Mammalian Learning Pattern

If you watch the news on TV (which is questionably dangerous to your mental health, by the way) you may have noticed that the stock market goes up and down, but mostly over a long period of time it gets higher in value. This is a characteristic of many functions in nature, feast and famine, with ultimate stabilization. Often patterns in nature are not logical, they are biological. Progressions are not linear, they move forward by starts and fits, by failure, followed by success (we hope).

Mammalian learning has been found to follow a similar pattern, known as the learning spiral. When I first heard the term I pictured a truck front suspension spring, with a smooth spiraling  upward improvement. But that’s not how it works. Improvement or learning begins to happen slowly, then over time the learning becomes more rapid until it reaches a plateau, then it deteriorates, but not all the way to baseline. Then, again, it slowly increases, and then rapidly improves even better than before, until it reaches another plateau, then deteriorates again.  This time it levels out still higher than the second baseline and so on, similar to the pattern made by looking at a children’s slinky toy sideways.

A slinky held in front of old barn wood.

Horse training definitely follow this pattern. The horse takes a long time to catch on at first. As time goes on he begins to learn a subject or to “get good”, much faster, until he reaches a point where appears to no longer improve. This is the plateau. Then it seems that he loses it all, or in the moralistic sounding language of horse trainers “gets bad”. This is the phase of deterioration. Most of the time a horse goes through three “good ” phases followed by three “bad” phases. Just before he gets good for the third time he may get really “bad”, and this is called “extinction burst”, meaning that he is putting on a last ditch stand of resistance right before “getting it”, and when he does “get it”, you see him licking and chewing because that is his way of telling you that he has accepted this new information. If you know how this process works you can be more patient and persistent, knowing what to look for with your equine student.

By the way – you’re a mammal, too!

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