Non-associative learning: its characteristics and types

A significant percentage of our behavior is due to learning. These learnings can be conscious but, in most cases, they occur completely randomly, without our realizing the response that we have linked to which stimulus.

Non-associative learning is one of the ways in which living things can change our behavior, which reduces or, conversely, greatly increases our response to a given stimulus. Next, we will dive into this learning mode.

    What is non-associative learning?

    Non-associative learning is a permanent change in the response to a stimulus due to repeated and prolonged exposure to it over a relatively long period of time. Usually, the change produced in the behavior of the individual is related to the degree of response to the stimulus, that is, it gives either a weaker response or, on the contrary, a stronger response.

    An example of non-associative learning would be being in a bar. It is normal that when entering the establishment, we hear the voices of other customers, discussing their business.

    As the minutes passed and we had something with our friends, we stopped paying attention to the other conversations – we got used to it. It no longer causes us to lose the thread of the conversation or to not hear well what our friends have to say to us.

    The main characteristic of non-associative learning is that it is able to cause changes in the behavior or response of the individual without the need for various stimuli to relate to each other, hence the no. -associative.

    It differs from its counterpart, associative learning, in that it is done through the connection of ideas and experiences. A classic example of associative learning would be the experience of Pavlov who, by presenting food to a dog and ringing a bell at the same time, caused the dog to associate the sound of this instrument with food.

    Non-associative learning it is one of the simplest learnings and it is common to many species. As with associative learning, non-associative learning was originally described by behavioral psychology, a branch that originally focused exclusively on visible behavior and set aside mental processes. Over time, more mental processes have been taken into account and non-associative learning has been used in therapy and education.

    Non-associative learning it can be administered by one of two processes: habituation or sensitization. In general, these processes are complementary and opposing and form the basis of many of our daily experiences and behaviors.

    Types of non-associative learning

    As we have seen, non-associative learning can occur in two complementary and opposing processes: habituation and awareness. Both phenomena involve a change in the attitude or behavior of the individual as a result of repeated exposure to a particular stimulus. However, the way they do it is different.

    1. Habituation

    We can define habituation as the learning process in which one or more of the components of an individual’s innate response to a stimulus is diminished by being exposed to the same stimulus over and over again.

    Among the components that can decrease its intensity, there are some such as the probability of response or its duration. In other words, as the person receives the stimulus more times, the less likely he is to emit a response, because he has become accustomed to it.

    A habit can arise in the face of any type of physical or mental stimulus. The effect of habituation is most pronounced when stimuli occur frequently, as the body eventually gets used to them. L

    or it is the same with stimuli that elicit low intensity responses, since they end up decreasing faster than the more intense ones.

    A fairly easy to understand example, we have it with clothes. When you put it on, you feel it. Maybe we notice how tight the pants are, that our panties bothers us a bit, the support is too tight … However, when a certain time has passed, our brain generates an habituation response, blocking redundant information to be able to concentrate cognitive resources on other tasks.

    Another case would be when we watch a movie and they switch scenes. The new scene may be set in the countryside, where the little birds can be heard singing and the summer breeze blowing. At first we will notice these noises but after a while we will not pay much attention to them and will only focus on what the protagonists are saying.

    2. Awareness

    Consciousness can be understood as process as opposed to habituation. When this phenomenon occurs, the response to the stimulus increases in intensity because it has been repeatedly exposed to it. This process would be at the origin of adaptive and maladaptive learning phenomena.

    An example of consciousness would be what happens to a person when they constantly rub their arm. At first the sensation may be pleasant, but after a few minutes and after having excited the peripheral nerves for a long time, it turns into even painful discomfort.

    Another example would be revival. The alarm clocks were designed so that we could not get used to their noise because otherwise we would continue to sleep. This is why when we listen to them every morning, far from getting used to their melody, it is even more annoying for us, making us more sensitive to their melody.

    Is it present in other species?

    While many of the behaviors observed in humans do not appear to occur in other species, this is not the case for non-associative learning. This behavior modification mechanism has been found in a multitude of living things. Almost all animals show a version of it, in addition to being found in plant species. as is the case with Mimosa pudica and some protozoa.

