In This Article Neuroscience of Associative Learning

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • CS, US, CR, and UR Pathways

Psychology Neuroscience of Associative Learning
Gabrielle Weidemann, Gavan McNally
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0080


Associative learning involves the encoding of relationships between events, for example, between two stimuli or between a stimulus and a response. Associative learning is distinguished from nonassociative learning, which involves only a single stimulus. In the narrowest definition of associative learning, it is restricted to the learning that occurs during classical conditioning and instrumental conditioning. However, associative learning can also be used more broadly to encompass all memory for the relationship between events and as such includes other forms of short-term and long-term memory. During the 20th century and since 1980 in particular, vast gains were made in understanding the neural mechanisms of associative learning, particularly the neuroscience of classical and instrumental conditioning and of associative memories. Much of this newfound knowledge has come from the study of a relatively small number of model systems: preparations in animals in which the essential neurocircuitry, as well as the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying associative learning, can be isolated and analyzed. While there are some reference works that summarize the commonalities in associative learning processes across these different model systems, much of literature is devoted to describing the neurobiology of a particular model system. The first section of this bibliography introduces some articles and reference works that review the neuroscience of associative learning and memory across a variety of different model preparations and synthesize the commonalities across these different preparations. It also recommends journals that publish high-quality empirical and review articles on the neuroscience of associative learning across the various different model preparations. The bibliography’s remaining sections examine the neuroscience of associative learning in particular model systems.

General Overviews

Although most of the literature on the neuroscience of associative learning describes the neurobiology of a particular model system, there are a number of articles that attempt to summarize the neuroscience in each of the different model systems and other articles that describe the commonalities of mechanism between these different model systems. Steinmetz, et al. 2003 provides a summary of current opinion of the biological substrates of learning in the most commonly studied Pavlovian and instrumental conditioning preparations. Kandel 2001 provides a review of the cellular mechanisms that allow for the neuronal plasticity that underlies different forms of associative learning, with a particular emphasis on the commonalities in molecular mechanisms among different species. Fanselow and Poulos 2005 and Medina, et al. 2002 both review the commonalties of mechanism in Pavlovian fear conditioning and eyeblink conditioning. Thompson 1986 provides a justification for the model systems approach to studying the neuroscience of associative learning.

  • Fanselow, Michael S., and Andrew M. Poulos. 2005. The neuroscience of mammalian associative learning. Annual Review of Psychology 56:207–234.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070213E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the neuroscience of associative learning with a particular focus on the Pavlovian conditioning model systems of fear conditioning and eyeblink conditioning, which are the most extensively studied mammalian associative learning preparations. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Kandel, Eric R. 2001. The molecular biology of memory storage: A dialogue between genes and synapses. Science 294:1030–1038.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1067020E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the seminal work of the author, for which he shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, on the mechanisms of learning and memory. The focus is on the molecular events that occur inside neurons that underpin memory storage and plasticity in different model preparations, most notably Aplysia. Emphasis is also placed on the evidence that these molecular events are shared between different species. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Medina, Javier F., J. Christopher Repa, Michael D. Mauk, and Joseph E. LeDoux. 2002. Parallels between cerebellum- and amygdala-dependent conditioning. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 3.2: 122–131.

    DOI: 10.1038/nrn728E-mail Citation »

    Compares and contrasts the neural circuitry and the cellular mechanisms of associative learning in eyeblink conditioning and fear conditioning, the two most extensively studied forms of associative learning within the mammalian brain. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Steinmetz, Joseph E., Jeansok Kim, and Richard F. Thompson. 2003. Biological models of associative learning. In Handbook of psychology. Vol. 3, Biological psychology. Edited by Michela Gallagher, Randy J. Nelson, and Irving B. Weiner, 499–541. New York: Wiley.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter summarizes the contributions of various invertebrate and mammalian models of associative learning to our understanding of the neural mechanisms of associative learning. It has a particular emphasis on Pavlovian conditioning but also includes a section on the neural substrates of discrete instrumental responses.

  • Thompson, R. F. 1986. The neurobiology of learning and memory. Science 233:941–947.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.3738519E-mail Citation »

    Describes why it is that the model systems approach to studying learning and memory, which involves the selection of an organism that exhibits a particular well-defined form of learning and memory and has a nervous system that is amenable to investigation, has been the most productive research strategy for understanding how the brain codes, stores, and retrieves memories. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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