Classical conditioning and the paranormal

Classical conditioning is a reaction we learn based on association. So it makes me wonder, where do we learn some of our paranormal associations?
Sarah Chumacero
18th October 2019.
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Stuff paranormal investigators need to know, General.
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Classical conditioning is a term used in psychology. Think of it like an involuntary reaction. This response is something you have learned through association. The best way I can describe this is, have you ever had an experience where you drank so much of a certain kind of drink that now the smell of that drink just makes you feel sick without even thinking about it? Classical conditioning is the reason why the smell of tequila makes me gag. It was reading through a random psychology article about classical conditioning and our 'learned' responses that it made me start thinking about how we react to things within a paranormal setting. So let's look into classical conditioning and how it influences the way we approach our paranormal research.

What is classical conditioning?

Before we starting going down the paranormal road, it is important to have a proper understanding of what classical conditioning actually is. As mentioned above, it is a reaction which is done on a subconscious level (something you are not doing intentionally) that has been learned by association. For example, we learn that if we touch fire, it will burn us. This is why we don't generally go around touching fire. We avoid it without even having to think about it. You know how when a child tries to do something and a parent will not intervene and say 'They have to learn somehow? or They will only do it once!' this ties into that.

It was discovered in 1890 by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov who was researching salivation in dogs who were being fed. He expected that the dogs would start salivating once food was placed in front of them. He was surprised to find out that they actually started salivating when they heard the footsteps approaching them. It meant that they knew the sound of these footsteps meant that food was coming. These studies are why it is also referred to as Pavlovian conditioning. What is important about this is to remember that two different stimulus must work together to create this conditioning. We know that the dog will automatically salivate if it is presented with food. If the dog were to hear the random footsteps, it would have no reason to salivate. Because the footsteps were associated with the person bringing the dog food, the dog has learned that the footsteps meant food was coming, hence started salivating.

How does this tie into paranormal research?

When i look at the way we investigate the paranormal and more importantly how we react to certain situations, the first thing that comes to mind is where we have learned these associations. As someone that runs paranormal tours, I see a lot of people come through. Some are investigating for the very first time, some have been investigating non stop for years and are at every event. Others come and go as they please, so there are all sorts of activity levels.

Some of the common responses people have regardless of how many investigations they have been on are:

A cold spot means a spirit is manifesting

Goosebumps means a spirit is nearby

The feeling of walking through cobwebs means a spirit is nearby

The feeling of swaying, light headiness or rocking on boat means you are being affected by spirit

These are all quite common things that people express they are feeling on a paranormal investigation. These are all things that I have experienced myself. On many occasions, my first thought has been, 'does this mean there is a spirit nearby?'. So I have to look back and think about where this response comes from. Where did I learn this? In my case, it was from both television shows and from the people I was initially investigating with. While you may not be a big fan of the television shows (or maybe you are), whether or not you agree with everything they are doing or saying, you are unknowingly being influenced. If you watch enough times every time the camera goes to a person's arm and they have goosebumps and they say that there is a spirit there, subconsciously you are make that association. So when you are on an investigation and you get goosebumps, this will be your initial reaction. I know my initial reaction is still that I usually get excited first and I think something is potentially happening. I call it 'In the heat of the moment'. I have spoken on many occasions that I have even been embarrassed by getting excited. Once I compose myself and really think about what was happening and I am able to establish what it was. I now realise that my subconscious has been trained to react that way.

It has also worked to my advantage as well. For example, I have investigated Black Rock House so many times that when I hear a loud bang on the roof, I know it is a fig falling from the fig tree and hitting the tin roof. I don't even jump, I don't even react anymore. It is a learned response. I often tell people that I am a completely different investigator than I was when I first started. I think a lot of it is from what I have learnt along the way. I have done silly things. I have made mistakes and if I were to look back on some of things I did, I would cringe. A lot of it was learned by trial and error. I was able to change my mindset and in a lot of ways change my conditioning.

I was a very different investigator when I started. I didn't know what to do or what I was doing, so I did what others around me were doing. I would mimic the TV shows, something I think we all commonly do when we first start out. Soon, you will find your will start to pick up things from your fellow investigators. When you look at the people you investigate with, there are often those you click with and those that you don't. You tend to surround yourself with people who think similar or investigate in a way that resonates with you. The longer you work together, the more you are influencing one another whether you realise it or not. You are learning certain associations and you will pick up the same habits and same reactions as those around you. If they do something that works, it may make an association so it is a technique that you then take on as well. This is why in a lot of ways we should listen to those who have been around the block a few times. There are no experts per se in this field, but there are people who have a wealth of information and experience we can learn from.

A lot of people don't like the concept of classical conditioning because they believe it implies a person doesn't have free will. I personally believe it highlights to us how much our subconscious plays a role in our daily lives. I have spoken about our subconscious many times and I always have to wonder just what is in there. I even wonder if the key to unlock that paranormal is buried in there somewhere as well.

The very concept of classical conditioning is why I always tell people that you need to be searching for your own answers. You need to do your own research, have your own experiences and you will end up making your own associations.

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