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Adaptive systems influence both learning and conscious attention

Lucas, Gary A.
Behavioural processes 2019
animal behavior, consciousness, learning, surveys, traditions
The scientific study of animal behavior had its beginnings in two separate scientific traditions. Adaptive explanations, as expanded by ethological studies of natural behavior, emphasized that behavioral traits were guided by innately organized stimulus and response dispositions. Associative explanations, as expanded by conditioning studies, emphasized that behavior was shaped by learned connections formed between stimuli, responses, and motivational outcomes. When William Timberlake began his career as a learning psychologist, he adopted a behavior systems approach that helped to reconcile the different emphases of these two traditions. Behavior systems argued that pre-organized adaptive dispositions also contribute to learning. They bias what stimulus and response features are most likely to be engaged and influence patterns of behavioral expression during conditioning. The first half of this paper surveys Timberlake’s early research and highlights some of his many explanations of conditioning outcomes using this approach. The second section of this paper describes my extension of this approach to reconcile differences between adaptive and associative accounts of consciousness. It argues that pre-organized biological dispositions for attention contribute to conscious awareness. These “attention systems” bias what topics are most likely to be noticed and influence the affective dispositions that are activated during conscious attention.