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Conditioning, also known as classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, is a form of learning and expectation based on the experience of association between a stimulus and a response.

The Russian scientist and Nobel prize winner Ivan Petrovich Pavlov is credited with the discovery of the conditioning mechanism. He found that dogs can be conditioned to salivate in the presence of a non-food stimulus that they have learned to associate with food. If Igor brings the food and claps before feeding the dog, the dog will eventually salivate when Igor walks in the room or when it hears a clap.

A response to conditioning can be involuntary, as in the case of salivation, and it can be unconscious as in the case of expecting to get relief from an ailment by following a doctor's orders.

Psychologist Andrew Neher's book The Psychology of Transcendence (1981) explains various mystical, psychic, and occult experiences as the result of conditioning effects. Neher's book might help seekers understand what they are going through without feeling foolish. Neher notes that many people are driven to seek transcendence by the hope that there is something more than this ordinary existence. A little ignorance of physiology and conditioning leaves us vulnerable to those who offer a path to transcendence via dreams, drugs, visualization techniques, meditations, diets, etc. Neher explains how such conditioned experiences must be understood in their cultural context. His book can help people understand that there may be naturalistic explanations for their extraordinary experiences without feeling that the value of their experiences has been belittled.

Classical conditioning is "hypothesized to be the primary triggering mechanism for the placebo effect ... which must be learned before it can manifest itself...." (Bausell 2007: 131). Dogs injected with morphine begin to salivate and can be conditioned to salivate from any injection, whether with morphine or not. A classic placebo is to use a hypodermic needle to inject a saline solution or other inert substance. When conditioning is combined with desire and motivation for relief the placebo effect is boosted for both active and inert substances.

Many people think that the placebo effect is "all in the head," but that is no more true than that people's physiological responses to what they think is alcohol or a drug are only in their head. People can be conditioned "to respond to placebos through repeated administrations of active drugs" (Bausell 2007: 132).

Donald D. Price, an expert on pain, has demonstrated that conditioning and expectation significantly affect the experience of pain and pain reduction (Price et al. 1999, 2005). R. Barker Bausell speculates that since complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioners' greatest asset is their nourishment of hope (2007: 294), "such therapies may be engendering nothing more than the expectation that they will reduce pain by elaborate explanations, promises, and ceremonies" (p. 149). He also notes that the analgesics prescribed by our physicians receive a boost in efficacy based on our past experience and expectations.

Finally, Martina Amanzio et al. (2001) demonstrated that "at least part of the physiological basis for the placebo effect is opiod in nature" (Bausell 2007: 160). That is, we can be conditioned to release such chemical substances as endorphins, catecholamines, cortisol, and adrenaline. One reason, therefore, that people report pain relief from both acupuncture and sham acupuncture is that both are placebos that stimulate the opiod system.

See also communal reinforcement, hidden persuaders, self-deception, and wishful thinking.

further reading

Amanzio Martina et al. (2001). Response variability to analgesics: a role for non-specific activation of endogenous opioids. Pain. Feb 15;90(3):205-15.

Bausell, R. Barker. (2007). Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine Oxford. (review)

Price, D. D. et al. (1999). An analysis of factors that contribute to the magnitude of placebo analgesia in an experimental paradigm. Pain, Volume 83, Number 2.

Price, Donald D. et al. (2005). Conditioning, expectation, and desire for relief in placebo analgesia. Seminars in Pain Medicine. Volume 3, Issue 1. Abstract.

Last updated 13-Jan-2014

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