Music and Memory: Classical Conditioning in Real Life, part 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Music and Memory

Last post I wrote about a classical association between a song and a happy experience. Today I’ll share the flip side – a song that makes my skin crawl, through no fault of its own.

The Day My Hand Was Set On Fire (Or, One-Trial Learning)

Over the holidays, I was sitting in a church service when a guest performed a piece of special music. I didn’t know at first what the woman was going to sing. When the background track started, I recognized it; it was an inspirational song that had been very popular about fifteen years ago, and (thanks to the years my mother worked in the music industry) I was familiar with it and the original artist. I’d even performed the song myself, though it had been some years.

But when I heard the music, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. When the singer hit the swelling, moving point of the chorus – the part about candles and lighting the world – I shuddered.

Now, there was nothing wrong with the song or her performance; I knew this reaction was entirely on my end, and it only took me about thirty seconds to figure out why I was twitchy.

Jump back about a decade and a half to when I was singing this song with a group at a special event. The choral director had decided that since the song was about candles and light, it would be neat for the singers to have candles to hold during the performance, so they procured a box of those cheap candlelight-service candles and the cardboard rings that are meant to keep hot wax from dripping down onto your hand.

Drip protectors, my eye.

‘Drip protectors,’ my eye…

During dress rehearsal, when we tried the candles for the first time, I discovered that the hole in my cardboard ring was too big, and hot wax kept leaking through onto my skin. I solved this problem by carefully rolling the liquid wax around the inner lip of the cardboard to make a seal, which prevented wax from dripping through.

At the performance, we were to hold our candles at hand-level, and then – at the big key change and swelling chorus – lift them high above our heads and hold them there through the end of the song. My wax seal was working well, so I didn’t have any fear of holding the candle up. (Which, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, turned out to be a mistake.)

All that wax accumulating on the cardboard ring glued it firmly to the shaft of the candle, which meant that even though I was holding the candle by the bottom, the cardboard ring did not slide down to cover my hand. It stayed mid-candle, and as the candle burned down during the song, the flame crept closer and closer to that wax-soaked cardboard…

I imagine I looked rather like a surprised Statue of Liberty as my candle exploded into a torch of flame that instantly melted the remaining stub and poured flaming wax down my arm. I don’t remember much of the performance after that (and neither, I suspect, did the audience). Suffice it to say that afterward, I had a few burns – thankfully not serious – and a healthy distrust of cheap candles.

Even though a good fifteen years had elapsed since that incident, and I hadn’t heard the song in a very long time, my brain had apparently permanently catalogued that piece of music as an aversive stimulus. Instead of happy and inspirational – the emotions the song is intended to evoke (and had, indeed, evoked the first ten or so times I sang it) – I felt nervous and uncomfortable, and was relieved when the song ended.

Now that you’ve all had your daily dose of schadenfreude, let’s once again bring this back to training: Sometimes it takes only one instance for the subject to associate a stimulus with a consequence. When this associations happens with our criteria during training, as it sometimes does with very advanced or clicker-savvy animals, it can work in our favor. But it can also work against us, if the consequence or association is something we find undesirable (the dog learns that bumping the table knocks the Thanksgiving turkey on the floor – jackpot!), or if a punishment or aversive is inadvertently associated instead of a positive outcome (a loud noise startles the dog while he is offering a behavior, and he is afraid to try it again).

An example of the latter: Laura Baugh and her much-titled Doberman Shakespeare were once competing in Obedience in a facility with rubber mats on the floors. During an exercise she sent him to retrieve a metal dumbbell, a task he’d done at home and in other facilities dozens of times. But somehow, the combination of rubber and metal and static resulted in the dumbbell shocking him on the nose when he went to pick it up, and from then on he wanted nothing to do with the retrieve (at least, in that location).

Shakespeare retrieving cone

“I don’t like that dumbbell anymore. Wouldn’t you rather have this nice cone, instead?”

Even if it doesn’t result in an immediate change in behavior, the association of something negative or frightening or upsetting can create baggage that may come back to affect behavior or cause an emotional response later on. (For an excellent look at this from a human perspective, read Positive Petzine’s “Mr. Hooper’s Sketch.”)

Next time: What to do when something like this happens in your training!

About Alena Van Arendonk KPACTP

Alena has been training professionally since 2000, specializing in working with animals who suffer from chronic fear or aggression. She completed her primary TAGteach certification in March 2010, and graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior in 2012. In addition to teaching training classes at CIA, Alena presents educational seminars on behavior modification and pet nutrition.
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