What is Classical Conditioning?
What is classical conditioning? It is a theory which assumes that new behaviors are learned through association. That is, two stimuli, or catalysts, are directly correlated and produce a new learned response.
The most famous example of classical conditioning is known as “Pavlov’s dog”. Ironically, it started out as a research project on the study of animal digestive processes, and had nothing to do with learned response. As the name implies, the researcher responsible was a Russian physiologist named Ivan Palov.
Pavlov began to notice that dogs in the experiment began to salivate when exposed to the mere presence of the person who fed them – even if the food was not present. This led Pavlov to further experimentation, as other stimuli (such as a bell ringing) were presented repetitiously. And, indeed, inevitably the same salivation response occurred even without the presence of food.
How Classical Conditioning Relates to Addiction
In addition to producing wanted or unwanted behaviors, classical conditioning can eliminate those behaviors as well.
Powerful cues can manipulate addicted persons. The reminder of these relationships are one of the main triggers for addicts. It is why they keep coming back for more. It is also why they relapse. The brain links the addiction through associations.
Let me give you an example taken from real experience.
I was once in a short-term recovery facility for panic disorder, and I met a young gentleman there who was a recovering heroin addict. He was fresh off the needle when I first saw him, and I watched him go through days of dope sickness.
After a few days, he seemed to be doing much better. He was in much better spirits as the major withdrawal symptoms began to subside. I was very thin at the time, with very pronounced blood vessels in my arms. He admitted that looking at my veins was a trigger for him, and made him think about shooting up.
Normally, no one would have such a response – only someone conditioned to get pleasure from intravenous drug use.
What is Classical Conditioning Applied as Intervention?
The removal of unwanted learned behaviors, works in a similar way. This may involve the cognitive behavioral therapy intervention known as exposure. Repeated exposure (instead of avoidance) to certain triggers can re-wire our brain to stop associating those triggers with substance abuse.
Persons who do not undergo cue exposure have more difficulty in recovery and more likely to relapse. And it’s perfectly understandable. Learned responses that powerful do not usually just go away on their own.
Another similar concept is aversion therapy. This directly associates the unwanted learned behavior with something very undesirable. For example, there are certain drugs, such as Antabuse, that illicit severe vomiting when alcohol is ingested. This can be an effective method of associating drinking with almost no pleasure and lots of discomfort.
You see, taking drugs and drinking alcohol is voluntary, but the responses that invoke that behavior are not. Remove the learned response (positive association to the drug), and the likelihood of substance use decreases.
If you someone you know is an addict or alcoholic, please seek help immediately.