Quantitative Psychological Theory and Musings

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Learning: A Section from My Anger Management Handout

I am too busy and lazy right now to offer a simple post on anger, so below is a barely altered section from an anger management handout I offer students.  I start from the perspective of learned expectations.


Expectations are learned or unlearned predictions about the occurrence or non-occurrence of at least two stimuli, or events. Stimuli, or a stimulus in the singular, is anything that is detectable by your senses, or any representation of thereof within your brain. These senses include sight, hearing, touch, smell, pain, proprioception, and some vestibular functions. The latter two are not commonly thought of as senses, but demonstrably are. Proprioception is revealed as the ability to know the orientation of your limbs, even though you are not using sight, hearing, touch, or pain reception to supply such information. The vestibular system allows you to know the orientation of your entire body, without the use of the above mentioned first five senses, when the system is relatively unperturbed. Hence it offers critical input facilitating walking or other activities that require balance. Detection of stimuli can occur with or without your conscious awareness, but what is conscious awareness and is there an unconscious awareness?

Of Two Minds

The brain has many separate memory systems, but we will only focus on the two broadest categories. The first is explicit memory, which is memory that you can consciously, if not always consistently, recall. The second is implicit memory, and it changes and can be recalled without need of conscious awareness, though you may have some awareness it is occurring. The senses feed these two memory systems in order from the implicit to the explicit.

The implicit has more direct and immediate attachment to emotional centers in the brain, such as the amygdala, and hence has the first opportunity to affect the emotions that drive your behavior. This is why you sometimes react emotionally without having time to “think” first.

The explicit system takes a longer course, with the detour to the implicit, eventually sending signals to the prefrontal cortex, which facilitates conscious memory and thought. Then, some conscious thought may be stimulated, as non-activation of the amygdala (emotions) allows and then the circuit is completed when signals travel back to the amygdala. This is how your thoughts can influence your emotional responses.  As mentioned above, the implicit system dominates at the expense of the explicit as emotions become stronger. Perhaps you’ve noticed that it is harder to consciously recall certain information that is otherwise easily retrievable when you are upset. You may also notice how much harder it is to think. This is one of the reasons it is critical to avoid anger responses in the first place, as will be covered in more detail later

The implicit memory system is “recording” or learning associations between stimuli or events, even as your conscious mind may be focused on other things. It records through the senses, so you can only learn what your senses are in a position to detect. With this in mind, learning can take place on two levels simultaneously, though, the implicit dominates. This is how phobias are learned, for example, and can be triggered sometimes by stimuli you may not consciously notice, but which trigger extreme emotional responses and behavior you cannot necessarily consciously control. The same is true of traumatic memories, or the learning of any kind of information. Hence, to understand what expectations are and how they develop, one must understand the basic principles of learning. The basic physiology has just been covered for our purposes, so we now move to what is going on in the external world, as detected by your brain.

Learn the Basics

Some of the basic principles of learning include processes of generalization, discrimination, and transitivity, all with respect to two or more stimuli.

Generalization involves carrying learned stimuli associations of one context, referred to as a predictive context, to another. Associations, in the simplest form, merely involve the detected tendency of at least two stimuli to occur together or be seen as similar in some way. For example, someone new to the planet may notice a motor vehicle for the first time and see that it has four wheels. Upon seeing another on different street, the alien begins to generalize the expectation that motor vehicles will have four wheels. The expectation grows, the more four-wheeled vehicles the alien sees in different situations. Hence, generalization can occur either by noticing the same relationship among stimuli in a new overall, distinguishable context, or by simply “automatically” seeing two situations as similar, without the need to sense it directly in the first place. This latter ability to generalize is known as transitivity, which will be covered in a moment.

First, however, discrimination simply involves the ability to distinguish two stimuli or two situations or contexts from each other. It is the ability to detect and notice differences that may or may not be relevant for the outcome of importance to the observer. An example of discrimination might involve our alien first witnessing many cars with four wheels, but then encountering a motorcycle with 2 wheels, and hence, since cars and motorcycles are easily distinguishable in a number of ways, making the discrimination between motorcycles and cars, expecting four wheels on cars and two on motorcycles. The more motorcycles the alien sees, the more generalized the discrimination becomes, and hence the greater the expectation that motorcycles will have two wheels. So, discriminations depend on generalization, either directly or indirectly, for this form of learning to occur.

