Learning: Associative

Associative learning is the process by which two distinct stimuli or cues become associated in the mind by being experienced together and reinforcing each other. The cues can be just about anything— facts, information, ideas, events, sensory stimuli, or behaviors; however, associative learning always involves more than one stimulus or cue.

The brain is designed to group together information into neural pathways, and associative learning enables humans and other animals to connect information so that it can be recalled more accurately and easily. Thus, discreet ideas and experiences reinforce each other and become linked. Associative learning is in contrast to non-associative learning, which is a change in behavior in response to a single stimulus.

The concept of associative learning dates back at least to Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. In his essay “On Memory and Reminiscence,” Aristotle described how the temporal relationship of two events enabled one event to act as a reminder of the other. During the twentieth century, associative learning based on temporal contiguity or proximity came to be accepted as the primary principle of learning. Thus, in its broadest sense, associative learning describes essentially all learning other than non-associative learning (habituation and sensitization based on repetition). However, associative learning is usually described as being of one of two types of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant or instrumental conditioning, where conditioning is the learning, modifying, or unlearning of a behavior based on a stimulus and a response.

Classical conditioning

There are different types of classical conditioning:

A conditioned response can be generalized to stimuli that are similar but not identical to the original stimulus. However, repeated unpairing of the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli leads to extinction of the response.

Operant conditioning

Operant or instrumental conditioning was discovered early in the twentieth century by Columbia University psychologist Edward Thorndike (1874– 1949) and further developed by the behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990). In contrast to classical conditioning, which strengthens the association between a stimulus and an outcome, operant conditioning uses reinforcement—reward or punishment—to strengthen an association between an action and an outcome. Thus, associative learning by operant conditioning links a particular behavior with a consequence. In rats, a food reward can become associated with a motor behavior, such as pushing a lever to dispense food. Once the association is established, rats will push the lever for food until their hunger is satisfied. The association is strengthened each time it is reinforced. Because motivation, such as hunger, is required for instrumental conditioning, the neural circuits in the brain that underlie this type of associative learning are much more complicated that those underlying classical conditioning.

Positive reinforcement (food) strengthens the response (pushing the lever) if it is presented after the response. Operant conditioning can also occur through negative reinforcement or punishment. The punishment may be positive—the occurrence of something undesirable—or negative—the removal or withholding of something desirable.

Operant conditioning can be maintained by partial reinforcement. However, when it is no longer reinforced, the response declines, and eventually operant extinction occurs.

Associative memory

Associative learning is strengthened through a process called consolidation and eventually is stored in long-term associative memory. Associative memory is the ability to recall relationships between unrelated pieces of information that result from associative learning. For example, the name of a new acquaintance may be associated with the smell of her perfume. Associative memory is a particular type of long-term memory for facts and events called declarative memory in humans and relational memory in animals. Associative memory requires areas in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, including the hippocampus and surrounding structures. Patterns of neural activity in the hippocampus are indicative of the formation of new associative memories, but these patterns can occur before, during, or after associative learning. This suggests that the network of hippocampal neurons (nerve cells) might be recruited gradually during the formation of new associative memories. Associative learning and its strengthening and consolidation into associative memory also involves cells in other areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, frontal motor areas, and striatum.

Current models

In the latter part of the twentieth century, learning based on simple association by temporal contiguity was called into question. For example, it was shown that repeated temporal contiguity between a CS and US does not necessarily result in learning. Therefore, the strength of associative learning is now believed to be much more complicated and dependent on the number of unconditioned stimuli, known as cue competition, and the strength of an expectation.


Classical conditioning—
A form of associative learning in which a unconditioned stimulus (cue) that evokes an unconditioned (innate) response becomes associated with another unrelated cue or conditioned stimulus.
Conditioned response (CR)—
A response that is formed by associative learning.
Conditioned stimulus (CS)—
An originally neutral stimulus or cue that becomes a learned association with a response.
The process by which memories enter long-term storage.
The principle that associative learning is influenced by the proximity in space and time of stimuli or cues and responses or ideas.
Declarative memory—
Memory of facts and events.
A part of the brain's limbic system that is involved in learning and memory formation.
Operant conditioning—
Instrumental conditioning; associative learning in response to a consequence or reinforcement, either positive or negative.
Unconditioned response (UR)—
An unlearned or natural reaction to a stimulus.
Unconditioned stimulus (US)—
A stimulus that induces an unconditioned or unlearned reaction.
Working memory—
Short-term memory that is involved in performing current tasks.

Attentional models of associative learning assume that there are two interactive aspects: learning how much attention to pay to a cue (stimulus) and learning the association between the cue and the outcome. Learning the outcome influences the amount of attention paid to the cue, which influences the rate of associative learning.

Associative learning leads to habits. About 40% of daily human activities are performed under almost identical circumstances. Habits have a recognizable pattern (neural signature) in the brain. Associative learning of a response uses the associative basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex and supports working memory. As the behavior is repeated, the information shifts to the sensory motor loop that supports the cueresponse associations, and the information about the goal or outcome is no longer retained. Thus, habits are formed by the shift from goal-directed to context cue response.

See also Learning: non-associative ; Operant conditioning ; Pavlov, Ivan; Pavlovian conditioning; Skinner, B. F.; Thorndike, Edward.



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