OPERANT CONDITIONING is basic biology (also known as
instrumental conditioning). When
RESPONSES predict events, operant conditioning may be the result. Learning takes place if the event predicted
has “meaning.” If the event increased
the likelihood of the response, it is said to be a “reinforcement,” a negative or positive one. A positive
reinforcement is the occurrence of an event (e.g., money), and negative reinforcement (not to be
confused with punishment) is the termination of an event (e.g., fear). The learned behavior is known as an operant response. Punishment is an event that decreases
the likelihood of an operant response.
When a reinforcement is withdrawn for an operant response, extinction is usually the result.
An example of
operant learning is contraction of a muscle resulting in relief, safety, or a sense
of control, perhaps as the consequence of an injury. The reinforcement is a negative
reinforcement; the removal of pain, or fear, increases the likelihood
of contraction. Unfortunately, however,
although the original basis for the pain be long since gone (recovery from an
injury), the learned operant (e.g., contraction) remains intact, and continues
to be emitted based on reduction of fear.
A behavioral intervention becomes necessary. This same example is immediately applicable
to operantly learned breathing behaviors.
Access to emotions, such as anger, may serve as a defense, as a reinforcement. “Reaching for air” may be reinforcing, offering resolution to the “survival” metaphor for “drowning.” A sense of “control” may be achieved, through intentional regulation, external manipulation. Intentional use of accessory muscles (falsely) resolves a sense of distrust of the body. “More air” introduces a (false) sense of security. Overbreathing also provides for dissociation, where one can disconnect from a threatening challenge, e.g., a demanding teacher in the school room.
Secondary gain, resulting from unexplained symptoms and deficits, may lead to learning the role of “victim.” The breathing-induced symptoms and deficits resulting from hypocapnia become the basis for visiting healthcare practitioners, as well as receiving sympathy, support, and attention from family and friends. This is another example of operant learning.
Another important element of operant conditioning is the discriminative stimulus (written, SD), which sets the occasion (when/where) for an operant behavior, as follows: SD → behavior → reinforcement. An unusual example is operant learning by chicken embryos, just days old, that earned to self-incubate by changing heart rate. Increasing heart rate (the operant) turned on a warming light (positive reinforcement), and decreasing heart rate turned it off (negative reinforcement). In the presence of a vibration (SD), the same embryos learned to reverse the behaviors, where increasing heart rate (operant) turned the warming light off (negative reinforcement), and decreasing heart rate turned it back on (positive reinforcement). Remember that “meaning” is important here if physiology is to be understood: is some cases the embryo was “too cold” and in others “too hot.”
Behaviors, physiological activities, are regulated by very specific circumstances. Because operantly conditioned breathing responses are emitted (or triggered) by very specific discriminative stimuli, it is absolutely essential that a behavioral analysis of breathing be undertaken, a kind of detective work done by the practitioner and client in a collaborative effort to discover the learning history involved. As a result of stimulus generalization the operantly learned overbreathing behavior will also be emitted by similar but different stimuli. This may be true not only perceptually but also metaphorically, where maladaptive breathing behaviors may become embedded in seemingly unrelated complex patterns of coping behavior.
Behavioral Physiology Institute,