartbeat, until it dies, perhaps 80 or 100 years later.
A Lifetime of Lessons
In the first few years of this awesome pursuit of 'know-how' we are at a peak of our absorptive ability. We shuffle and crawl, then totter on two legs. In no time at all, we learn to run and jump and shriek at the sheer joy of it all. We discover how to co-ordinate larynx, lungs and tongue in order to make sounds, and we accommodate ourselves to the vocabulary and grammar of our spoken language-perhaps our most sophisticated achievement.
Young children first learn how to think in concrete terms.
They classify objects in binary fashion-big, little; fat, thin; fast, slow; good, bad. A young child watching Tom and Jerry on television sees two cats and two mice: Big Tom and Little Tom, Big Jerry and Little Jerry. Perspective and its meanings have to be learned.
During the desk-bound interlude in the classroom, we are formally instructed on matters that society decrees will be useful to us-or to society itself. But learning does not cease with a graduation ceremony. We constantly gain new information, discarding established views and seeking in other directions.
Without learning, life would be a relentless series of steps into the unknown. We would be confused, incapable of forming social relationships, growing or even preparing food. Along with memory, learning allows us to locate ourselves in time, to make order out of chaos, to survive.
The psychologists' use of the word 'learning' therefore applies to a far wider range of activities than common interpretation of the word allows. And psychology has a simple definition of the term which covers this wide range: learning is the modification of behavior as a result of experience. This definition is good because it reveals the importance of day-to-day adaptation to events. Yet it is deceptively simple because it makes no attempt to explain learning and how it takes place. To grasp the scientific explanation of learning, we must step back to the turn of the century and become acquainted with the work of a pioneer physiologist, the Russian Ivan Pavlov.
Continue reading: Pavlov and the Conditioned Response