chapter  12
67 Pages

Serial Organization in Learning and Memory

Learning is often not so much a matter of acquiring new behavior as it is a matter of organizing previously acquired behavior into new sequences. The point would be impossible to prove, but it is reasonable that truly new situations and truly new responses seldom occur once people are past childhood. Searching for exceptions to this generalization is instructive: A Westerner being served a new Oriental spice, an adult learning to feel, through proprioception, the unique wrist action associated with violin vibrato, a behavior-therapy client receiving a mild shock associated with photographs of some fetish object-these examples are so rare as to be exceptions that disprove the rule. Furthermore, it is notable that these exceptions are all taken from situations far removed from the “higher mental processes;” we may be even more categorical in claiming that the rational, symbolic behavior which is relatively distinctive in humans is based almost entirely on novel rearrangements of familiar elements. Although it makes little difference to the analysis of human cognition, the same generalization on the rarity of truly new learning may apply to lower animals, at least when they are in their natural setting rather than in psychologists’ laboratories.