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Braz J Med Biol Res. 1996 Feb;29(2):149-73.

Context and Pavlovian conditioning.

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Departamento de Psicologia, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.


Procedurally, learning has to occur in a context. Several lines of evidence suggest that contextual stimuli actively affect learning and expression of the conditional response. The experimental context can become associated with the unconditional stimulus (US), especially when the US is presented in a context in the absence of a discrete conditional stimulus (CS). Moreover, context can modulate CS-US associations. Finally, it appears that context can become associated with the CS when it is presented before the CS-US training. The purpose of the present paper is to review some of the relevant literature that considers the context as an important feature of Pavlovian conditioning and to discuss some of the main learning theories that incorporate the context into their theoretical framework. The paper starts by mentioning historical positions that considered context an important variable in conditioning and then describes how the approach to contextual conditioning changed with the modern study of Pavlovian conditioning. Various forms of measurement of context conditioning are presented and the associative strength attached to context in several experimental paradigms is examined. The possible functions that context may acquire during conditioning are pointed out and related to major learning theories. Moreover, the effect of certain neurological manipulations on context conditioning is presented and these results are discussed in terms of possible functions that the context might acquire during Pavlovian conditioning. It is concluded that contextual stimuli acquire different functions during normal conditioning. A procedure in which animals are exposed to an aversive US immediately after they are placed in the experimental context is suggested as a useful control for the study of context conditioning.

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