Psychological Conditioning

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Long ago, in a land far, far away, a grown man named Ivan Pavlov rang a bell before he gave hungry dogs some food. He did this after noticing that the dogs began to salivate whenever they saw his assistant, who was the one who always brought them their meat. After the bell was paired with the food a few times the dogs would salivate just to the ring of a bell.

This type of learning (we call this classical conditioning) changes some physical or emotional system that we can’t intentionally control. Other kinds of learning effect voluntary systems, but in life the two are always jumbled up together, inseparable.

Generally, when one thing possibly signals another, a common reaction is forged in our body-brain-mind. Evolution has ensured that just the whiff of a known predator will evoke the original behaviour and stress reaction. In this way, our past is carried forward, sometimes like an invisible hitch-hiker and sometimes as a known companion.

We don’t condition ourselves any more than those dogs decided that slobbering to a bell would be cool. We’re conditioned by the events in our life. Our body-brain-mind is always “on” for learning, a super-absorbent system soaking up significant events, and soaking them up so richly and deeply that we actually embody the significant events of our life.

Conditioning can happen way outside of our awareness. For example, an established finding is that our immune system can be conditioned. If rats are given a novel sweet drink paired with a tasteless drug that suppresses the immune system, the later offering of that sweet drink minus the drug brings about the same immune suppression. ‘Remembering’ bad food and bad situations through conditioning for the rest of our days is a big survival advantage.

Advertizers vigourously work these animal abilities, conjuring money (from our pockets!) through conditioning. Ad repetition, product packaging and placement, trend-peer pressure, pairing products with sex, social status and success, even humour, all have the desired effect.

Have you ever thought, “Why did I do that?” When what we want and what we do conflict, we have a purer moment in which to behold the power of conditioning. It’s spooky to become aware that what we think may be very different from how we’ve been conditioned. Don’t believe everything you think, but do believe that what you think and do may be an echo of past conditioning.

If all of the emotional and stressful moments of your life trigger learning, imagine just how much conditioning has taken place! Conditioning establishes our tendencies to avoid and to pursue. Habits, phobias, worrying, our self-concept, our patterns of thought and how we evaluate things are shaped by conditioning. The whirl and convolutions of our conditioning shape our dynamics.

We would quite simply be extinct if we did not retain the physical and emotional and sensory representations of dangerous and threatening experiences. Even though we don’t suffer the same grim threats as our forebears, life leaves it’s impressions in the same ways. Conditioning charts a course of reactions when similar moments come up later. Conditioning means we’re more like Velcro that Teflon. For all of us, it isn’t a question of whether we’ve been conditioned by life’s pain, but by how much. As Wavy Gravy (the Grateful Dead’s official clown) says, we’re all bozos on the same bus!

For all of us, our minds (and bodies) have unavoidably and without a doubt been deeply conditioned by past experience. It reminds me of the caution that you’ll find on your car’s passenger side rear view mirror – Objects (from your history!) May Be Closer Than They Appear.