Brain Facts

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How Your Brain Learns To Be Anxious

Your brain learns, through a process called conditioning, to continually adapt your behavior in an attempt to be better suited to survive in its environment. In classical conditioning, your brain learns to associate two stimuli, such as in Pavlov’s well-known experiments with dogs. Pavlov, who was actually studying digestion, paired the sound of a bell with the dogs being presented food, which caused them to salivate. Pretty soon, he noticed that just the sound of the bell had the dogs drooling. The dogs brains had been conditioned to physically connect the sound of a bell with food in a neural pathway.

Now, Pavlov’s dogs scenario learning makes sense, but your brain doesn’t care if the pairing is logical or not, as demonstrated in the controversial “Little Albert” experiments. Scientist John B. Watson conditioned a young child, dubbed Little Albert, to fear a white rat by pairing the rat with a loud, scary noise over and over. Watson then demonstrated that Albert’s fear transferred to other white furry objects, such as a dog, a bunny, and a fur coat. In this case, poor Little Albert’s brain had wired white and furry with fear.

Classical conditioning happens primarily beneath conscious awareness. The conditioned response in classical conditioning (for example, the cravings you might experience when seeing a chocolate cake) cannot be suppressed at will and are involuntary. You can suppress your behavior but not your body’s response.

In a second kind of learning, operant conditioning, your brain learns to associate your behavior with consequences, good or bad. A behavior is strengthened when followed by a reinforcing reward and diminished when followed by a negative reward. For example, operant conditioning is at work when a kid says please to get a cookie, or a seal balances a ball on its nose to get a juicy sardine, or when the car stops that annoying beeping when you fasten your seat belt.

In everyday life, you are continually being conditioned in both ways, and as you learn, your behavior is reinforced, shaped, and refined by your environment and simultaneously influenced by your thoughts, feelings, and memories. Your brain changes as a result. Mother Nature was kind enough to program your brain with certain fears at birth to ensure your survival, but you pack on many more neurosis, learned from the world around you, the people in your life, and your experiences.

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