Sep 262016


Today is the birthday (1849) of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (Ива́н Петро́вич Па́влов) [O.S. 14 September] a Russian physiologist known primarily for his work in classical conditioning. Pavlov won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1904, becoming the first Russian Nobel laureate. Pavlov’s principles of classical conditioning have been used across a variety of experimental and clinical settings, including classrooms. As ever, I start with a disclaimer. I vehemently oppose the use of conditioning and its outgrowth, behaviorism. Both make the grossly unwarranted assumption that forcing changes in outward actions changes mental conditions.

Pavlov was the eldest of eleven children, born in Ryazan, to the SE of Moscow. His father, Peter Dmitrievich Pavlov (1823–1899), was a village priest. As a child, Pavlov willingly participated in house duties such as doing the dishes and taking care of his siblings. He loved to garden, ride his bicycle, row, swim, and play gorodki (a kind of skittles game). Although able to read by the age of 7, Pavlov was seriously injured when he fell from a high wall on to stone pavement. As a result he did not begin formal schooling until he was 11 years old.

Pavlov attended and graduated from the Ryazan church school before entering the local theological seminary. However, in 1870, Pavlov left the seminary without graduating to attend the university at St. Petersburg where he enrolled in the physics and mathematics department and took natural science courses. In his fourth year, his first research project on the physiology of the nerves of the pancreas won him a prestigious university award. In 1875, Pavlov completed his course with an outstanding record and received the degree of Candidate of Natural Sciences. His interest in physiology led him to continue his studies at the Imperial Academy of Medical Surgery. While there Pavlov became an assistant to his former teacher, Tyson, but left the department when Tyson was replaced by another instructor.


After some time, Pavlov obtained a position as a laboratory assistant to Professor Ustimovich at the physiological department of the Veterinary Institute. For two years, Pavlov investigated the circulatory system for his medical dissertation. In 1878, Professor S.P. Botkin, a famous Russian clinician, invited Pavlov to work in the physiological laboratory as the clinic’s chief. In 1879, Pavlov graduated from the Medical Military Academy with a gold medal award for his research work. After a competitive examination, Pavlov won a fellowship at the Academy for postgraduate work. The fellowship and his position as Director of the Physiological Laboratory at the clinic of the famous Russian clinician, S. P. Botkin enabled Pavlov to continue his research work. In 1883, he presented his doctor’s thesis on the centrifugal nerves of the heart and proposed the idea of “nervism” and the basic principles on the trophic function of the nervous system. Additionally, his collaboration with the Botkin clinic produced evidence of a basic pattern in the regulation of reflexes in the activity of circulatory organs.

After completing his doctorate, Pavlov went to Germany where he studied in Leipzig with Carl Ludwig and Eimear Kelly in the Heidenhain laboratories in Breslau. He remained there from 1884 to 1886. Heidenhain was studying digestion in dogs, using an exteriorized section of the stomach. However, Pavlov perfected the technique by overcoming the problem of maintaining the external nerve supply. The exteriorized section became known as the Heidenhain or Pavlov pouch.


After two years (1884–1886), Pavlov returned from Germany. In 1891, Pavlov was invited to the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg to organize and direct the Department of Physiology. Over a 45-year period, under his direction it became one of the most important centers of physiological research. While there he carried out his famous experiments on the digestive glands which  won him the Nobel prize. Pavlov investigated the gastric function of dogs, and later, children,[19] by externalizing a salivary gland so he could collect, measure, and analyze the saliva and what response it had to food under different conditions. He noticed that the dogs tended to salivate before food was actually delivered to their mouths, and set out to investigate this “psychic secretion”, as he called it. Pavlov’s laboratory housed a full-scale kennel for the experimental animals. Pavlov was interested in observing their long-term physiological processes. This required keeping them alive and healthy in order to conduct “chronic experiments,” as he called them. These were experiments over time, designed to understand the normal functions of animals. This was a new kind of study, because previously experiments had been “acute,” meaning that the dog went through vivisection and was ultimately killed in the process.

Pavlov was highly regarded by the Soviet government, and he was able to continue his research until he reached a considerable age. He was praised by Lenin. However, despite the praise from the Soviet Union government, the money that poured out to support his laboratory, and the honours he was given, Pavlov made no attempts to conceal the disapproval and contempt in which he held Soviet Communism. For example, 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. Also, in 1927, he wrote to Stalin protesting at what was being done to Russian intellectuals and saying he was ashamed to be a Russian. After the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934, Pavlov wrote several letters to Molotov criticizing the mass persecutions which followed and asking for the reconsideration of cases pertaining to several people he knew personally.

