Classical Conditioning

by Abhinav Kukreja

Ivan Pavlov called it classical conditioning. It’s a learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired. A response, which is at first elicited by the second stimulus, is over a period of period of time, elicited by the first stimulus.

For example, you slap a dog, and give him a piece of meat. You do that for a month. You do that for two months. The dog starts understanding that the slap is a chronological prerequisite to the piece of meat. But one day, you don’t give him the meat. You just slap the dog, and wait. He’ll start salivating.

What happens here, isn’t magic. It just feels that way.

Same way, you follow a piece of meat with a beating, and the dog will perceive the meat as a chronological prerequisite to the meat, and he’d be whimpering as soon as he sees the meat.

This process seems innocuous; until you ask a question most people never bother to ask.

‘So, what happens to the dog?’

Don’t get me wrong. Classical conditioning isn’t just about helpless canines and blithering masters. It’s an active process that happens to us everyday. Most of us just fail to acknowledge it.

* * *

By the time there were fifteen candles on my birthday cake, I had been hardwired to anticipate danger after a happy moment. I had grown up to be a person who had started living in the future. Constantly.

That much, however, I could deal with.

What I couldn’t deal with was that I had come to find that every happy moment would necessarily attract an acerbic reaction.

It’s very easy to be cynical about the future. It’s very easy to be cynical about anything, actually. But this, this is hard. What do you do when you actively try to steer away from happy moments and live in emotional monotony just so you could avoid nature’s cruel joke that you anticipate would follow?

Most people would call me paranoid. I wouldn’t blame them, really. People like to call it as they see it. And maybe I was a bit paranoid. But nobody tries to understand which fire this smoke was coming from.

Everyone likes to be happy. Everyone wants to be happy. Everything that we say and do, everything that we want to achieve, everyone that we surround ourselves with, every step we take, is with a hope that it would eventually make us happy. But what if being happy really feels like a precursor to being terribly morose. What happens when you take happiness out of the equation?

The good news is that it’s all in the dog’s head. The bad news is, the dog wouldn’t believe that. He’d start to hate every piece of meat you offer him. He’d do everything he can to avoid the meat. Every piece of meat that’s not followed by a beating would make him unnervingly suspicious.

But tonight, quite begrudgingly, we celebrate the good news.