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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Neural-Functionalist Approach to Learning


Researchers within the field of learning have traditionally divided their empirical world according to methodology, with phenomena classified as single stimulus learning, Pavlovian conditioning, or instrumental learning. This trichotomy, a vestige of our behaviorist past, continues to influence the field, both in the classroom and in the laboratory. Relying on data collected using a simple model system (learning within the mammalian spinal cord), evidence is presented that organisms can learn about an environmental relationship in multiple ways, an observation that argues against a simple isomorphism between methodology and mechanism. It is suggested that a new classification system is needed that focuses on mechanism rather than methodology, subdividing our empirical world along lines that make sense given commonalties in the neural-functional mechanisms involved.

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