Saturday, March 20, 2010


The brain is an amazing thing, especially the way it learns. Pavlov discovered the hard way that creatures can learn through conditioning, when his test subjects threw his dog-drool experiments awry by slobbering before the food was even presented to them. Their brains associated the sound of the lab technicians' approach with the food, and the drooling would begin early.

Human brains often work the same way. When my kids were teenagers, they learned to associate the sound of a slamming door with a fate worse than a slasher movie. A co-worker had told me that when one of his kids slammed the door, he took the door off the hinges for 24 hours. No yelling or threats were necessary, just swift, silent action and much consternation on the part of the door slammer. I brought that idea home, explained to the kids what would happen if they slammed, and watched as their eyes glazed over from tuned-out-edness.

I expected my daughter, the Primary Slammer, to be the first to feel the pain, but it was my son who flung a door shut first. I went over to his door and pulled the pins out of the hinges while he stood there saying, "What are you doing?!?"

"I told you both that if you slam a door, you lose yours for a day. You'll get it back tomorrow night."

"You never said that!"

"Yes, I did."

He hung a blanket over the open doorway and got his door back the next night.

Each of my kids slammed doors twice before they learned the lesson. After that, conditioning kicked in. If I had the windows open to let the breeze blow through the house and a door slammed itself shut, one of the kids would shout from another room, "That wasn't me!"

As a mom, this was one of the most beautifully satisfying things. As a psychology major, this was an excellent case of classical conditioning.

(Warning: Questionable taste follows.)

A very early example of conditioning occurs with potty training. Our brains learn to associate the bathroom, specifically the toilet, with getting to go. We see the toilet and our brains say, "Oh good! We can go now."

So here's my question: If our brain can condition itself to the sight of the toilet as the signal to "let go," why can't it ever learn to wait until our pants are down (or unzipped, if that's the case) and we're actually ready?

The Potty Dance is never going to end, is it?

1 comment:

Tsofah said...


LOL!!! That is a question I think we all ask!