Basic Organization of Operant Behavior

Little is known about the basic functional organization of operant conditioning despite its popularity among the students of Cognitive Psychology. An organism is said to behave operantly if it is modifying its behavior in response to the comparison between its own behavioral output and its experience. In contrast to classical conditioning, where the organism experiences (and eventually memorizes) contingencies in its environment, an operantly behaving organism is constantly exploring the consequences of its own actions.

The Drosophila Flight Simulator, where the sensory input can be precisely controlled and the motor-output can be surveilled in great detail, is a valuable tool for investigating possible links between the two modalities:

Thus, a conceptual framework of operant behavior can be proposed:

  1. Operant behavior requires a goal (desired state).
  2. In order to achieve the goal a range of motor programs is activated (initiating activity).
  3. Efference copies of the motor programs are compared to the sensory input referring to the deviation from the desired state.
  4. In case of a significant coincidence the respective motor program is used to modify the sensory input in the direction towards the goal.
  5. Consistent control of a sensory stimulus by a behavior may lead to a more permanent behavioral change (conditioning)

This concept enables one to distinguish between operant activity (1-4) and operant conditioning (1-5).

general model of operant behavior
General model of operant behavior. The brain generates a large variety of motor-outputs and cross-correlates them with one or several sensory inputs. If, for a certain combination, the correlation is sufficiently positive, the fly can manipulate this sensory input according to its needs. The long external arrow coupling 'rotatory control manoevres' and 'temperature', depicts the situation of a fly in the Drosophila Flight Simulator.  

Originally published as: Wolf R, Heisenberg M (1991): Basic organization of operant behavior as revealed in Drosophila flight orientation. J Comp Physiol (A) 169:699-705.