Ivan Pavlov is perhaps best known for his research in conditioning behaviour in dogs, but aside from training dogs to start salivating at the sound of a little bell Pavlov was also involved in many other important areas of physiology and psychology. What are the contributions of Ivan Pavlov to psychology?
Ivan Pavlov was born in Russia in 1849, the son of a village priest. His early studies were in theology, but he was soon sidetracked into the study of science and in 1870 Pavlov began studying physiology at the University of St Petersburg, where he discovered a love for the natural sciences. He excelled in the field and was awarded a gold medal for his first research paper. Pavlov progressed to a Fellowship at the Academy of Medical Surgery, where he continued with his research, before being made a Director at the Physiological Clinic run by the famous physician, S. P. Botkin. It was here that he produced his Nobel Prize winning doctoral thesis on The Centrifugal Nerves of the Heart in 1904.
Although Pavlov contributed a great deal to the field of science and physiology, one of the main contributions of Ivan Pavlov to psychology was his work on the conditioning reflex, a concept for which he is arguably most famous for. Indeed, the phrase Pavlov’s dog is now universally used to describe someone who reacts to a stimuli or situation without thinking about it, which shows how far the themes of Pavlov’s work have managed to spread into popular culture.
Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments began when he noticed that an animal would often begin salivating before food had entered its mouth, a process he referred to as “psychic secretion”. During his studies of salivation and digestion, he applied various stimuli to the dogs to make them salivate, even if no food was forthcoming. Eventually the dogs would salivate in response to various sounds or visual stimulation, a process that became known as the “conditioned reflex”.
Although Pavlov’s work was mostly in physiology, he was hugely influential in the field of psychology and his studies had a profound effect on the growing interest in behaviourism and the behaviourist movement. Much of the early work in this field of psychology used Pavlov’s research into classical conditioning and the famous behaviourist, John B. Watson, often cited the work of Pavlov in his own research papers.
Pavlov’s research in conditioning also influenced the study of how animals and humans react to their environment and his research techniques helped advance study in an objective and scientific manner. Through Pavlov’s study in conditioned reflexes, he discovered that these reflexes originated in the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that organises the activities of an organism and is also responsible for how an animal interacts with his environment.
Pavlov achieved immense success throughout his career. Thanks to his efforts in the world of physiology, the Soviet Union became a world class centre for the study of physiology and, despite the fact Pavlov not very sympathetic towards the ideas of communism, the Soviet government and ruling Communist Party were immensely proud of him; so much so that Pavlov was allowed unlimited freedom to continue his research.