Unconditioned Reflex: What It Is And What It Implies In Psychology

unconditioned reflex

Not all the behaviors we perform are thought out or learned. There is an important repertoire of behaviors that are innate, that we do completely naturally and automatically.

Next We will see what exactly is meant by unconditioned reflexdifferences with conditioned responses, how they can be transformed into conditioned behavior and examples in the human species.

What is an unconditioned reflex?

An unconditioned reflex is understood to a response that occurs to an unconditioned stimulus, naturally, automatically and without being thought. That is, it is a response that has not required prior conditioning or training for it to occur. This type of response is part of the natural abilities, already present innately, that an animal has, both human and non-human.

A very clear example of an unconditioned reflex is the act of salivating while looking at a piece of cake. In this particular case, the organism, upon receiving the visual stimulus of the cake, initiates physiological processes in order to facilitate digestion once we have eaten the sweet.

Another example of an unconditioned reflex would be sneezing when a particle or speck of dust enters our nose. Sneezing is not something that is learned, but rather it is something that is present from the moment of birth. It is a natural mechanism to expel waste and pathogens from the respiratory tract.

All of these responses occur from birth or from a very early age and without prior training. Every day we carry out unconditioned reflexes without realizing it, which is an indicator of the little conscious processing behind them. Many such responses are physiological, including salivation, nausea, pupillary dilation and contraction, and changes in heart rate.

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Differences between unconditioned reflex and conditioned response.

The main differences between an unconditioned reflex and a conditioned response are:

The conditioned response occurs only after the unconditioned stimulus is associated with the conditioned stimulus.

Unconditioned reflex and classical conditioning

The concept of the unconditioned reflex, understood as an unconditioned response, was experimentally investigated by Soviet physiologist Ivan Pavlov. This Russian scientist was researching the canine digestive system, seeing that his dogs began to salivate every time he fed them. It was a natural reflex, something that was not conditioned. The dogs saw food and began to salivate to facilitate digestion.

It was then that Pavlov, understanding that this was an unconditioned reflex, asked himself if he could condition this response, that is, make the natural act of salivating appear without the food being in front of the dogs. Pavlov decided that, before presenting the food, he would ring some bells and see what would happen.

In these Pavlov experiments, which are a classic in the history of psychology, food is the unconditioned stimulus. The presence of the unconditioned stimulus is what triggers the response, naturally and automatically, in the form of a reflex. Pavlov’s dogs salivated completely involuntarily when presented with food. The sound of the bells would be the conditioned stimulus.

Pavlov he managed to make his dogs start salivating when they heard the bell, which implied that the unconditioned reflex will become a conditioned response. The dogs had associated the noise of the bells with food, after training of several trials.

But a conditioned response doesn’t last forever. Over time, If the conditioned stimulus is presented without the unconditioned stimulus, the conditioned response will eventually disappear.

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Pavlov saw that, when holding these same dogs, if they were presented with the sound of the bells but were not given food afterwards, after a few more attempts, the dogs would stop salivating. That is, they stopped associating the ringing of bells with food, giving rise to the phenomenon of extinction.

However, it should be said that, after extinguishing the response and trying to condition it again, this would be ringing a bell again and presenting food, re-associating that conditioned stimulus with the conditioned stimulus will not take as long as it did in the first ones. Attempts. This phenomenon of reappearance of the conditioned response is called spontaneous recovery.and can occur after a period of rest from the previously taught behavior.

This process in humans

As we have previously commented, the repertoire of unconditioned reflexes that our species presents is extensive. There are many reflexes that health sciences have described, such as the knee jerk reflex or the sucking reflex of babies. The latter is a reflex that is eventually lost as one grows, but it is an innate and instinctive unconditioned response that is very important for human survival, given that it occurs when the mother’s nipple is close. Automatically, the baby begins to suck and nourish itself with breast milk..

In certain cases, innate human reflex behaviors are combined with conditioned stimuli, giving rise to conditioned behavior. For example, if a small child accidentally touches a boiling pot, He will withdraw his hand immediately when he feels that it is burning. This is innate behavior. However, it is possible that the impression was so great that the child has developed some trauma, which prevents him from feeling comfortable in the presence of a pot, no matter how cold it is.

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In fact, the appearance of apparently irrational and exaggerated behaviors is usually related to having lived an unpleasant experience in which a mechanism as innate and instinctive as reflexes to avoid feeling pain or that our bodily integrity is harmed.

For example, there are people who have a phobia of certain stinging arthropods (for example, spiders, praying mantises, mosquitoes), and they have an extreme fear of these little animals because one of them once stung them. This activated a natural reflex, which is to move away from the source of the pain, but it occurred in such an exaggerated way that it has crystallized in the form of trauma.

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