Almost eighty years ago, rats in boxes led to a new paradigm in our understanding of human learning. The famous Skinner trained rats to pull a lever to receive food. Later, with the same methodology, he taught pigeons to play table tennis.
The phenomenon is called “operant conditioning”, and it is pervasive. It is the ability to connect a behaviour with a stimulus: press a lever, receive food; press a lever, avoid pain. It is one of our primal impulses: behaviour leads to an effect. Without that ability, we would get very little indeed done.
For operant conditioning to happen, we need to feel pleasure when we receive a good stimulus and an unpleasant feeling when we receive a bad stimulus. We can see this from when the brain goes wrong: when the ability to feel a sweet little dopamine kick at a pleasurable stimulus is impaired, learning too…
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