Learning is state specific.  Context changes the meaning of stimuli that regulate behavior, both conditioned stimuli (CS) as a result of classical conditioning and discriminative stimuli (SD) as a result of operant conditioning.  As context changes CS and SD events, yield diminished responses, different responses, or no responses at all.  This is known as stimulus generalization, as is described elsewhere.  These contextual changes may be internal, not just external.  The internal contextual changes are referred to as “state” changes.  What is learned in one state may not transfer to another state; stimulus generalization may not occur.  When this happens we say that the learning is state-dependent.

A concrete example of state-dependent learning is a study done with goldfish, which were trained to avoid an electric shock, by swimming through a series of hoops within an allotted time, while intoxicated with alcohol or not.  Fear was the motivator, and fear reduction the reinforcement (negative).  They are then tested for retention of avoidance learning, intoxicated or not.  Testing in the alternate “state” shows no evidence of any previous operant conditioning (avoidance) and classical conditioning (fear).  Emotions, behavior, and memory in the two states are different.  This is state dependent learning, where in this case intoxication and its absence serve as CS and SD stimuli for different “goldfish” behavioral configurations.

State dependent learning may be the consequence of overbreathing, where radical shifts in brain chemistry and associated states of consciousness may provide the context for learning new behaviors, much as in the case of the alcohol study described above.  Alternative cognitive styles, emotional postures, and senses of self may then become dependent upon the state changes brought about by breathing behavior; the state change itself becomes the reinforcement.  The consequence may be chronic overbreathing behavior, especially in cases of emotional trauma, where dissociation (a change of states) may provide a gateway for disconnecting from emotional vulnerability and traumatic memory, and then set the stage for learning an alternative personality, one based on defensiveness and safety. 


Changing states through overbreathing, and subsequent state-dependent learning, may provide for accessing different cognitive styles, social behaviors, emotional postures, and senses of self, ones which may be better suited in one set of circumstances than another.  Breathing may, in fact, becomes a quick, effective, and productive way of titrating psychological states for self-discovery and accessing ourselves in adaptive ways.  Self-regulation and homeostasis are about “meaning” embedded in physiology, the mindfulness of physiology.

Copyrighted by Behavioral Physiology Institute, Boulder, Colorado USA

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