School of Psychology, Birkbeck College

Course PSYC044U (Psychobiology II)
WEEK 1
January 25th, 2007
side index

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INTRODUCTION: INSTINCT AND LEARNING (INNATE AND ACQUIRED MECHANISMS OF COGNITION)


The bulk of this course concerns the experimental study of learning in animals, reflecting a tradition of “learning theorists” such as Pavlov, Thorndike, Hull and Skinner) who tended to assume
  1. that learning from experience is a crucial factor in human psychology;

  2. that the basic mechanisms of learning are rather simple and are not uniquely human; and

  3. that important general principles of psychology could therefore be discovered from the study of animal learning.
All these assumptions can of course be questioned.

1. It is now often assumed that many crucial determinants of human cognition do not depend on learning from experience, but are in some way innate, most notably the abilities required for the acquisition of language in human infants. (Pinker, 1994; Ramus, 2006)

2. Although simple basic mechanisms of learning continue to be studied, for instances in the cases of habituation and classical conditioning, there are many theories of more complicated forms of information processing, such as forms of memory and spatial inference, even within animal psychology. (e.g. see week 6 and week 9 of this course)

3. There are alternative traditions of studying natural patterns of animal behaviour in particular species in relation to their evolution and function, with the assumption that each species has its own repertoire of inherited behaviour patterns, and that new learning will be heavily constrained within these “species-specific” patterns. These alternatives will be briefly reviewed, under the headings “Ethology”, “Behavioural Ecology” and “Sociobiology” (see copy of overhead ). at bottom of p. 7). A great deal of neurobiological research currently seeks to find the detailed genetic basis of innate behaviours in insects (Manoli & Baker, 2004; Vrontou et al., 2006) and also in vertebrates (Gahtan et al., 2005) including mammals; (Choi et al., 2005; Steele et al., 2006; Dulac & Torello, 2003; Brennan & Zufall, 2006).

 

 

Some unsurprising conclusions are:

  • Individual species have varied patterns of perceptual abilities, response skills and motivation, in accordance with their natural life styles.

  • Species differ according to how far their behavioural repertoires depend on learning.

  • In many species, even those with highly developed innate patterns of behaviour, information resulting from an individual animal's experience is an essential part of its development, in for instance, forming social attachments, acquiring spatial knowledge, and finding food.

 

 

 

 

Essay Question

“Instinct and learning are mutually exclusive factors in the control of animal behaviour.” Discuss.

 

 

 

 

 

Main sources

Davey. G. (1989) Ecological Learning Theory. London: Routledge. (Chapter 1: “Ecology, evolution, and learning”.

Gleitman, H. et al. (1999/2004) Psychology. 5th/6th Edition. Norton, London. "Varieties of Learning and Complex cognition in animals" pp 147-162/149-160 and "The biological basis of social behavior", pp 405-416/416-7.

Walker, S.F. (1987) Animal Learning: An Introduction. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. (Chapter 1)

 

Further Reading

Lazarus J. (1987) The concepts of sociobiology. In H. Beloff and A.M. Coleman (eds) Psychology Survey No. 6. Leicester: British Psychological Society, 192-217. (In journals in Bk library)

Lieberman, D. (1993/2000) Learning: Behavior and Cognition. Belmont: Wadsworth. "Learning in an Evolutionary Context". (pp. 361-392/467-495)

Maynard Smith, J. (1984) Game theory and the evolution of behaviour. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 7, 95-126.

Shettleworth, S.J. (1993) Varieties of learning and memory in animals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behaviour Processes, 19, 5-14.

Walker, S.F. (1985) Animal Thought. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. (Chapters 1,2 & 6)

Reading for revision of year 1 Psychobiology

Green, S. (1994). Principles of Biopsychology. Erlbaum

Rosenzweig, M.R., Leiman, A.L., and Breedlove, S.M., (1999). Biological Psychology, 2nd Edition. Sinauer

 

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