Want to Know Why Annie Gets Hungry in Math Class? Just Ask Pavlov's Dogs

by Annie Shao, age 17

Every student loves a half-day. Especially in high school, we really appreciate a break. But there is a downside to half days:  getting hungry in the class that’s usually just before lunch, regardless of the time.

Last year, it was math class. I would feel a swooping pang of hunger, even though I had just eaten breakfast. I was curious as to why this would happen. Then, in psychology class, I learned about Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who researched this phenomenon. He called it classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning is a form of learning in which associations between two usually unrelated stimuli are built in the brain. There are four components to classical conditioning:  the unconditional stimulus, unconditional response, conditional stimulus, and conditional response. This type of learning is crucial in the evolution and survival of many animal species; it helps animals associate appropriate responses with danger.

In Pavlov’s famous experiment, he trained dogs to salivate after hearing a bell, even when no food was present.

First he gave his dogs meat powder. Then Pavlov rang a bell every time they had access to the meat. Their biological response to the food was salivating. But the dogs soon began to salivate as soon as they heard the bell sound. They had learned that the bell meant food was about to arrive. Eventually, Pavlov was able to ring the bell and the dogs would salivate even without the presence of food.

The unconditional stimulus is something that causes an unconditional response, which is usually involuntary or reflexive, like the meat powder and the drooling of Pavlov’s dogs. The conditional stimulus is a neutral stimulus, or something that is not usually related to the unconditional response. In Pavlov’s experiment, conditional response was the sound of the bell. While the conditional stimulus also causes the unconditional response, it is now called the conditional response: in this case the dogs’ drooling.

In my situation, lunch was an unconditional stimulus that evoked my unconditional response of hunger. Math class was a conditional stimulus; math by itself does not make me hungry, but since it was my class before lunch, I started to associate it with hunger— my conditioned response. While a half-day changes the length of my classes, it does not change what my brain associates with them, which is why I felt unnaturally hungry so early.

Next time you feel ridiculously hungry at 9 AM on a half-day, just remember— it’s your mind playing tricks on you. But also remember, it’s good that your brain is wired to do this to you, because classical conditioning is an important part of survival for all animals, including humans.

[Source: Psychology World]

Click here to learn more about Pavlov and his dogs



As a Psychology major, it's wonderful to see some Psych material in the SSFP! Thanks, Annie! – Brianna WilsonSt. Olaf College (2011-05-31 19:26)
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