Calorie Learning: Background

The discovery of flavor-calorie learning (in rats) was no surprise. It was another example of flavor-consequence learning, which was well established. In the 1950s, John Garcia had found that if you make a rat sick after exposing it to a new flavor, it will avoid that flavor. Flavor-consequence learning belongs to the larger category of Pavlovian learning (also called classical conditioning), the sort of learning where an animal learns that an unimportant event (such as a bell) predicts an important event (such as food). Pavlovian learning belongs to the larger category of associative learning, which also includes action-event learning, such as a rat learning that bar presses produce food pellets. The action is pressing the bar; the event is getting a food pellet.

My Ph.D. was in the field of animal learning. Almost all animal learning research is about associative learning. When I taught introductory psychology, however, I found it hard to take advantage of my expertise because most of the research had little real-world relevance. The big exception was Shepard Siegel’s work on drug tolerance and craving. Tolerance and craving are due to Pavlovian learning, Siegel argued. Flavor-calorie learning, happening at every meal, might have been another exception had anything interesting been known about it — but nothing was.

The usual terminology is to say that in a Pavlovian-learning experiment, the animal learns to associate the CS (conditioned stimulus, such as a bell) with the US (unconditioned stimulus, such as food). In flavor-calorie learning experiments, the flavor source is the CS, the calorie source the US.

One Reply to “Calorie Learning: Background”

  1. This Siegel & Ramos paper is just superb (finally made it to the top of my reading list). Thanks for linking to it, fascinating and useful information.

    It certainly looks like one factor in food binging is the insulin spike (the conditioned compensatory response) that your brain learns to generate when you smell or eat familiar food, which happens before the carbohydrates are absorbed into your bloodstream. This causes a need for carbohydrate to balance the insulin, making it very hard to stop eating.

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