Psychology professor Mark Bouton's principles of extinction of fear or unwanted behaviors discoveries are fact. Just ask the clinical psychologists and neuroscientists who have been referencing and building from his work for twenty years. His pioneering work, connecting neural events and human behavior, has made him an in-demand speaker and contributor to journals where he translates basic experiments into insights that may lead to better treatment for issues like anxiety disorders and drug addiction.
The quest to understand the basic mechanisms of learning, memory, and emotion is grounded in classical conditioning, the theory made famous by the Russian physician Ivan Pavlov and his work with dogs, bells, and food.
Pavlov's discovery: that extinction, the process of teaching those dogs that a bell no longer means food, is a way of inhibiting the original learning, not erasing it. Bouton's discovery: that extinction learning is dependent on the context or environment in which it is learned. Leave the rehab clinic and the lurking addiction or fear becomes the default, often causing relapse. And context, Bouton warns, is far more complex than just physical space; it encompasses drug state and even time.
The latter two elements, in fact, with a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, are now the focus of Bouton's UVM lab.
Bouton's deepest interests lie in answering fundamental questions but he also believes his work can be a bridge to the life-changing work clinicians seek. "I think it's an obligation of basic scientists, frankly," he says. "I tell my graduate students: it's nice to be testing all these cool theories, but it has a bigger meaning."