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He was a pupil of Ivan Pavlov. Best known for his study of "type II conditioned reflexes," or secondary conditioned reflexes, he introduced a new direction of research and established new theories concerning the physiology of the brain. Today, type II conditioned reflexes are known as operant or instrumental conditioning, and Konorski is perhaps the most important pioneer in the study of instrumental conditioning.
In addition to many papers, he is the author of two important books on learning, Conditioned Reflexes and Neuron Organization (1948), and Integrative Activity of the Brain (1967). In the first book, he presented one of the first comprehensive theories of associative learning as a result of long-term neuronal plasticity. In the second, he substantially revised his early theories and attempted a synthesis of the relevant work on associative learning and neurobiology of perception and motivation. Although Konorski became a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in his lifetime, his influence has grown considerably since his death. Today, he is known not only as the first to systematically investigate the mechanisms underlying instrumental conditioning, but also as one of the most brilliant theoretical neurobiologists of all time.
Few realize that Konorski gave neuroscience two of its lasting concepts (independently of Western scientists who also proposed them). The "grandmother cell" of the West is in essence Konorski's "gnostic unit." In fact, he developed this concept in great detail in the 1967 book. Konorski also suggested synapses that strengthen with use, and elaborated the process. Such synapses are typically referred to in the West as Hebbian synapses after Donald Hebb, who also proposed them.
One of Konorski's earliest contributions was to discover instrumental conditioning (described in a paper that he published with Stefan Miller), again independent of western psychology. His visit to Pavlov's laboratory was the result of a letter that he sent to Pavlov describing this work. Pavlov was never convinced that instrumental conditioning (which Konorski called "Type II" to distinguish it from Pavlov's "Type I" learning) differed from his own Type I conditioning in any important way. An interesting exchange occurred between B. F. Skinner and Konorski over the two types of learning. Skinner had originally referred to operant conditioning as Type I and Pavlovian conditioning as Type II. Konorski agreed to revise his nomenclature for the sake of avoiding confusion in the western literature.
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