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Commun Integr Biol. 2010 Mar-Apr; 3(2): 142–145.
PMCID: PMC2889970

The biology of psychology

‘Simple’ conditioning?


Operant (instrumental) and classical (Pavlovian) conditioning are taught as the simplest forms of associative learning. Recent research in several invertebrate model systems has now accumulated evidence that the dichotomy is not as simple as it seemed. During operant learning in the fruit fly Drosophila, at least two genetically distinct learning systems interact dynamically. Inspired by analogous results in three other research fields, we propose to term one of these systems world-learning (assigning value to sensory stimuli) and the other self-learning (assigning value to a specific action or movement). During the goal-directed phase of operant learning, world-learning inhibits self-learning (in Drosophila via the mushroom-body neuropil), to allow for flexible generalization. Extended training overcomes this inhibition in a phase transition akin to habit formation in vertebrates, allowing self-learning to transform spontaneous actions to habitual responses. In part, these insights were achieved by reducing operant experiments beyond the traditional set-ups (i.e., ‘pure’ operant learning) and using modern, molecular and/or genetic model systems.

Key words: insect, flight, choice, decision-making, spontaneity, behavior, memory

Differentiating Operant and Classical Conditioning

Every high-school student today learns about the dichotomy of simple conditioning experiments: Pavlov’s dogs (classical or Pavlovian conditioning) and Skinner’s rats (operant or instrumental conditioning). Classical and operant conditioning were recognized as producing two separate types of learning more than 70 years ago. Despite their clear procedural differences, it was recognized early on that the psychological processes occurring during conditioning were not as easily separable.15 Specifically, classical associations between sensory stimuli were often found to be present after operant conditioning.6 Conversely, as classical training progressed, operant processes were initially hypothesized to also occur as responding to the conditioned stimulus was rewarded by presentation of the unconditioned stimulus.7 Already in these early days, it became obvious that the operational terms ‘operant’ and ‘classical’, while unambiguously distinguishing the two types of experiments, did not clearly delineate which processes actually occurred during learning. However, an experimental approach dissecting individual learning processes was not available and the debate lingered on.8 Today, we can propose a terminology to better distinguish what is learned (stimuli or behavior) from how it is learned (by classical or operant conditioning). We define self-learning as the process of assigning value to a specific action or movement. We define world-learning as the process assigning value to sensory stimuli. While only world-learning occurs in classical conditioning experiments, both processes may occur during operant conditioning.

More than Synaptic Plasticity

In the torque meter apparatus,9 Drosophila fruit flies can be subjected to different operant conditioning experiments (Fig. 1).10 Using one of these operant paradigms to induce only world-learning (Fig. 1A; there is no contingent relation between any specific behavior and punishment) and another operant paradigm to induce only self learning (Fig. 1B; no contingent stimuli present), we found that the cAMP pathway was necessary for world-learning, but dispensable for self-learning.11 These results corroborate the evidence of the cAMP pathway being central to classical conditioning,12 during which only world-learning is induced. In our setup, there is no residual performance in cAMP mutants, suggesting that this is the only pathway involved.13 This contrasts with reports of olfactory classical conditioning, where cAMP-independent learning can be found. Most interestingly, inhibition of PKC activity affects self-learning, but not world-learning. Recent studies in Aplysia also imply a role of PKC in self-learning, suggesting that this separation may be evolutionarily conserved.14 However, data involving PKC in mammalian world-learning indicate a dissociation on the level of the various PKC isoforms.15,16 This double dissociation of cAMP and PKC in Drosophila has allowed us to use the two mechanisms as markers for world- and self-learning, enabling us to dissect the interaction between the two learning systems during operant conditioning situations in which both learning systems may be engaged (Fig. 1C). The vast majority of ethologically relevant learning situations can be classified as such composite situations.

Figure 1
Three different operant conditioning procedures requiring different biological processes. Left — schematic representation of the experimental setup: In all experiments, the flies are tethered to a torque meter which measures the angular momentum ...

