In rats, the application of a painful stimulus has shown an increase in overall arousal and the ability to learn certain behaviours (The study is neatly summed up in this video: Motivation and Reward in Learning). The experiment with electric shocks is shown on the second half.

It is common sense that human beings would naturally avoid painful consequences, but the deliberate application of a noxious stimulus may also elicit a unconscious response, or conditioning, to avoid those behaviours, which would mean a faster learning rate.

Learning could also be improved because pain is an intrinsically meaningful response, while perceived failure is somewhat weaker and less imediate as a motivating agent.

Could small electric shocks, applied by another individual, or a computer program (maybe even self-administered), have any use in learning? At what specific tasks would this technique be more effective?

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    $\begingroup$ I can't source this properly at the moment, but for a very long time, painful stimuli have been used as an aid to memory--see the English tradition of "beating the bounds", where often parish children were smacked at each boundary. $\endgroup$
    – Krysta
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ What requirements do you have of "learning" for the purposes of this question? Is getting something into declarative memory good enough? What about creating procedural memory? Also, if the learning method results in the subject learning a skill, but simultaneously reducing his motivation to ever practice that skill, do you consider this "effective" learning, or not? $\endgroup$
    – rumtscho
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 23:53

1 Answer 1


Claparede's Pinprick Experiment

From http://www.fearexhibit.org/brain/memory/claparedes_pinprick_experiment:

In 1911, a French doctor named Edouard Claparede published his observations of an amnesiac patient. Despite repeated interactions with the woman, sometimes only minutes apart, Claparede had to reintroduce himself every time he reentered the room; the patient never recognized him as someone she'd met.

During one of their "introductions," Claparede hid a tack in his palm and pricked the patient when they shook hands. The next time they "met," the patient refused to shake Claparede's hand though she couldn't explain why since she did not recall ever having met the doctor.

Today, scientists interpret the patient's reaction as proof that multiple memory systems are at work within the normal human brain. A subconscious memory system in the woman's brain had formed an association between shaking Claparede's hand and a painful experience. Therefore, despite the dysfunctional state of the memory system that would have normally enabled the patient to consciously remember the event, another memory system was still working, trying to keep her safe from harm.

A century ago, Claparede's observations were not readily understood as such evidence for multiple memory systems. We owe much of our knowledge about the brain and memory to studies of animals. Without these examinations, scientists might never have properly interpreted such observations of human subjects.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to CogSci! I think the pinprick experiment is a classic here (nice idea) and have upvoted your answer, but we encourage people to provide references/links for their claims. Your answer could be greatly strengthened with some citations for the more theoretical latter half. (Not to be adversarial, of course.) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 19:01

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