58.1 F

Davis, California

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Column: Using classical conditioning to self-better

Look up. How far above your head is the ceiling? Did you ever think that your work performance and general feelings of well being might rely partly on your answer?

Probably not. I hadn’t either. I’ve always thought, a room is a room, right? Given that it’s quiet, I should be able to finish my reading whether the ceiling is eight feet above my head or merely two.

I thought wrong. A study in this month’s Psychology Today found that distance from ceiling to floor of the room we’re in has a subtle effect on how we feel and perform tasks.

While low ceilings might make us feel more constrained and claustrophobic, they are good for specific tasks that call for intense focus. Higher ceilings, on the other hand, encourage broader more creative thinking, while freeing us from inhibitions. If you’re outside, the theory is that your thinking knows no boundaries or limits (many transcendentalists would smile upon this study and say it falls in line with their belief of nature’s merits).

The study got me thinking: How does not only environment, but the subconscious associations we make between external surroundings and our own experiences, shape how we think and feel? If we associate a low ceiling with feeling constrained, and a higher one with more elevated thinking, what other associations do we make? Furthermore, is there a rhyme or reason to these associations, or do they happen randomly? How might some associations help us, while others deter us?

To examine this, I introduce the concept of classical conditioning, which all you psych majors and anyone who’s taken a Psych 1 course are probably familiar with.

Classical “Pavlovian” conditioning is named after psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who did an experiment with dogs that caused them to associate the sound of a bell with the smell of food. From then on, the dogs salivated every time they heard the bell – no matter if the food was even present. They had been classically conditioned to respond to a formerly neutral stimulus, based off its association with a positive stimulus.

Countless psychologists have attributed the formation of phobias to classical conditioning. The theory goes that if you see a picture of an adorable chinchilla right before you see a picture of an ax murder, you probably won’t feel so fondly towards chinchillas thereafter.

Many people I know have fallen prey to developing phobias because of classical conditioning. My old housemate Kelley, who’s studying abroad in Paris right now, jokes that our other old housemate Katie (also studying abroad) lets negative associations “run her life.” Another friend of mine simply cannot drink Captain Morgan without gagging; not because of how it tastes, but because of the memories and sensations that it calls forth. She now correlates the taste of Captain Morgan with headaches, nausea and bad decisions.

In the same way that negative associations give birth to phobias, positive associations – if implemented into our daily lives as rituals – can provide predictability and a sense of comfort.

Having morning rituals makes the challenges of the day seem less overwhelming. Waking up and remembering my morning ritual helps get me out from bed, into my running shorts and finally out onto the streets. My run down Fifth Street invigorates me until I reach Sudwerk’s Brewery, where, coached along by the smell of beer and breakfast, I make my way over the freeway bridge that leads into South Davis.

While crossing the bridge, I’m reminded of the world outside of Davis when I see the train tracks and the mountaintops beyond Winters poking into the sky from a distance. In this way, when I wake up I don’t associate the morning with tiredness and a long day ahead of me in a cloistered college town – I associate it with running while exposing myself to the surrounding topography.

In the context of studying, classical conditioning can even be applied to remembering information. For instance, find a food that you love. Study with it. Whip it out again on test day. Psychologists say that while studying, you’ll have associated the information with whatever flavor was in your mouth. On test day, reintroducing this flavor into your mouth will aid in retrieving its associated information. The more distinct and less generic the flavor, the more likely information will stick.

So find a relatively un-noisome food. Carrots are a no-no. You don’t want to be brandished “Obnoxious Cruncher” by your classmates. Be creative. And let the power of associations contribute not only to a stellar report card this quarter, but a life laden with positive rituals.

ELENI STEPHANIDES has a few ideas for un-obnoxious study snacks that might be un-generic enough to facilitate both effective encoding and retrieval. Shoot her an e-mail at estephanides@ucdavis.edu and she’ll help you brainstorm some.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here