Dynamic Learning Rates: Reciprocal Interactions between Multiple Learning Systems

For this dissection, we trained the animals in a composite operant task and then tested for evidence of world- and self-learning (Fig. 2). After the same amount of training sufficient to induce either world- or self-learning separately, flies only show evidence for world-learning.17 This result suggests that during composite operant training, world-learning is preferentially engaged, while self-learning is suppressed. Interestingly, mutants in the cAMP pathway (i.e., with impaired world-learning), show no such suppression, suggesting that world-learning needs to be intact for the inhibiting effect to occur (Fig. 2). In wild type animals, the inhibition appears to be overcome by intensive training (twice as long), because after such prolonged training flies do show evidence for self-learning (Fig. 2). This is reminiscent of studies in mammals, where the behavioral strategies used during test also depend on the amount of training. For instance, in navigation studies, relatively short training preferentially engages an allocentric strategy (the animal orients primarily according to environmental cues), while longer training induced an egocentric strategy (the animals performed the same sequence of movements).18 The analogy to world-and self-learning is striking. The terminology of world- and self-learning itself was inspired by analogous developments in another research field.19 There is a third field in which analogous results have been obtained. In experiments with rodents in operant chambers, extended training abolishes sensitivity to reinforcer devaluation by the process of habit formation which transforms goal-directed actions to habitual responses.20 Also in this case, one can explain habit formation by the same interaction between world- and self-learning we discovered in flies. Habitual or compulsive behaviors can thus be considered as a particularly stable consequence of self-learning (Fig. 3). From this perspective, one may posit that habit formation requires repetition because it is inhibited by world-learning. After prolonged training, this inhibition is overcome and self-learning kicks in to form habits. We have discovered that in flies, a prominent neuropil, which is dispensable for both world- and self-learning, is involved in the inhibition of self-learning: the mushroom-bodies.17

Figure 2
Isolating the two learning systems. After composite operant training (see Fig. 1C), the flies are tested either for the turning preference or for their color preference with the heat permanently switched off. Turning preference (self-learning test) is ...
Figure 3
Conceptual model of interacting learning systems during operant conditioning. Animals use operant behavior to find out how to control sensory stimuli. If one of the stimuli carries biological value, the animal can associate this value both with other ...

A New Field of Research

These recent developments open a whole new field of research. A ‘boxology’ is often helpful to conceptualize the current working model (Fig. 3) and to guide these research efforts. Specifically, the biological basis of self-learning and its inhibition is still unexplored. A first step would be to identify the PKC isoform(s) required for self-learning and its targets in the neuron. While there is evidence from Aplysia that this PKC-dependent self-leaning may involve neuron-wide plasticity,21 it is not yet known if this is also the case in other organisms. Most interestingly, the mechanism of inhibition of self-learning by world-learning is yet to be investigated. It is tempting to speculate about a direct action of the cAMP pathway on the PKC pathway, supposing that both take place inside the same neurons. However, the mushroom-bodies are neither required for world- nor for self-learning but for the inhibitory interaction between the two. This implies that the inhibition depends on circuits distinct from the neurons where cAMP and PKC are acting. Once discovered, the mechanism by which extended training can overcome the inhibition may even be clinically relevant. This interaction seems to be a key step in the formation of habits and compulsive behaviors. Unraveling its mechanism may therefore help treating patients suffering from addiction or other compulsive disorders.

Last but not least, another major puzzle is a third process taking place in operant situations, which is involved in finding out which behavior controls which environmental stimuli, i.e., ‘operant behavior’.22 It is this little-understood process which is believed to underlie the generation-effect (“learning-by-doing”), i.e., the facilitation of world-learning by being in control of the stimuli which are to be learned.2328 Like the processes above, the mechanism by which this facilitation occurs remains elusive. The only results so far are negative: none of the mutants and transgenes tested in the last two decades shows any deficit in operant behavior. Nevertheless, modern molecular and genetic methods making it possible to study the function of lethal mutations in adult animals, are good reasons to be optimistic for the research on the mechanisms of operant behavior, despite these negative results.



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