Generalization and Discrimination- From a Newborn’s World to the Society

Even the most primitive forms of creatures exhibit some kind of stimulus-response learning. Starting from the simplest kinds of learning such as habituation and sensitization that were non-associative stimuli-response mechanisms, we progressed to associative learning mechanisms of conditional and reinforcement learning. In addition to these mechanisms, we also learned to perceive the world as categories. The environment that we live in is complex. We are faced with an innumerable number of stimuli each moment. If we hadn’t categorized the world as we see it now, each novel stimuli would have had to be processed and learned every single time we encounter them. Rather, thanks to the learning mechanisms that we possess, we learned to group a few things under a single category and discriminate those that did not lead to similar consequences, eventually forming mental representations of the categories.

As an infant grows up, she starts forming these categories and mentally represents them as concepts. The biggest challenge that she might have encountered in this process may have been in identifying the set of stimuli that she could generalize. Early in her life, she discriminated between the face of her mother and a stranger. Slowly, she generalized that similar-looking women such as her mother’s sister are people she feels safe with. She learned to discriminate between the female and male facial features eventually and also had some issues feeling safe around male visitors. Now if we were to build models depicting the learning mechanisms that she is displaying, we would soon figure out that the models we have been using so far for the associative learning mechanisms prove to be faulty. According to the traditional learning model, the baby would only show a sense of familiarity and comfort with her mother as she was only used to her presence, and would never generalize to include other family members and caregivers. But we know that is not what generally happens. A tweak in the model to include the mental representations that she has formed solves the problem. To account for the behavior that she displays, we formulate a shared internal representation, that is, a stimulus can trigger more than one representational entity. Hence our model no longer is the basic one-to-one representation of the stimulus and response. The model that we have created now is far more complex and is one of the best representations of learning as a result of the child’s development.

She may only be a child, but her brain has already mastered a lot of probability. The generalizations that she’s been doing are all based on the probability that the new stimuli will lead to similar consequences. She would associate a greater probability of similar outcomes to perceptually similar stimuli. Even when the stimuli are perceptually quite dissimilar based on their features, she starts to make generalizations based on the meaning it represents. Although all her toys are dissimilar in appearance, color, shape, and size, she has learned to generalize that they are all something she enjoys playing with. She has formed a mental representation, also known as a ‘concept’ for her toys. Each time a visitor visits, she receives toys as gifts. They may be extremely unrelated to what she already owns, but she has a prototypic representation of what a toy is in her mind. Her eyes light upon seeing the new object as she quickly adds it to her mental compartment of ‘toys’.

Sometimes, she may have had to modify her generalizations, either make it narrower or broader. Suppose she entered the kitchen when her mother just took a vessel off the stove and accidentally burnt herself, she would probably narrow her areas where she can play to exclude the kitchen. This shows that learning can be modified, which is crucial for our survival.

As she grows older she starts to form stereotypes about the world. One of the early stereotypes that she formed was that adults are boring to play with. Although she may have not met as many adults in her 5 years of life and the fact that adults may, in reality, even be fun to play with, she generalized the fact that adults are boring, to include all the adults. Interestingly, she even tries to find pieces of evidence to strengthen her belief and conveniently fails to see cues that tell her otherwise. These confirmatory biases are exactly the things that lead to gender and racial stereotypes, which are prevailing social issues.

Generalizations help to view the big picture without having to allocate attention to minute details of the stimuli. Children diagnosed with autism are known to show enhanced discrimination abilities. In order to view the world as categories, it is vital to identify similarities between entities and group them together. These children find it difficult to generalize and hence show difficulty in concept formation. Hence they show degraded learning when it comes to generalizing to novel situations. One of the challenges in forming and understanding concepts is that they do not have marked boundaries discriminating one concept from another. They generally have a very fuzzy representation and hence the need for context becomes highly important during the process of both concept formation and retrieval. This is fundamental when it comes to education — Students must be given the context in which a particular knowledge is used. Only then does the process of concept formation become efficient.

Generalization and Discriminations are really important to consider in the view of the existing social evils. We have learned to discriminate against people based on their caste, religion, and nationality, rather than generalizing all human beings under a single category, that is ‘human beings.’ It is interesting to note that it is only in the mind such concepts are formed, whereas in the real world we are all one. We must find out ways to break stereotypes and discriminating practices to build unified and harmonious communities. This is possible, for learning is plastic, malleable, and highly adaptable. All we need is an open mind that is ready to witness the truth, the cues that have always been present, and yet remained hidden to our mind’s eye.

Putting a creative spin on things, is what I do!