It has long been known that organisms learn. There are different stimuli in the environment, and when a living being is exposed to it, it internalizes the information.
However, not all organisms learn the same, much less can they learn the same. A human, dog, or bird can learn that the sound of a bell means food, unlike a microbe, sea sponge, or plant.
Unlimited associative learning is an idea that stems from a new approach to animal cognition and seeks to study the evolutionary origins of consciousness. This type of learning could be a marker for the transition from unconscious to conscious living, an issue we will explore below.
What is unlimited associative learning?
What is consciousness? What can be considered a conscious organism? There is currently a certain consensus to regard a conscious system as one which has the capacity to experience, to have its subjective view of the world and of its own body. This system must be able to generate an elusive property that philosophers have called phenomenal consciousness to consider.
We humans are aware. We are animals that at some point in the history of evolution went from nonconscious to conscious organisms, however, the line between the two types of life is much debated. This frontier must exist, but finding it remains the greatest challenge of modern science and philosophy.
Yes, a volcano, rock, cyclone, or my computer is quite likely to ignore its existence (although a panpsychist wouldn’t think the same) but, what about a dog? And with a plant? And a jellyfish? There is no doubt that they are life forms, but are they conscious beings? and if so, to what extent? The debate is still open but thanks to the work of Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka, this question seems to approach a solution with a new concept: unlimited associative learning.
The central premise of unlimited associative learning is that organizations that can do so are living systems capable of learning about the world and themselves over and over again, in that they are free to interact with the environment and manifest a wide range of responses. This idea was explained in his recent work, “The Evolution of the Sentient Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness” from 2019.
Associative and non-associative learning
Before we delve deeper into unlimited associative learning and its importance as a key to drawing the line between unconscious and self-aware living, we will do a brief review of the types of learning that exist. Although there are many different types, learning can be grouped into two broad categories: non-associative learning and associative learning, the latter being the more sophisticated.
Non-associative learning is the type of learning common to all (or almost all) life forms, including single-celled organisms. In the case of animals, this type of learning takes place in the peripheral nervous system, although it is true that some learning would fall into this category and involve activation of the central nervous system. It should also be noted that not all animals have an equivalent in our nervous system.
Non-associative learning includes habituation and awareness. Habit is the phenomenon that occurs when a sensory receptor responds less frequently to a constant or repetitive stimulus. For example, habituation is what happens when we stop noticing the touch of the clothes we wear or, also, when we no longer notice the spectacle frames on our nose and ears.
Consciousness is just the opposite of addiction. It occurs when there is no particular stimulus for a long time, making the sensory neuron in charge of that stimulus more likely to respond when suddenly the stimulus reappears. In other words, the more time passes without receiving stimulation, the more sensitive the neuron becomes. Sensitization can also occur when an unexpected stimulus is given, such as noticing a mosquito bite.
Historically, associative learning has been divided into two types: classical or Pavlovian conditioning and operant or instrumental conditioning.
Classical conditioning is also called Pavlov because it is this type of learning that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov studied with his famous dogs. He first observed that dogs salivated when food was presented to them (unconditioned stimulus) so he decided to ring a bell (conditioned stimulus) whenever he presented this food and see if the two stimuli were associated. After several attempts he managed to get the dogs to associate the sound of the bell with food and when they received this sound stimulus they started to salivate even though they had no food in front of them.
Operant conditioning involves the association between an action and a reinforcing stimulus, whether positive or negative. For example, if we have a rat in a cage, it will freely explore space until it finds a button that, incidentally, presses. Each time you press the button, you are given a piece of food, which causes the animal to associate their action with positive reinforcement. For reinforcement to influence behavior, it must be of some value to the body, either attractive (eg, food) or aversive (eg, electroshock)
Characteristics of unlimited associative learning
With all of this in mind, it’s time to talk straight into unlimited associative learning. Ginsburg and Jablonka introduced a new nomenclature in their work referring to different types of learning.Among them, qualifying classical conditioning as “learning about the world” because it involves the association of external stimuli (unconditioned stimulus and conditioned stimulus). As for operative conditioning, they call it “self-learning” because in this case it is a question of associating an action of the individual with a reinforcement (stimulus).
These two authors postulate that in order for associative learning to occur to a greater or lesser extent, there must be a minimally complex neurological system, a brain, or something similar and therefore this learning is not found in all species. animals because not all of them meet this criterion. For example, jellyfish don’t have something like a brain, and the only learning they can do is non-associative.
There are some very primitive creatures that manifest something similar to associative learning: limited associative learning.. This mode of learning involves very simple associations which are far from being considered by the body which consciously realizes them, but which in one way or another approaches the line which separates the unconscious life from the conscious one.
The next level of complexity is that of unlimited associative learning. It involves associations between compound stimuli from various sensory modalities, such as hearing, sight, taste, and others. These stimuli are integrated and give rise to a wide variety of motor actions. As we move up the phylogenetic scale, the ability to integrate different perceptual stimuli and behavioral range increases, transforming into something that is virtually limitless.
And this is where we end up talking about unlimited associative learning, which is considered would be behind consciousness and would be the key indicator of a minimum of consciousness in an animal species. The more varied the response that an animal can give to the same stimulus, being able to adapt to it in different ways, it is logical to think that behind its behavior there is a minimum of intentionality and understanding, something to what it looks like in one. one way or another our idea of the consciousness.
According to this idea, dogs are aware because they can associate the same stimulus in many ways and can also perform all kinds of behaviors in response.. In fact, through their “awareness” we can teach them a lot of tricks or prevent them from misbehaving by applying negative reinforcements whenever they engage in unwanted behavior. In contrast, a sea sponge, a much simpler organism, cannot combine different stimuli that would indicate a lack of consciousness.
In line with what we have just discussed, Ginsburg and Jablonka as well as other experts in animal cognition consider that there are several animal species which must have a minimum of consciousness, Especially those which, under laboratory conditions, have been shown to be able to associate different sensory stimuli. It is understood that all vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds), some arthropods (eg, Hymenoptera) and very few cephalopods (mainly octopuses) are aware because they have exhibited unlimited associative learning.
Likewise, while this type of associative learning can be essential in identifying a conscious species, it does not mean that the organism itself can be conscious. Research is still open, and the idea of unlimited associative learning is too new to claim that it is a good delimiter of the line between non-conscious living things and conscious living things. However, this concept has helped to clarify this debate a bit more and it seems that in the years to come it will be possible to establish more clearly to what extent a living being is or is not conscious.
- Birch, J., Ginsburg, S. & Jablonka, E. (2020) Unlimited Associative Learning and the Origins of Consciousness: An Introduction and Some Predictions. Biol Philos 35, 56. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-020-09772-0
- Ginsburg S, Jablonka E (2020) Consciousness as a way of being. J Conscious Stud 27 (9-10): 148-162
- Ginsburg S, Jablonka E (2019) The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness. MIT Press, Cambridge
- Ginsburg S, Jablonka E (2010b) The evolution of associative learning: a factor in the Cambrian explosion. J Theor Biol 266: 11-20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtbi.2010.06.017