self help

Rediscovering Ivan Pavlov

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Daniel Todes’s massive tome on physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), the man who, our textbooks tell us, trained dogs to salivate to a bell, transformed almost everything I had come to learn about that towering figure over my twenty-year career as a psychologist. For one thing, Pavlov rarely ever used a bell in his experiments. Instead he preferred devices that he felt were more precise, such as a metronome, a harmonium, a buzzer and even electrical shock! Indeed, he viewed the discovery that dogs could be trained to salivate on cue as a trivial byproduct of his more important, but less glamorous, research on digestion and psychology, an area of work that finally, after several nominations, won him the Nobel Prize in 1904. And although lumped in with behaviourists for purportedly denying the role of the inner experience or the psyche of his subjects, nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, Pavlov even recognized the subjectivity of his own experimental animals, identifying them, accordingly, as “heroes and cowards, intelligent and obtuse, independent and compliant,” etc (Todes). But misinformation has a way of going viral, and once gone, hard to correct.

A surprising source of misinformation about Pavlov was his own English-translated works, which were published, in many cases, under the coercion of the Soviet government. Threatened by the withdrawal of scientific dispensations, including food rations during a period of shortage and economic depression, Pavlov, a perfectionist at heart, begrudgingly agreed to turn a blind eye toward the translation of his work and the misinterpretations it led to. Take, for instance, the term “conditioned reflex,” a term that, although now synonymous with Pavlov’s work, he never actually used! The term he used would be more accurately translated as “conditional reflex” (uslovnyi refleks). This mistake, which Todes brilliantly traces to an issue of the Lancet that included an anonymous translation of Pavlov’s 1904 speech honouring TH Huxley, may appear insignificant, but trust me, it makes ‘al’ the difference. Let me explain.

Pavlov postulated that digestive secretion occurred in two phases. The first was termed as “psychic” secretion in that it was governed by the appetite, mood, and individual psychology of the subject. It also occurred before food was consumed and so was initially described by Pavlov’s research assistant Ivan Tolochinov, a psychologist, as “reflex at a distance” (later termed “extinction”). The second phase of digestive secretion was neural chemical and occurred only when food was present in the stomach. Psychic secretion was often larger and stronger than the secretions that were produced after food was already present in the stomach. Hence, Pavlov concluded that in the case of the salivary glands, “psychology over-shadows physiology.” However, unlike neural chemical secretion, psychic secretion was inconsistent and capricious. It was influenced and dependent on particular conditions that signalled food delivery. But these conditions varied greatly and needed to be investigated by strictly objective methods. It was because of this observation that Pavlov elected to replace the term psychic secretion with conditional reflex.

Although Pavlov was born into a family of priests and even studied for the priesthood himself at the Ryazan Ecclesiastical Seminary, he was, like Freud, Skinner and Ellis, a proud atheist. He believed that “the battle against religion” was “ an emblem of modern rationality.” I am partial to atheists myself, so I would like to believe that Pavlov’s atheism contributed to his success, and that it was the source of his staunch commitment to the highest scientific principles. “Shouldn’t all scientists be atheist?,” I sometimes wonder. Nevertheless, I realise that being anything, an atheist included, does not make one infallible, despite the flawless impression that one gets of Pavlov and all the other “fathers” of the field from our textbooks!
In connection with both Pavlov’s shortcomings and the factors that contributed to his success, I would like to make a special mention of Pavlov’s wife, Serafima. Although Serafima was an extremely talented school teacher, Pavlov did not permit her to work outside of the home. And so the once “vivacious, gay and clever” young woman whom Pavlov had married in 1881 became by the mid-1890s a “stolid matron who sacrificed all her interests for the happiness of her husband and children” (Todes, citing Pavlov’s former lab assistant, family friend, and biographer, Boris Babkin). Serafima sacrificed a lot for her family. But she forgave more. She looked past the extreme outbursts and temper tantrums that Pavlov was known to have both at home and in his laboratories. She also eventually accepted Pavlov’s lover, Maria Kapitonovna Petrova, a woman who was 25 years younger than him and, ironically, a working physician. She was a brilliant researcher and one of Pavlov’s most important co-workers. Petrova pursued her doctoral research in Pavlov’s lab and thereafter became a mainstay in the Pavlov family right up until Pavlov’s death. She eventually became director at the Physiological Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

There are many other things in Todes’s book that help readers humanise the mythological Pavlov. During his 20s, for instance, Pavlov was diagnosed with a “disturbance of the nerves,” which caused him to experience low energy and an inability to concentrate. This condition re-occurred several times during other periods in his life, notably during his second year of study at St. Petersburg University, which caused him to skip his exams. But Pavlov’s biggest vulnerability was probably his aversion to the uncertainties of life, the sluchainosti (chance events, accidents, randomness), as he called them, which were always negative and frightening, and for good reason. Pavlov grew up in poverty. He lived through the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. He lost one brother in a hunting accident and another to death in a communist prison. He saw the demise of three of his sons. There is so much more that could be said here. But for Pavlov, the counter and cure for this chaos was regularity and discipline in his personal life. His routine kept him sane. And as a matter of routine–I find this particularly instructive–Pavlov would spend a whopping three months out of every year at his summer home or “dacha” where he did no scientific work whatsoever. Surrounded by the sea and the woods, Pavlov worked with his hands and went on long walks and swims. He played a kind of bowling game called Gorodki. He stargazed and led his family on expeditions for berries and mushrooms. Pavlov’s intense productivity during 9 months of the year was complemented with 3 months of intense leisure; in short he epitomised the saying “work hard, play hard.”

Like most students of psychology in India, neither I nor my teachers had access to material on Pavlov, Skinner or Thorndike, save our one prescribed textbook. We might have paid more attention in our classes had we known Pavlov more holistically. He would have seemed “cool” to us coming-of-age young adults had we known that he was a contrarian, spoke fearlessly against communism, had met Fyodor Dostoevsky, loved gardening and despite all that he had done, including winning a Nobel at 77-years old, he incessantly had self-doubts for which he sought frequent reassurance. Todes, through his 880-page biography on which he worked for almost three decades, rescued Pavlov’s life and its lessons, and for that, we should all be grateful to him.

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