Psychologist Spotlight: Ivan Pavlov and the Theory of Classical Conditioning

Understanding the human psyche has been one of the most interesting and mysterious subjects for as long as humans have been capable of complex abstract thought. The connection between brain and behavior holds such attraction that many of the greatest minds in history have spent countless hours pondering these mysteries. One such great mind was of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist with an unparalleled influence on psychology.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was born in September 1849 in Ryazan, Russia. Most of us know him because of his famous theory of Classical Conditioning. Remember the story of the dog who salivated at the mere sound of a bell that was used to announce his feeding time? Many have studied about his unique experiments in school and it was worth it because this classical experiment is the basis of a theory of classical conditioning; a phenomenal concept about behaviorism.     

Pavlov’s Early Life

Growing up in Russia, Pavlov was the eldest son of a priest and the oldest brother of eleven siblings. He went to a church school and religious seminary. His teachers at the seminary instilled in him the utmost devotion to impart knowledge as a result of which Pavlov decided to enter the University of St. Petersburg in 1870 where he explored interests such as chemistry and physiology before graduating in 1879.

Pavlov got married in 1881 to a literary, religious, and domestic woman who did whatever it took to ensure Pavlov’s comfort. Ivan Pavlov accredits his wife for much of his success.  

Career and Work-Life

After completing his dissertation in 1883, Pavlov, from 1884-1886, studied and worked with Carl Ludwig and Rudolf Heidenhain. For the first time, he carried his independent research on the physiological working of the circulatory system. Later, he worked on the regulation of blood pressure and cardiac physiology. Having being skilled as a surgeon, Pavlov could introduce a catheter in a dog’s femoral artery and that too without anesthesia and pain. He could also record the effect of different emotional and pharmacological stimuli on the pressure of blood.    

On his return from Germany, Pavlov applied for the chair of Physiology at the University of St. Petersburg but got rejected. However, he was offered the chair of pharmacology in Siberia and Poland but he didn’t take up any. Later, in 1890 Pavlov was appointed as a professor of physiology at the Imperial Medical Academy. He works there for around five years and then went to the Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg. He organized and directed the physiology department and initiated precise animal surgical procedures, strictly focusing their postoperative health maintenance. During his working years, he keenly studied the secretory activities during digestive processes. He recorded his work in 1897, in the form of a book named “Lectures on the Work of the Digestive Glands.”   

From 1901 and onward, Pavlov got nominated for the Nobel Prize over four years in a row. He won it in 1904 in recognition of his work which transformed and enlarged the aspects of the physiology of digestion. He inspected the gastric functions of dogs and then children. He observed their long-term physiological processes and also noticed their behavioral responses which led to the formation of the theory of classical conditioning.    

Contribution to Science

Pavlov’s major interest, as mentioned above, was physiology. He was much interested in studying the biochemical and physiological processes of living beings. However, during his experimental work, Pavlov made some significant additions to psychology as well. For instance, the discovery of classical conditioning is one of them. During his research on the digestive functions of dogs, Pavlov noted that the dogs would salivate before they were given food. He then carried a series of experiments presenting different stimuli before giving them food. Eventually, he found that after repeated association, dogs would salivate in the presence of a stimulus even if the food wasn’t brought. He termed this response a conditional reflex and discovered that the cerebral cortex of the brain is where these types of responses originate from. This discovery had a major influence on the development of the field of behaviorism. Many researchers used Pavlov’s discovery for learning and discovering study reactions.

Psychologist Spotlight: Ivan Pavlov and the Theory of Classical Conditioning
One of the many dogs Pavlov used in his experiments (possibly Baikal), Pavlov Museum RyazanRussia. Note the saliva catch container and tube surgically implanted in the dog’s muzzle.

Pavlov was also very interested in biomarkers of temperature types which he called properties of the nervous system. He identified strength, nervous mobility, and a balance between excitation and inhibition as three main properties/biomarkers. Pavlov along with his researchers initiated the transmarginal inhibition study which explains the natural response of the body, shutting down when exposed to stress or shock.

The book published by Pavlov in 1897 (mentioned above) was one of his earliest and most important publications. Afterward, he published a book on the theory of classical conditioning. It was named “Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex and Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes: Twenty-five Years of Objective Study of the High Nervous Activity (Behavior) of Animals.” Pavlov’s discovery is said to have a profound influence on the behavioral sciences.

According to one of the sayings of Ivan Pavlov, science demands the complete life of a man and if somebody had two lives, they wouldn’t have been enough to serve science. And it is depicted in his hard work and contributions to the scientific world. He may not have succeeded in changing the face of science but had made incomparable efforts to add value to it!