Spontaneous Recovery and Extinction

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Spontaneous Recovery and Extinction

Spontaneous recovery from extinction is one of the most basic phenomena of Pavlovian conditioning. Although it can be studied by using a variety of designs, some procedures are better than others for identifying the involvement of underlying learning processes. A wide range of different learning mechanisms has been suggested as being engaged by extinction, most of which have implications for the nature of spontaneous recovery. However, despite the centrality of the notion of spontaneous recovery to the understanding of extinction, the empirical literature on its determinants is relatively sparse and quite mixed. Its very ubiquity suggests that spontaneous recovery has multiple sources. Previous SectionNext Section

Experimental extinction is one of the fundamental observations of Pavlovian conditioning. Just as the arranging of a positive relation between a conditioned stimulus (CS) and an unconditioned stimulus (US) produces acquisition of conditioned responding, breaking that relation produces extinction of that responding. However, similar to many terms in the behavioral sciences, the word “extinction” is used in at least three different senses: as a procedure, as a result, and as an explanation. If we are to understand extinction experiments, it is extremely important that we keep these senses distinct from each other. One use of the term is as an experimental procedure or independent variable under the control of the experimenter, as when one says, “Following learning, we subjected the animal to an extinction procedure.” Most frequently, this is meant to refer to a procedure in which the original conditions of learning are disrupted. The most common extinction procedure consists of presenting a stimulus alone, so that it now fails to signal the outcome. However, other procedures, such as retaining the US but arranging for it to be independent of the CS are also available and of interest (see Rescorla 2001a). Another use of the term is as an experimental result or dependent variable under the control of the animal, as when one says, “When the stimulus was presented alone, the behavior extinguished.” The prototypical example is one in which responding that was established by training deteriorates, often to a level such as that prior to learning. A third use of the term extinction is as a process or intervening variable that is intended to provide an explanation, as when one says, “When we arranged for the stimulus to be presented alone, the behavior deteriorated because of extinction.” Normally, it is this process that is of interest. We would like to understand the basis of the change in behavior resulting from the change in procedure, whether that understanding is achieved at a conceptual or a neural level. Consequently, throughout this article the term extinction will refer to the learning process inferred when the procedure produces a particular result. When there is the possibility of misunderstanding, the phrase “extinction process” will be used. Because interest primarily centers on the learning process that occurs as a result of an extinction procedure, it is important to separate that learning from a wide variety of other effects that govern performance. The issue here is analogous to that of understanding the learning that occurs during an acquisition procedure. Elsewhere we have argued that the measurement of learning demands attention to two points in time: t1, during which the opportunity to learn is given, and then a separate t2, during which an assessment is made of that learning (see Rescorla and Holland 1976; Rescorla 1988). The comparison that indicates that learning has occurred is that between two animals (or two stimuli or responses) given a common t2 test following different opportunities for learning at t1. This comparison is superior to the common alternative of examining responding during t1, at which the animals are receiving...
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