Classical Conditioning and Addiction

Ivan Pavlov –a Russian physiologist – first discovered classical conditioning, also sometimes known as Pavlovian conditioning, somewhat by accident. He had been studying the automatic reflexes of animals from 1849-1936, conducting numerous experiments on how a specific stimulus will always create a specific response. Pavlov discovered respondent conditioning while examining the conditioning of dogs in relation to food. The physiologist would ring a bell whenever he fed a specific group of dogs (later to be widely known as Pavlov’s Dogs). Pairing the sound of the bell with the arrival of food conditioned the dogs to believe that whenever the bell rang, food would arrive – the bell acted as the conditioned stimulus as the food acted as the unconditioned stimulus, and salivation was the response. Eventually, the mere ringing of the bell would provoke salivation on the behalf of the dogs, and Pavlov thus discovered the interesting correlation between conditioned stimulus and direct response.

Classical Conditioning and Addiction Recovery

But how do such experiments concern addiction and recovery? Simply put, the conditioned stimuli in Pavlov’s experiments can be compared to relapse triggers. Certain visual, situational, or emotional cues may have extremely significant effects on recovering addicts, prompting them to recall times of use and experience intense cravings as a result. For example, an individual overcoming an addiction to heroin may have shot up most frequently in the bathroom stall at his or her place of employment. Years after getting clean, he or she may enter the same or a very similar restroom, and immediately experience an overwhelming and seemingly inexplicable craving for heroin. This addict unintentionally conditioned him or herself to crave heroin while in a specifically designed restroom based on consistent repetition of action.

The Positive Implications of Classical Conditioning

On the other hand, classical conditioning also has many positive implications when it comes to addiction recovery. Research shows that if the bell is rung a certain amount of times without the following presentation of food, the conditioning will eventually dissipate and the ringing of the bell will not induce salivation. Thus people can always be reconditioned, and relapse triggers can be successfully reversed or coped with. Cue exposure therapy is a type of addiction treatment that revolves around classical conditioning. Increased cue exposure (exposure to people, places, and things that typically evoke cravings and act as triggers) without engagement in addictive behavior will eventually lead to lack of cravings when exposed to the cues. Aversion therapy, which was once far more popular and condoned than it is currently, is another form of classical conditioning therapy used in addiction treatment. Overall, classical conditioning has become an important part of addiction and recovery, and can be used to the great advantage of the recovering addict.

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