Human Learning

By Edward L. Thorndike; Richard M. Elliott | Go to book overview

Lecture 11
THE EVOLUTION OF LEARNING IN GENERAL

THE same change in an animal may occur as a feature of learning or in other ways. The animal who once bit at a certain object may now neglect it, because he has learned to neglect it, or because he has outgrown the taste for it, or because he is not now hungry, or because his muscles are unready to contract. Learning is a form of change, distinguished from the changes of mere inner growth by being related to special external situations and usually by being much more rapid, and distinguished from adaptation, fatigue, excitability, depression, and other physiological shifts by being much more permanent.

In their simple and early stages the changes in animals which we call learning are hard to distinguish from changes which we call adaptation or fatigue. Indeed if an animal in which we cannot separate off sense-organs, muscles, and the like is gently touched once per minute and then reacts less and less to these touches, but the next hour or day is just as before, we may equally well say that he becomes adapted, or gets fatigued, or learns not to mind it for the time being. How the changes called learning evolved from the more general modifiability of living matter, we do not know. It is a fascinating subject for investigation in comparative physiology and psychology in the future.

We shall begin the story of learning at the point where the animal is modified by certain experiences, not by mere inner growth, so that it responds to the same external situa-

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