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Clinical Implications of Learning and Memory

By: , Posted on: January 28, 2015

Warren Tryon Canadian Rockies BearPrinciple 2, as presented in my book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, concerns learning and memory; the two explanatory pillars of psychological science.

If infants could not learn by forming memories they would not develop into the children, adolescents, and adults with which we are familiar. Psychological science would not exist. Natural science explanations of psychological phenomena must therefore include learning and memory. I represented these principles in Blogs 17 and 18 or click here for a link to my full blog archive.

Introductory psychology textbooks present operant and respondent conditioning as if that explained how learning occurs. Such presentations are misleading because they are only partly correct. Operant and respondent conditioning specify conditions under which learning takes place. They concern methods for producing learning. But methods are not explanations. Likewise, introductory psychology textbooks present so-called higher forms of human learning in terms of cognitive processes. Here again the how and why of learning is not explained. What we take away from all of this is that psychological science has left the task of explaining how and why learning occurs to neuroscience but wants the reader to believe that they have the complete answer.

On page 50 of my book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory. I report that learning can be defined in terms of memory formation:

We now understand that ‘Learning refers to the process by which experiences change our nervous system and hence our behavior. We refer to these changes as memories’ (italics in the original) (Carlson et al., 2010, p. 440).

But how do we form memories? The short answer here is that experience-dependent plasticity (EDP) neuroscience mechanisms modify synaptic properties of selected neural networks. Hence, memory forms via neural network modifications. We refer to the behavioral consequences of these synaptic modifications as learning. EDP mechanisms explain how all mammals, human and animal, learn via memory formation.

An important clinical implication of Principle 2 is that it enables psychologists to talk about learning and memory formation from a physical, biological, perspective. That psychologists modify synaptic properties by activating experience-dependent plasticity neuroscience mechanisms places them on the same conceptual page as physicians who produce psychological changes by modifying synaptic properties using medications. Principle 2 thereby provides parity between psychologists and physicians.

A second important clinical implication is that our professional identity can revolve around learning as I indicate on page 491 of my book as follows:

If clients did not learn from their therapy sessions, then psychotherapy would not be effective. The only substantive differences among psychological interventions pertain to what should be taught and how best to teach what needs to be learned. ‘Therapists, and the therapeutic approaches that currently divide us, differ only with regard to what is to be learned and how it is to be acquired’ (Tryon, 2010, p. 10).

A third important clinical implication of defining learning in terms of memory modification is that learning-based interventions are expected to modify memory. Principle 9: Memory Superposition maintains that memories are stored together, on top of one another. Hence, memories tend to interact with one another. Parts of memories get confused or transposed. People make these memory errors all the time as when they incorrectly recall meeting someone in a particular context when actually they met them in another context. A similar memory error occurs when one incorrectly calls a recent acquaintance by the name of another person who shares certain traits or was met under similar circumstances. See Rogler, Malgady, and Tryon (1992) for additional details.

All of this means that the memory modifications that clinicians make to treat specific psychological problems may inadvertently modify other memories. A specific application of this phenomenon is that memory modification may be used as a psychotherapy outcome measure. See Tryon and McKay (2009) for additional details.

A fourth major clinical implication of Principle 2: Learning and Memory is that the Bio-Psychology Network (BPN) explanatory system presented in Section 1 of my book redefines operant and respondent conditioning methods as cognitive-behavioral tools. This perspective authorizes cognitive and cognitive-behavioral clinicians to use operant and respondent conditioning principles to create customized treatments in their professional clinical practice as behavior therapists once did.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy coverRead more from Warren Tryon:

Warren’s book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code “STC215” at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy.

About the Author

Warren ComputerWarren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy.

In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is

This blog and all others by Dr. Warren Tryon can be found on his Fordham faculty webpage.


  1. Carlson, N. R., Miller, H., Heth, C. D., Donahoe, J. W., & Martin, G. N. (2010). Psychology: The science of behavior (7th ed.) (p. 440); Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Rogler, L. H., Malgady, R. & Tryon, W. W. (1992). Evaluation of mental health issues of memory in the Diagnostic Interview Schedule. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 180, 215-222.
  3. Tryon, W. W. (2010). Professional Identity Based on Learning. the Behavior Therapist, 33, 9.
  4. Tryon, W. W. & McKay, D. (2009). Memory modification as an outcome variable in anxiety disorder treatment. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23, 546-556.

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