Brief Overview

Although he won the Nobel Prize for his research on the physiology of the digestive system of dogs, Ivan Pavlov left his most lasting legacy in psychology. In a career that spanned nearly seven decades, Pavlov discovered the basic concepts behind associative learning in both animals and humans. His theory of conditioned reflexes, or "training" individuals to respond to a neutral stimulus, laid the groundwork for behavioral psychology and associative learning theory. In addition, his work on experimental neuroses, or behavioral and thought problems caused by conditioning techniques, explained the causes of some mental disorders and, more importantly, helped develop effective behavioral therapy methods.

Pavlov began to study conditioned reflexes after conducting research on the digestive system of dogs. He discovered that his laboratory dogs would salivate after hearing a sound or other sensory stimulus that they had learned to associate with food, even if no food was present. Pavlov conducted meticulous and extensive studies into this phenomenon. He also pioneered new laboratory techniques.

Influenced in part by British naturalist Charles Darwin, Pavlov theorized that conditioned reflexes served as a survival mechanism. He reasoned that animals must adapt quickly to changes in their environment in order to stay alive.

He also believed that his conditioning experiments could help him better understand both the physiology




Ivan Pavlov. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced by permission.)

and functioning of the brain. Pavlov believed that all nervous activity was based on the principals of excitation and inhibition. Individuals with strong and balanced excitatory and inhibitory responses were less likely to behave abnormally.

Throughout Pavlov's lifetime, his homeland of Russia experienced political and social upheaval. Because Pavlov worked and lived in the capital city of Saint Petersburg, he witnessed the changes firsthand. Pavlov spoke out frequently against the government, despite the fact that other protesters were being arrested and killed. It is a testament to his scientific prestige that he could openly criticize the Communist government while being financially subsidized by it.

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