Pavlov was conscious until his very last moment of dying. He asked one of his students to sit beside his bed and to record the circumstances of his dying. He wanted to create unique evidence of subjective experiences of this terminal phase of life. Pavlov died of pneumonia at the age of 86. His study and laboratory were preserved as a museum in his honor.


The concept for which Pavlov is famous is the “conditioned reflex” (or in his own words the conditional reflex) he developed jointly with his assistant Ivan Filippovitch Tolochinov in 1901. He had come to learn this concept of conditioned reflex when examining the rates of salivations among dogs. Pavlov had learned that when a buzzer or metronome was sounded in subsequent time with food being presented to the dog in consecutive sequences, the dog would initially salivate when the food was presented. The dog would later come to associate the sound with the presentation of the food and salivate upon the presentation of that stimulus.


As Pavlov’s work became known in the West, particularly through the writings of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, the idea of “conditioning” as an automatic form of learning became a key concept in the developing specialism of comparative psychology, and the general approach to psychology that underlay it, behaviorism. Pavlov’s work with classical conditioning was of huge influence to how humans perceive themselves, their behavior and learning processes and his studies of classical conditioning continue to be central to modern behavior therapy.[34] The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was an enthusiastic advocate of the importance of Pavlov’s work for philosophy of mind. Pavlov’s research on conditional reflexes greatly influenced not only science, but also popular culture. Pavlovian conditioning was a major theme in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, and also to a large degree in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.


A careful reading of Brave New World does more than suggest the evils of behavior modification. It should also alert the thinking reader to the flaws in the theory. Do you think that Huxley’s world is actually possible? I don’t. If that is not enough for you, check out Clockwork Orange. The centerpiece of the Burgess novel and the Kubrick movie is that while it may be possible to alter behavior radically by skilled conditioning, it is not possible to make a concomitant adjustment to the mind. The criminally pathological anti-hero Alex who has been convicted of rape and murder, undergoes brutal behavior modification so that he can no longer have sex or be violent (and accidentally becomes averse to Beethoven) because these actions make him intolerably nauseous. But . . . he still wants to do them; he just can’t. Treating physiology in isolation from mental processes is a fundamental flaw in Pavlov’s work, and the subsequent work of B.F. Skinner and behaviorists in general. You can force alcoholics to stop drinking by giving them aversive treatment when they drink, but this not alter their desire to drink. They simply become what AA calls “dry drunks.” They are miserable.

Well, to celebrate Pavlov we should get the salivary glands working. Russian food and salivating is not necessarily an obvious combination for me. Traditional Russian food tends to be heavy and laden with carbohydrates. Good for an active, hard-working peasant, but not an obvious choice for fine dining. That is, of course, why so much Russian fine cuisine imported ideas from France. To avoid all the complications of an eclectic cuisine, let’s talk about caviar. Caviar is distinctively Russian and gets my juices flowing.

The four main types of caviar are Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra, and Sevruga. Sometimes the eggs of fish such as whitefish and salmon are sold as caviar. They can be great, but they are not true caviar. Traditionally, the term “caviar” refers only to roe from wild sturgeon found in the Caspian and Black Seas. The rarest and costliest caviar is from beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. The English word “caviar” comes from Persian, خاویار‎, (khāviyār‎)


Beluga caviar is prized for its soft, extremely large (pea-size) eggs. It can range in color from pale silver-gray to black. It is followed by the small golden sterlet caviar which is rare and was once reserved for Russian, Iranian and Austrian royalty. Next in quality is the medium-sized, gray to brownish osetra (ossetra), and the last in the quality ranking is the smaller, gray sevruga caviar.


Caviar and champagne evolved as an expensive treat in much of the West, but caviar and ice-cold fine vodka, the traditional Russian way, cannot be beaten. It is good to serve caviar with classic blini.  My traditional recipe is here: You can also serve caviar on plain crackers or toast. The point is to provide a base that does not interfere with the natural taste of the caviar. When I used to drink, I always served vodka by placing it in the freezer before drinking. I learned this trick in Moscow. The chilling makes the vodka silky smooth. You have to be careful, though, because it feels like drinking iced water – but it isn’t !!