Conditioning, noun: influencing, shaping, constraining, controlling; bringing something into a usable state by preparing, adapting, softening; changing behavior by rewarding or punishing each time an action is performed. We’re all familiar with Pavlov’s example of conditioning – by ringing a bell simultaneously with the feeding of test dogs, he trained the dogs to salivate at the mere ringing of the bell even if they could not see the food. Conditioning is easy to explain neurologically, as a biochemical response. The satisfaction of a bodily need or the discharge of an emotional tension leads to a release of hormones (like adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine in the case of fear, or dopamine and oxytocin in the case of pleasure), and to changes in the sensitivity of nerve cells. As an axon repeatedly fires to a cell, the cell is more easily stimulated each subsequent time because a neural pathway is established. An automatic reflex or unconscious response is formed, which is no longer subject to control by the will. Conceptually and emotionally, it’s more difficult to explain the complex conditioning of human behavior, since it begins to take shape before language and memory develop and has to be inferred backwards, from its effects. (more…)