There’s a large chance that you’ve heard the name of the Nobel laureate I.P. Pavlov, even if you might not know anything about his work.
There are streets, institutes, subway stations, naukograds, even planets named after the renowned Russian psychologist and physiologist, but what is it he actually did?
Son of a village priest, Pavlov was born in 1849 in Ryazan, Russian Empire. By 1870 he abandoned the religious career for which he had been preparing, and instead went into science. Although he turned to scientific agnosticism, he considered true religion beneficial, and later in his life said that he envied no one anything except his wife her devout religious faith.
Photo by Rklawton
In 1904, Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his research on the digestive system of mammals, but this is not what he’s best remembered for.
During the investigation of Pavlov dogs’, he noticed that they salivated more when they expected food, a phenomenon he termed psychic secretion. The discovery fascinated Ivan Pavlov, and led him to abandon his research on the digestive systems.
Instead, he spent the remainder of his life studying the reflex system and what is now called Pavlovian conditioning—a process of behavior modification by which a subject comes to respond to a previously neutral stimulus.
Due to his contrarian and unaccommodating nature, Pavlov initially had difficulties progressing his careers and did not earn much. When his financial situation was particularly bleak, his students tried to support him with a fund rising, but he instead used the money to buy food for his dogs.
It is a less know fact that Pavlov did not limit his experiments to dogs, and at later stages, performed similar surgical operations and experiments on children. While this may seem highly disturbing nowadays, at the time, testing on humans was a common practice around the world.
Pavlov continued his research until his very death in 1936. In fact, he was so eager to sacrifice every minute of his life to research, that he had one of his students attend him on his deathbed to record the circumstances of his dying.
Pavlov was openly disapproving of the Soviet Communism, and in 1923, he claimed that he would not sacrifice even the hind leg of a frog to the type of social experiment that the regime was conducting in Russia. He did not approve of being viewed as an exemplary Soviet scientist behind the new New Soviet man (or homo sovieticus), and he was petrified by the idea that his research could be used to manipulate people.
Despite his strong words and open display of imperial medals, Pavlov was highly regarded by the Soviet government and Lenin himself, who continued to fund his life and research. Pavlov was given a grandiose funeral, and his study and laboratory were preserved as a museum in his honour.
Pavlov’s new approach to psychology became known as behaviourism, and later on, his work was extended by William Sargant, and Donald Ewen Cameron (sponsored by the CIA), who have brainwashed a number of unsuspecting patients in an attempt to develop a systematic method for implantation of false memories.
The impact of Pavlov’s research can also be felt in popular culture. The phrase “Pavlov’s dog” is often used to describe someone who merely reacts to a situation rather than using critical thinking and Pavlovian conditioning is a popular topic in media and literature, with references in works such as The Office, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and Huxley’s Brave New World.
If you’d like to learn more about Ivan Pavlov, and respondent conditioning in general, try to get your hand on the Soviet biographical film Akademik Ivan Pavlov (if you speak Russian, you can watch it in full at RuTube), and the first episode of BBC’s The Brain: A Secret History documentary.