Joshua Reynolds Self Portrait as Deaf Man

Associative Vs Non Associative Learning: Good Goals for Emotional Growth

Posted by

One of my favorite things to share about myself is how much I love learning. Days and weeks and months of my life have been spent on the sheer pursuit of learning and interacting with things that were previously unknown. What I value most about the act of learning is not the discovery process – the transformation from unknown to known – but instead the understanding process: when I can confidently say, “yes, I think I can explain about this thing.” Believing that one can check off segments of knowledge so as to say, “Alright, yes, I have learned these hundred things so therefore I am knowledgeable,” feels fundamentally incorrect, as that confidence can lend itself to a mistrust in the unknown.

The same voice, still hoarser now, told him panting,
‘ This is where I end, this is where I begin again’ – always the
a recurring circle, and in the circle
the empty bed or the bare table with the lamp
lighting two hands aimlessly moving
removing two long elastic black gloves.

Yannis Ritsos, “Circles”

This Ritsos quote I think understands the feeling of learning well. Detailing to someone where one ends or where one begins – after all, these definitions are expanded or contracted with the pursuit of contextualizing oneself in known or unknown endeavors.

Learning seems to be made more palatable by breaking it down into a few categories. In this case, one can think of the binary between associative and non-associative learning: that one can learn through the intuited connections and interactions between subjects, as well as learn non-associative or through conditioning one’s senses. Understanding your own inclinations for and against learning can make it so that you find reward easier to grasp in the development of your knowledges.

The Psychology of Learning and Behaviors

There are immense vaults of studies on the psychology of learning – how we learn, why we learn, what motivates and demotivates our capacity to learn, what inhibits learning, so on and so forth. Lately some turns in the psychology of learning are following neuroscience, and the evolving ability for us to follow the currents and chemical releases within our brains during processes of engagement and learning. Scholars like Anita Woolfolk Hoy, Barry Schwartz, and Brian H. Ross each provide unique perspectives on their experience with studying learning.

However, often when I find studies on the psychology of learning, I am looking through pages with the question of, “what and how is this author trying to get me to learn?” With a directional or imperative study, one can find themselves closing doors as quickly as they are opening them when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge.

william blake satan smiting job with sore boils

Instead, I offer that the most vital of processes for learning are to make note, an ever-expanding and perhaps ethereal note, of what thrills and engages you, as well as what dulls you and puts you to sleep. Does the sleep you are put into result in a fermentation, or a forgetting? Does the thrill last and repeat, or does it fade after initial appearance? Experimentation with your learning processes is absolutely necessary to keep the novelty alive.

He would make the point that the geographies of teaching are not just those of a stable here and now, that the possibility of an elsewhere was crucial to teaching…

Vincent Broqua, “Here and Elsewhere: Creeley’s Notion of Community and Teaching as Circulation”

Broqua, speaking of the poet Robert Creeley, I think brushes on the other vital component to learning: identifying, and not shying from the notion that there is always an elsewhere with regard to what you are learning. That connectivity between subjects yields tertiary and quaternary subjects. If you are on a hike looking at a landscape of a valley surrounded by beautiful mountain landscapes, and a river, perhaps, and then, days or weeks or months later, come across a painting in a museum of the very same landscape, the very same vantage, the very same mountains, you have learned of the same ultimate subject – to experience that valley, the mountains – but now have residing within you a lore of the art of mimesis, perspective, performance, personal touch, color schemes, and emotions.

Associative Learning vs Observational Learning

The two perspectives of learning I maintain the vantage of are associative and non-associative learning. With associative learning, one might think of this as an un-influenced or intuited learning – a natural pedagogy. The hand brushing over the flame from the stove burns and therefore we learn that flame can hurt, and should be regarded delicately; speaking too loudly or making the wrong joke in company meets with a rejection of your social attachments, and therefore it is learned to avoid speaking too loudly or making the wrong jokes.

Observational or non-associative learning here is not necessarily opposite, but instead is the instance of, say, a coach teaching how to kick a ball properly (“Step here, plant, twist the hips, and strike above and to the side of the laces”). The step-by-step, instructional, watch-and-learn style of learning. In this way, you have a direct idea of what you are intended to get from the lesson. Instead of watching a player kick a ball and discovering that people are rarely smiling while they kick, you are taught the position your body should be in to obtain maximum strength.

This unhinging of our usual relationship to language and therefore to the world of its representation, forces us to confront the body’s role in thought-making: the conventional mimetic function of language depends on the body’s orientation to the world outside it.

Justine Dymond, “Mixing the Outside with the Inside”

Learning, I think, is best achieved when one is presented with a myriad of both expected and unexpected results. Making room for potential, or antipotential, or the generation of the unknown benefits your overall capacity to contextualize your world and to apply vigorously your knowledge to the betterment of your environments.

Managing Associations and Observations for Development of Your Self

Returning to the metaphor of the landscape and the portrait of the landscape, I wonder what scenarios one might be able to come up with that tangent it. And how can one maintain and manage the connections that are made thinking through the parallels between art and actuality. Following connective strings as well as creating new paths is best done with the idea and intention that no path ever simply appears – you can always find the trails that lead to each other should you be willing to let the mind wander and follow the associations made between sources, subjects, and situations.

They are embodied loci of interpretant formation—the process by which one sign is interpreted by another in a way that gives rise to a new sign. Selves, then, are signs that can potentially extend into the future insofar as a subsequent self, with its own embodied locus, re-presents it as part of that semiotic process by which that subsequent self emerges as a self.

Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think

If you are looking to learn more about emboldening your emotional, intuitive, or communicative prowess, consider looking into my courses designed for independent, adult learning in the Espial. With current subjects covering the themes of fear, reward, and shame, rest assured you will be able to complicate and challenge your preconceived understandings of some complicated matters.

And as always, if you have anything you’d like my thoughts on, feel free to reach out and contact me.


  1. I am really pleased to glance at this web site posts which contains lots of helpful information, thanks for providing these information. Rhea Monroe Wappes

  2. As with any color, it’s all about personal preference. I enjoy seeing glossy yellow lamps and painted furniture especially in a serious room. it’s a reminder that it’s okay to be a little spontaneous with color! Demeter Eduino Bury

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.