Training our brains

You're outside in the park on a hot day. In the distance, you hear a familiar song - the music of an ice cream truck! You're excited about all the different flavors of ice cream you could get, and your mouth starts to water. Even though you haven't even seen the ice cream yet, you're already thinking about eating it. This is an example of a way we train brains, and it's called classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning happens when the brain makes a connection between two things that would generally be unrelated, such as a song and ice cream. This happens all the time in your daily life. Good and bad experiences teach us to expect things, and to feel or react a certain way when we see, smell, or hear certain things.

A brain with a thought bubble above it. In the thought bubbles, there's music notes with an equal sign pointing to an ice cream.

Behavioral learning

Behavioral learning is the idea that the behavior of humans and other animals is a result of good and bad experiences. Learning can help us form new habits or change our behaviors, and helps animals survive in their environments. Classical conditioning is one type of learning, but there are other ways to learn too.

Learning helps humans and other animals predict what might happen next based on past experiences. It helps us recognize and avoid danger. Suppose you ate a red berry that made your stomach hurt, for example. The next time you see a red berry, you might remember that bad experience and hesitate to eat a red berry again.

Red berries

We also use learning to train our pets. Have you ever taught your dog to sit or come when you call them? By using specific words, rewards, and punishments, you can help your pet learn new behaviors.

Classical conditioning and other ways of learning are important tools for our survival. Learning can show us how actions, experiences, and outcomes are connected, which helps us navigate the world around us.

Pavlov's dog

Classical conditioning was first discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was originally studying the digestive system of dogs. He was measuring how much a dog's mouth would salivate, or give off extra fluid, when it saw food.

Partway through that experiment, Pavlov noticed that the dog would begin to salivate when it heard the sound of the lab assistant arriving, even though the dog hadn't seen any food yet. The dog had learned that the lab assistant brought food, and now expected to be fed every time it heard the lab assistant.

A dog hearing the lab assistant arriving, thinking of a bowl of food and salivating.

Pavlov realized that the dog's brain had made a new connection between two unrelated things: the lab assistant and food. He wondered if he could teach the dog to associate food with other things as well.

To test this, Pavlov came up with a new experiment. He used the sound of a metronome, which is an instrument that makes a regular ticking sound often used by musicians. In the experiment, Pavlov turned on the metronome every time he was about to feed the dog. At first, the dog had no response to the metronome. But after a while, the dog began to expect food every time it heard a metronome. The dog had learned, or been conditioned, to begin salivating once it heard the metronome, even without seeing the food!

A metronome with an equal sign pointing to a bowl of dog food

Training bees

Now, let's say you want to run your own experiment, like Pavlov did. But you are going to focus on a much tinier subject: bees. There are many good reasons to study bees.

First, bees are important pollinators. This means they help plants reproduce by spreading pollen from flower to flower. Pollination is important for all flowering plants, and for the plants that grow the food we eat. Studying and understanding bees can help us better protect them, and the plants that depend on them.

A bunch of bees on a honeycomb background.

Second, bees have very interesting social behaviors. In a human city, people have different roles, such as nurse, gardener, and engineer. Bees in a hive also specialize in different tasks during different parts of their lives. Some take care of the babies, some collect food, and some build new sections of the hive, for example. All jobs are important for the colony to run smoothly. But, some bees will be better than others at specific tasks, such as learning odors. Communication and learning are important because it helps bees work together, find flowers, and navigate their environment.

Lastly, bees are easy to work with in a lab. They're large enough to interact with, and you can observe their behavior without microscopes. And, with the help of special tools, it's fairly easy to take photos of their brains to see the activity there.

Experiments and the scientific method

Let's take a step back and think about experiments for a moment. An experiment is a fun and organized way to learn new things. Experiments help us understand the world around us, answer questions, and find out how things work.

The scientific method is a series of steps that scientists use in their research. It's the formula for a clear and good experiment, and can include the following seven steps: Observation, Question, Hypothesis, Prediction, Testing, Conclusion, and Communication. Some of these steps are repeated during the process. This happens most often when your test leads you to more questions, or to a dead end. Then you would go back to see if you have a slightly different hypothesis to test.

The seven steps of the scientific method.

To read more about the scientific method, visit Using the scientific method to solve mysteries. When setting up your experiment, it's helpful to follow the steps of the scientific method to organize your work.


Variables are the things that can change in an experiment. They're the parts of the experiment that you need to watch most closely. There are a few types of variables.

The independent variable is the thing you change on purpose to see what happens.

Example: You run two experiments and in the second experiment, you change the odor presented to a bee from orange blossom to rose blossom. The odor is the independent variable.

The dependent variable is the thing you measure to see the result of the change. It's the outcome, or the thing you're looking to find.

Example: You're conditioning bees to respond to odors by showing them different odors. The bee's response to an odor (extending its proboscis and moving its antennae) is the dependent variable.

Controlled variables are the things you keep the same during your experiment. When running an experiment, it's important to change only one variable at a time. That way, you know exactly what caused the changes that you see when you compare multiple experiments.

Example: You run two experiments and change the odor presented, but you always present a reward of the same strength. The reward strength is a controlled variable.

When setting up your experiment, it's helpful to think about what your independent, dependent, and controlled variables will be.

Are you ready to train bees?

In the Bee Learning Lab, you'll use classical conditioning to virtually teach bees to respond to different odors. To read more about the experimental setup and simulation, visit the about the science and how to play pages.