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As the Rebers wrote in the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology:
Attempting to provide a precise definition of this term has led many psychologists to grief. Since it is a primary term in a theoretical orientation that has, historically been regarded as one of the most objective yet produced by psychology literature on learning nad conditioning (see Stimulus response theory, one would anticipate that there would be a relatively unambiguous definition, or, barring that, at least an aggreement upon manner and pattern of usage. Alas neither is to be found.
The term "stimulus" (plural: stimuli) has several related meanings:
- In physiology, a stimulus is something external that elicits or influences a physiological or psychological activity or response.
- In psychology, anything effectively impinging upon the sensory system of a living organism, including physical phenomena both internal and external to the body.
- In other fields, a stimulus is anything that may have an impact on a system; an input to the system. (E.g., an economic stimulus.)
In most contexts, a stimulus can be described as "stimulating", thereby causing "stimulation" or "over-stimulation".
Although related, the word's meaning is distinct from that of "stimulant."