State Dependent Learned Behaviour (SDLB)

As an under-graduate, I was taught about learned behaviour. At that time, it all felt rather pre-determined; behaviour changes were hard to win, or rather relentless –  even for Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s rats and pidgeons!

Later  I learned about the Positive Psychology movement, led by Martin Seligman and breathed a sign of relief. This material casts light on how we use learning processes to absorb and exploit knowledge; to make a difference in our lives, and can go on doing that.

In due time, I learned about neuro-plasticity.  What’s that, I hear you ask.

It’s not such a new idea, but the implications have become clearer with the work of modern neuro-scientists. Their conclusions say the body learns and adapts through life. Neural pathways find new routes all the time. Even when I hit a snag, when an ability to perform is compromised, I may be able to find a new way do the same – or similar – thing.

In similar vein, it appears that how I learn and adapt is often influenced by the mood I am in. W

adapt, even if – and, maybe, because – I made mistakes along the way. Although some of it seemed trial-and-error, I was helped to see that the learning process was rarely a straight line. Generally, I learned by travelling on the scenic route. This ideas was to become central to my own professional  practice in time.

My understanding was further advanced when, after qualifying as a chartered psychologist, I completed a training in clinical hypnotherapy in London.  There, I was introduced to the idea of State Dependent Learned Behaviour (SDLB). This has become an important notion in the design and implementation of small, safe experiments, particularly when Babette Rothschild introduced me to State Dependent Memory and Learned Behaviour (SDMLB), an important tweak on the original idea.

Why is this material so helpful to this web site? Because the state we are in when we design and implement safe experiments plays a large part in determining the results we will obtain.  Our state of being can colour our perception of the world so much so that we lose a link between the time we design something and the time we go to implement it! We can dissociate and that defence mechanism is of special case of state dependent behaviour.

So what more can be said about State Dependent Learned Behaviour (SDLB)? How can we live with it and/or manage it in our lives? A Sixties insight, SDLB refers to the tendency for information to be most easily remembered when we are in a particular emotional and physical state. Donald Overton, a US psychologist focused on drug-dependent memory in rats. Later, he demonstrated that humans in a drunken state best remembered learned material in a later drunken state and were less likely to recall it all when sober.

His early work established that many classes of drugs produce the effect and this led to the idea of context-dependent memory. In one experiment,  words learned by divers while they were underwater were best recalled when they were underwater once again. Conversely words they learned on land were best recalled on land.

It is this mood-dependent learning that helps to explain why pleasant experiences are more likely to be remembered by a person who is happy, and unpleasant experiences by someone who is unhappy and, indeed, may be likely to become even more unhappy as a result.

It explains the important observation that ‘small defeats’ are more likely to be called to mind when we are in a negative state of mind.  Small victories too easily get overlooked.

This has implications for the manner in which you design and implement any small, safe experiments.  I can actively help to improve my chances of making an effective change in my life by attending to the state I am in. I am


how we feel in our bodies –


Some safe experiments

This is difficult – one of the first times when I wondered if I was running out of known small, safe experiments!

I do not want to encourage a number of experiments with all the legal – let alone illegal – mind-altering stimuli that are around. I’m not going to ask you to attend to the impact of, say, alcohol. The whole point of this page is to highlight how induced states have to be re-induced to transfer our learning from one place to another. That is not often a very helpful pre-requisite.

Therefore, let’s keep it simple and ensure that our ‘state’ is just noticed and reported-on within the system of recording you use.

Consider this page on recording: it looks long and involved. I rather hope that you’ve adapted it to what is possible, rather than what I must do?

Even so, I am going to complicate it further!  Notice the first section on:

Antecedents: what happened beforehand to prompt you to consider an experiment at all?

Now, I’d ask you to include ‘mood’ as an ‘antecedent’;  mood as a relevant factor around even before you get started! This factor as important as – where you are; who is with you and any thoughts you might notice about the task you have chosen to undertake.

To help here with designing experiments,  I’d refer again to the Body Scan as a preliminary exercise intended to help identify current feelings. What ARE you feelings as you start to do something just a little bit different?

Return to:


What is a nudge

How to do safe experiments

Making Memories