Learning is the process by which new knowledge, behaviors, attitudes, and ideas are acquired. Learning can occur through both unconscious and conscious pathways. Classical conditioning is one of those unconscious learning methods and is the most straightforward way in which humans can learn. Classical conditioning is the process in which an automatic, conditioned response is paired with specific stimuli. Although Edwin Twitmyer published findings pertaining to classical conditioning one year earlier, the best-known and most thorough work on classical conditioning is accredited to Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist born in the mid-1800s. Pavlov had such a great impact on the study of classical conditioning that it is often referred to as Pavlovian conditioning.
Classical conditioning was stumbled upon by accident. Pavlov was conducting research on the digestion of dogs when he noticed that the dogs’ physical reactions to food subtly changed over time. At first, the dogs would only salivate when the food was placed in front of them. However, later they salivated slightly before their food arrived. Pavlov realized that they were salivating at the noises that were consistently present before the food arrived; for example, the sound of a food cart is approaching.
To test his theory, Pavlov set up an experiment in which he rang a bell shortly before presenting food to the dogs. At first, the dogs elicited no response to the bells. However, eventually, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell alone.
To understand classical conditioning, it is essential to be familiar with the following terms. A neutral stimulus is a stimulus that at first elicits no response. Pavlov introduced the ringing of the bell as a neutral stimulus. An unconditioned stimulus is a stimulus that leads to an automatic response. In Pavlov’s experiment, the food was the unconditioned stimulus. An unconditioned response is an automatic response to a stimulus. The dogs salivating for food is the unconditioned response in Pavlov’s experiment. A conditioned stimulus is a stimulus that can eventually trigger a conditioned response. In the described experiment, the conditioned stimulus was the ringing of the bell, and the conditioned response was salivation.
It is important to note that the neutral stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus. Furthermore, it is important to realize that the unconditioned response and the conditioned response are the same except for which stimulus they are elicited by. In this case, salivation was the response, but the unconditioned response was triggered by food, whereas the conditioned response was triggered by the bell which indicated the coming of food.