Recently, I saw a famous learning theorist — perhaps one of the two most influential learning theorists in the last 40 or so years; if ΔV = αβ(λ – ΣV) means anything to you, you’ll have narrowed it down to the two — give a talk at the behavioral neuroscience area’s weekly colloqium here. The talk, on extinction, was interesting I suppose, but what really caught my attention was the speaker’s language. At some point, I had to look around to make sure I wasn’t at a Watson talk, circa 1915, because he kept saying things that I’d thought, well, people didn’t say anymore. For example, twice during the talk, he used the phrase, “the/that stimulus learned,” and at least once used the phrase, “the stimulus trained.” I don’t know about you, but my natural inclination would be to say, “The rat learned,” or “The organism learned,” but that’s because I’m one of those rare birds who actually thinks things of relevance are going on inside organisms’ heads. As if to confirm that he wasn’t, the speaker even indicated that he thinks neuroscience is boring, in response to a question from one of the behavioral neuroscientists in attendance.
This was, I believe, my first encounter with a real, living, hard core behaviorist in person, and I must say, it was sort of like taking a time machine and watching a T-Rex devour a stegosaurus corpse. It was surreal, to say the least. But it made me wonder, have any of you encountered any hard core behaviorists of the sort who would attribute learning to the stimulus instead of the organism? Were you as blown away as I was? Any good stories?