Generalization takes place indirectly through transitivity. This is the innate ability to immediately recognize that, for example, if a = b and b = c, then a = c. This can occur automatically, without the need for any direct training as it is commonly conceived, and is naturally facilitated by the structure of the brain and the automatic way elements of stimuli that are similar are associated. It is this process that allows for generalization or the generalization of discriminations to occur through the process of imagination and is in fact the very stuff of imagination. So, for example, the alien can now imagine a motor vehicle with three wheels, or any number of wheels, without first seeing one. The alien can expect that a three-wheeled vehicle may exist or would be possible to build.

These three different processes of learning are complementary and can feed each other in constant loops. This fact, along with those of first focus above, goes a long way in describing what thinking and learning are. However, there is another property of learning worth noting, before turning to motivation to complete our description of anger responses.

This property is called blocking. This is when a previously learned association, either learned directly in the sensory environment or indirectly through transitivity, literally “blocks” the learning of other associations. Blocking occurs due to the practical limitations of our brain and sensory systems. We can only detect and process so much information at one time, and so we will only expend our limited resources in proportion to what we deem important. In other words, the environment often presents us with more information than we can process at any one time and we implicitly and or explicitly make choices about what to use our limited sensory and thought capacity to focus on. Hence, there is information in the environment that we may process late, relative to our welfare, or perhaps not at all. To illustrate, during his first minutes on earth, our alien may have noticed that there are at least two types of motor vehicles, one with four wheels and another with two. So, spending some time making and thinking about these observations, the alien suddenly notices that his delicate, relatively light-deprived skin is getting red. The alien has now learned a new lesson, though all too late, as his sensory focus and attention was on the cars and motorcycles going by. That is, that the earth’s sunlight is too intense for his delicate skin and he must now seek shelter or cover.

In extreme cases, blocking can not only delay learning, but prevent it entirely, permanently. For instance, if one develops a learned habit of focusing on only certain elements of a situation or even abstract concepts, one can easily miss differences either present from the beginning or that arise later. This can even occur with imagination, though imagination also offers another way to check against blocking. Can you imagine how this can occur?

To mention another example, in the experimental case, rats that are trained to press a lever to receive a food pellet after seeing a red light will later fail to learn to press in response to a yellow light of similar brightness, if the yellow light is first presented after learning to focus on the red light occurs. In this case, the yellow light is then presented alone and the rat will not press the lever for food.

It is important to refer to two previous concepts here, which are those of implicit and explicit memory. The newer and/or more complex the learning that is occurring, the more sensory and conscious (explicit) processing that is required. As associations are better learned, the behaviors they help motivate depend increasingly on implicit memory as learned behaviors become increasingly automatic, eventually occurring with little or no thought. This is what we call “habit” formation, and it occurs at a rate and in proportion to the sensory intensity, subjective importance, and distinguishability of the relevant stimuli.

That's the end of the section from my handout.  There is more to mention here though regarding the complexity of the environments in which brains learn.  One of the implications is an explanation for why people often seem to repeat mistakes, even many, many times.

Below is a section of a recent blog post:

I submit that the tasks brains are engaged are often much more complex than seems commonly perceived. All stimuli, or everything our senses can detect, become predictors for goal attainment, but usually not immediately. A process of generalization is needed, even across seemingly unrelated contexts such as different rooms in a house, or even different states of mind. For example, school children who test in the room they learn the material in perform better on average than those who are tested in a different room.

But, what if the predictive context is large and varied? Apply the counting rules in probability, and the complexity of even a "simple" task is revealed. For example, consider a mother who needs help from three kids raking the yard, and one to vaccum the house, simultaneously. Apply the permutation rule, and there are 24 different ways to assign the children to these tasks. That is, (4)(3)(2)(1) = 24. Of course, some permutations are more helpful than others, and an educated guess might mean mom can narrow down the relevant possibilities. Still, choosing the optimal permutation(s) can be very difficult, if not nearly impossible given practical limitations.

Of course, the number of permutations, which I sometimes call the permutation space, because I think it sounds cool, can be much, much greater(See other examples in the link above). Numbers can even easily get into the trillions and much higher still. This is especially true when permuation spaces are dynamic, such as in the stock market, or in social relationships. Perhaps this is a fundamental reason, along with the status quo bias and some other factors, investors often lose money seemingly employing the same strategies each time, or wives stay with abusive husbands, in many cases, trying many ways to stay with the abuser while trying to keep him calm. The actual, "blind" dynamic permutation space can be terribly, and indeed, incalculably vast,...

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