    For this reason, many scientists believe that non-associative learning must have been the first type of behavior change to appear at the evolutionary level.

    Perhaps, this process played a very important role in adapting to the environment, To allow living beings to save resources by avoiding overreacting to frequent stimuli, as would be the case with habituation, or by avoiding damage due to overexposure to them, such as consciousness.


    The advantages that can be observed from non-associative learning are manifold.

    1. Greater adaptability

    Non-associative learning, especially habituation, is a mechanism that allows us to develop in our environment in a very adaptive way. If we didn’t have this ability, we would run into all kinds of problems when it comes to functioning in our day to day life.

    When we are faced with a new stimulus, it is normal for our response to be very intense.. This happens with most changes. For example, if we have changed the watermark, we may notice that it does not taste the same and even has an aftertaste that does not convince us.

    However, by drinking it, we stop noticing its taste. If this was not the case and we have always noticed this taste, we might take in less water than necessary and run the risk of becoming dehydrated.

    2. Applicability

    Addiction and awareness are two processes that can be used in many ways including education, parenting and psychotherapy.

    For example, when a child has just started going to school, it is normal for them to feel uncomfortable, scared and even want to cry, as this is a situation totally unknown to them. which does not assure him security. However, on going to class, he ends up there. get used to, relax and have fun with new friends from school.

    As for the field of therapy, habituation it is one of the most useful processes to eliminate phobias. For example, a person who has a phobia of cockroaches has an irrational fear of these insects, which makes seeing them at home really bad and causes a strong eruption in their life.

    In therapy, this fear is reduced by controlled exposure, showing the individual stimuli of less and more intensity until it shows a less intense response and got used to.

      3. Find new situations

      Although in most behavioral experiments on non-associative learning the emphasis is on habituation, awareness is also of great importance.

      Awareness is believed to be at the root of many advanced learning processes, especially in which new skills must be acquired. When that happens, the person is able to detect low intensity stimuli so that it is easier to give a more precise response.

      For example, when learning to drive, it is normal that during the first attempts after obtaining the license, the person is too focused on the road and takes their time to process all the stimuli. however, by repeating these attempts, it will be easier for you to process all the information without having to put a lot of effort into it..


      But just as it has a number of advantages, non-associative learning also has its drawbacks.

      1. Reduces positive emotions

      It is normal that when we are faced with a pleasant stimulus, it produces all of our joy, exhilaration, satisfaction and other positive emotions. however, if the stimulus is repeated several times, the emotional response will be reducedAs would be the case in a process of habituation. This is called hedonic adaptation.

      If the hedonic adaptation is not managed properly, there is a risk of engaging in dangerous behaviors. It is common to see this in people who say they are “adrenaline junkies”, exposing themselves to risky situations such as skydiving, car racing, extreme hiking …

      2. Outbuildings

      And closely related to the above disadvantage, we have that non-associative learning can play an important role in substance abuse. The person who uses a substance, when taking it on new occasions, notices that they are getting used to the drug, not causing him the same sensations as at the beginning and needing to increase the dose. Thus, you risk increasing the damage of the drug to your body.

      For example, alcoholism is the main factor in addiction to alcohol. The first time we drink a beer it can affect us a bit as we are not used to it.

      As we increase the consumption, there will be a time when we will not notice anything by drinking 3 or 4 beers and saying that we are “heating up”. To be “happy” we’ll need to take more, and this is where the cloudy path of alcohol abuse disorder begins.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Shettleworth, SJ (2010). Cognition, evolution and behavior (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford.
      • Malenka RC, Nestler EJ, Hyman SE (2009). “Chapter 15: Reinforcement and Addictive Disorders.” A Sydor A, Brown RY (eds). Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. pages 364-375.
      • Pellegrino, R .; Sinding, C .; Wijk, RA from; Hummel, T. (2017). “Habituation and adaptation to odors in humans.” Physiology and behavior. 177: 13-19. doi: 10.1016 / j.physbeh.2017.04.006. PMID 28408237

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