Think of your favorite food. Is it chocolate soufflé? Lobster? Gol gappe? Does that make you salivate? Are you salivating now? Now why did that happen? In the late 1800’s, a famous Russian scientist did some experiments which are taught in every Psychology class to this day. The scientist’s name was Ivan Pavlov, and he did his famous experiments on the production of saliva in dogs, in response to food.
I am sure most of you are familiar with his experiments. The dog would salivate when he was given a piece of meat. He would ring a bell before giving the meat to the dog, and after a while he noticed that the dog would start salivating at the sound of the bell, even when there was no food, because the dog had learnt to associate a neutral stimulus, the sound of the bell, with the arrival of meat. This is known as Classical conditioning.
What he had shown was that the body reacted the same way to the thought of the food, as it did when food was actually given. In other words, after an association has been made, just thinking about something or someone has a physiologic effect on the function of the body.
What implication does that have in our life? Obviously, there is much more to human behavior than just a conditioned response. Even though we are much different from dogs, the same behaviors also occur in humans. If a certain neutral stimulus has been associated with something good or bad, then the same stimulus will provide the same good or bad feelings. For example, if you associate a certain baking smell with your grandma’s cooking, whenever you are exposed to the same smell, it reminds you of grandma, even though she may be long gone.
Another example is how kids react when they go to a doctor. Just because a doctor may have given an injection once, the child now equates going to the doctor with experiencing pain, and becomes afraid and starts crying every time he/she goes to the doctor. The doctor has become the “bell.”
How many of you eat popcorn and drink soda when you go to the movies? What does watching a movie in the theater have to do with eating popcorn? Yet, a lot us do (yes, I admit it, I do too!). Who invented this “movie going experience?” It is an example of classical conditioning that advertisers have learnt all too well, and can manipulate our responses almost without our being consciously aware of the response.
Now, let’s take it a step further into your life. How do you exhibit the effects of classical conditioning? How many “bells” do you respond to? Are there certain stimuli in your environment that you have become conditioned to respond in a certain way? Has someone ever “pushed your button?” Now, consider whether this is a conditioned response or not. When someone is pushing your buttons, you are responding exactly like the dog salivating at the sound of the bell.
Generally speaking, most of our conditioned responses have to do with our feelings and emotions. And more often, these emotions are the fear-based emotions of anger, disappointment, anxiety, worry, depression etc. And how do we deal with these emotions? Think about how you respond. Do you react or do you choose your response? Our conditioned responses have become habits, and we do them unconsciously.
Well, its time to get control back into our lives and examine where we are operating because of this classical conditioning. Let’s see how we can stop reacting unconsciously to circumstances.
There is one other important aspect of classical conditioning. And that is known as Extinction. Pavlov showed that if after
having learnt the conditioned response, if you ring the bell enough times without producing food, the dog would eventually stop producing saliva in response to the bell. In other words, the dog “unlearnt” what he had been conditioned with, and stopped reacting to the bell. In the same way, we can unlearn some responses by willfully causing extinction.
One of the easiest ways of causing extinction is to slow down and delay your response. In my seminars I discuss what happens in the brain when emotions run high. Whenever we respond in a knee-jerk fashion, our response is usually not the best response. We end up responding in a way that we almost always regret afterwards. So, the easiest way to respond properly is to just delay your response. This causes extinction of the conditioned response.
This is especially true if the automatic conditioned response was going to be of anger. Let’s say someone accuses you of lying or stealing. What is your conditioned, automatic response? When you get angry, your muscles also become tense. In fact, it is impossible to feel angry without tightening of your muscles. Next time you get angry, just observe yourself (IF you have the presence of mind to remember this when you are angry, which is in itself doubtful). So, if you breathe for a few seconds and relax your muscles, you will avoid getting angry as a conditioned reflex.
This is a very important point that it is worth repeating. You cannot “feel” angry, anxious or fearful, if your muscles are completely relaxed. The tension in the muscles is due to the body getting ready to respond. It is preparing the muscles to respond. So, if you can completely relax the muscles, and breathe deeply, you can eliminate the automatic response. In effect, relaxation is the body’s own tranquilizer.
Most meditative practices begin with physical relaxation, because it is almost impossible for beginners to achieve mental relaxation without first relaxing your body. Breathing properly and relaxing your body are prerequisites to a calm and peaceful mind. All the things that take away the calm, be it fear, anger, anxiety, worry, despair, are all conditioned responses which can be unlearned or made extinct, by choosing how we respond. Stop listening to these bells, and you will automatically start gravitating towards centeredness. The outside circumstances affect us because we let them.
Its important to realize that whether you are calm and tranquil, or angry and upset, it is not because of the external stimulus, but your own response to the stimulus. It is your own response that makes you upset or angry.
Next time someone pushes your buttons…….think of the bell……..and the dog salivating. Then choose your response.
Until next time.
Pictures taken from:http://oddlovescompany.com, http://www.blouinartinfo.com, http://www.freeinfosociety.com, http://animals.howstuffworks.com