Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

Pavlov The founder of behaviourism, Russian physiologist known for the concept of conditioned reflex. In a now-classic experiment, he trained a dog by ringing a bell before mealtime, and through the course of time showed that simply by ringing the bell the dog would salivate. He developed a similar conceptual approach in his studies of human behaviour. Pavlov’s work, taken together with that of Freud, marks the beginning of modern psychology, providing the first real elements of a materialist framework for the study of the psyche.
The son of a priest, Pavlov left the seminary to enter the University of St. Petersburg, where he studied chemistry and physiology, later travelling to Germany to study under Carl Ludwig and Rudolf Heidenhain. Returning to St Petersburg in 1888, he began research on the mechanisms regulating blood pressure. His skill as a surgeon allowed him to carry out measurements on dogs without anesthesia and trace the train of nervous stimuli involved in the system regulating blood pressure.
In 1890, he became professor of physiology at the newly founded Institute of Experimental Medicine, where he remained until 1924. For most of his life from this time forward his work focussed on the action of the digestive glands of animals, in the course of which he formulated his famous laws of the conditioned reflex. (See Vygotsky's assessment of the significance of Pavlov's methodology in his Two Psychologies). Pavlov's aim was to establish on the basis of this one body-process, the correlation between objective, measurable physiological phenomena and the higher nervous activity associated with it.
Pavlov's relationship with the Bolsheviks after the Revolution is of considerable interest. On the one hand, Pavlov was soneone totally focussed on his science, but with a passionate commitment to pursuit of truth and a concern for precision and professionalism in his work which bordered on the obsessive; on the other hand, the Bolsheviks valued the rich inheritance of science from the old order, where science was the only way open to an ordinary citizen into high society, a practice which had created a scientific community superior to many in Western Europe. Conditions in Petrograd were desperate beyond belief by 1921-2, and Pavlov requested permission from Lenin to transfer his laboratory abroad. Lenin denied the request, and Pavlov refued personal privileges offered to him while his staff worked in near-starvation conditions. After returning from a visit to the US in 1923, he publicly denounced the Revolution, saying “For the kind of social experiment that you are making, I would not sacrifice a frog's hind legs!” After Stalin came to power in 1924, he resigned his post saying, “I also am the son of a priest, and if you expel the others I will go too!” See his Lecture on the Cerebral Hemisphere, from this period.
In 1927, he wrote to Stalin, protesting “On account of what you are doing to the Russian intelligentsia – demoralizing, annihilating, depraving them – I am ashamed to be called a Russian!" In the late 1920s, he refused Nikolay Bukharin admission to his laboratory. Later on, like many others, with Russia under attack by Hitler, Pavlov moderated his criticism and got on with his scientific work as best he could.
Beginning about 1930, Pavlov tried to apply his concept of conditional reflex to human psychoses, which he saw as a mechanism to shut out the external world, in much the same way that the body protects a wound by stiffening the muscles with an influx of blood. The idea was applied in the treatment of psychiatric patients in Russia, placing patients nonstimulating surroundings to moderate the stimulus for psychosis. Pavlov also developed a conditional reflex theory of language.


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