The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Selective Behavior

Other psychologists contributed, directly or indirectly, to the connectionist model of the brain. In the 1920s behaviorist scientists such as the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and the US psychologist Burrhus Skinner were influential in emphasizing the simple but pervasive law of learning through “conditioning”: if an unconditioned stimulus (e.g., a bowl of meat) that normally causes an unconditioned response (e.g., the dog salivates) is repeatedly associated with a conditioned stimulus (e.g., a bell), the conditioned stimulus (the bell) will eventually cause the unconditioned response (the dog salivates) without any need for the unconditioned stimulus (the bowl of meat).

Behaviorists came to believe that all forms of learning could be reduced to conditioning phenomena. To Skinner, all learned behavior is the result of selective “reinforcement” of random responses. Mental states (what goes on in our minds) have no effect on our actions. Skinner did not deny the existence of mental states, he simply denied that they explain behavior. A person does what she does because she has been "conditioned" to do that, not because her mind decided so. Skinner noticed a similarity between reinforcement and natural selection: random mutations are "selected" by the environment, and random behavior is also selected by the environment. A random action can bring reward (from the environment) that will cause reinforcement and therefore will increase the chances that the action is repeated in the future. An action that does not bring reward will not be repeated.

The environment determines which behavior is learned, just like the environment determines which species evolve.


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