Spontaneous recovery refers to the reappearance or recurrence of a previously extinguished conditioned response (CR) after a period of rest or absence of the conditioned stimulus (CS).


In classical conditioning, a conditioned response is learned when a neutral stimulus is consistently paired with an unconditioned stimulus, leading to a natural unconditioned response. Through repeated pairing, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned response.

Extinction occurs when the conditioned stimulus is repeatedly presented without the unconditioned stimulus, eventually causing the conditioned response to weaken and disappear. This process is often used in therapeutic settings to eliminate unwanted or maladaptive behaviors.

Spontaneous recovery, however, refers to the unexpected reemergence of the conditioned response after a period of no exposure to the conditioned stimulus. Even though the conditioned behavior appeared to be extinguished, the association between the conditioned stimulus and response was not completely erased from memory. This sudden reappearance of the conditioned response can be puzzling, as it seemingly contradicts the principles of extinction.

Factors Influencing Spontaneous Recovery

Several factors can influence the occurrence and strength of spontaneous recovery:

Temporal Factors

The time that elapses between the extinction phase and the reappearance of the conditioned response may vary. In some cases, spontaneous recovery can occur within a few hours, while in others, it may take days or even weeks.

Contextual Cues

The context in which the conditioned response was originally learned can play a role in spontaneous recovery. If the conditioned behavior was acquired in a specific environment or situation, returning to that context may trigger the reappearance of the behavior.

Reminder Exposure

Presenting a reminder of the conditioned stimulus following the extinction phase can facilitate spontaneous recovery. This reminder exposure can be a weak or partial presentation of the conditioned stimulus or a similar stimulus that shares some features with the original conditioned stimulus.

Theoretical Significance

Spontaneous recovery offers insights into memory and learning processes. It suggests that while extinction weakens the association between a conditioned stimulus and its corresponding response, the original learning is not entirely erased. Instead, it appears to be suppressed temporarily. This phenomenon highlights the complex and resilient nature of associative memory, indicating that associations learned through classical conditioning can spontaneously resurface after a period of rest.