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When asked who Pavlov is, most people mention something about dogs. Some add that the dogs slobbered at the sound of a bell. A few know that Pavlov won a Nobel Prize, but almost no one knows it had nothing to do with his work with salivating dogs. A scientist friend or two might tell you that Pavlov discovered “conditioned reflexes.”

Steve Parker, Sociology Professor Emeritus at the University of Montevallo, was on his way to Mexico for a conference when I called. While discussing semiotics, we waded into some interesting waters. Parker says Pavlov didn’t discover conditioned responses any more than Hernando DeSoto “discovered” the Mississippi River.

Conditioned responses are the reactions to stimuli that are so well-learned they’ve become automatic

And that is what sociologists had been calling behaviorism long before Pavlov attached his own label, “Like old wine in a new bottle,” says Parker, adding that “all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment.”

Everything We Know About Pavlov Is Wrong

That’s the title of a headline in Johns Hopkins Magazine. It was written by History of Medicine Professor Daniel Todes after he spent more than 20 years examining the musty archives containing all of Pavlov’s works. Few know the story behind the story, so let’s take a closer look and see what we can find.

As a science historian, Todes is fascinated by metaphors

These descriptive figures of speech are not literally applicable (Young Moderns, take note). Todes says we can’t think about anything new except in terms of our assumptions — all the things we think we know already and take for granted. 

Scientists use two kinds of language: nomenclature and metaphor

Biologists use scientific names such as turdus migratorius to identify species instead of more common terms so there are no misunderstandings like there are when the word robin means different things to Europeans than it does to Americans.

Charles Darwin 

Charles Darwin used the visual metaphor “tree of life” to conceptualize the evolution of man and “natural selection” to describe how it came about. He said, “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings is this: multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

We all know cats race to the kitchen when they hear the electric can opener 

Pavlov had no such kitchen appliance but did notice how his dogs salivated when they heard the approaching footsteps of his laboratory assistants or saw someone in a white lab coat. Because the white-coated lab assistants were the ones who brought their food, the dogs learned to associate those sights and sounds with eating, unconsciously triggering their salivary glands.

Dogs naturally drool when fed

The New Yorker’s Michael Specter says Pavlov called it an “unconditional reflex” to differentiate it from the “conditional reflex” that had been created when the dogs drooled in response to sights and sounds. A bad translation from the original Russian gave us the conditioned reflex behaviorists talk about today.

Pavlov didn’t use bells as stimuli in his experiments

Because he wanted to be able to vary the intensity and duration of the stimulus, he used metronomes, buzzers, whistles, hooters, and light flashes from lamps instead.

What does a hunting accident on Mackinac Island in 1822 have to do with Pavlov?

U.S. Army surgeon William Beaumont operated on a Mackinac Island hunter named Alexis St. Martin who was accidentally shotgunned in the stomach at close range. In spite of a series of operations, St. Martin’s stomach ended up with a tunnel-like hole (medically, a fistula) in his stomach. It was through this small window that Beaumont was able to observe the workings of the man’s digestive system. These experiments were always uncomfortable and often painful.

Beaumont was interested in digestive processes and began experimenting with the wounded man’s stomach

The doctor would tie a piece of food on a string and insert it into his patient’s stomach through the permanent hole. Using different foods and different time intervals, he would pull the food out by the attached string, observe the extent to which it had been digested, put it back in, and do it over and over again

Wikipedia says another of Dr. Beaumont’s experiments was to remove the patient’s stomach acid

He would place it in a cup, submerge food in it, and keep detailed records. At the time, it was believed that the mechanical processes of the stomach (mashing and squeezing) were how the body digests food. Beaumont was able to demonstrate that digestion was a chemical process whereby stomach acids broke down the foods. Beaumont later became known as the Father of Gastric Physiology.

Pavlov was not interested in conditioning

An admirer of Beaumont’s work, Pavlov was interested in the workings of the digestive system. He used dogs in his experiments, strapping them into a standing position with restraints. He adapted Beaumont’s techniques by opening the dog’s stomach. Using a segment of the intestine, Pavlov would make it into a fistula, thus creating a handy (for him) gastric pouch. As he went along, he created fistulas that ran the length of the dog’s entire digestive system so he could measure the secretions in great detail. The New Yorker magazine says that was the research that won him the Nobel Prize.

Pavlov also made holes in the dogs’ esophaguses so the foods they were fed would drop out of their throats, never entering the digestive system

This meant the dogs chewed and swallowed for hours and hours, day after day. They were always hungry because no food was reaching their stomachs. This is how Pavlov collected the uncontaminated gastric juices he sold as a cure for indigestion. He made enough money this way to more than double the budgets for his laboratories.

Pavlov was also interested in the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud

What interested him most was Freud’s work on neuroses. Again Pavlov used dogs as subjects, this time zapping their brains with electroshocks before feeding them to see if their psychological and physical suffering would trigger salivation, too. Todes adds that some dogs went mad enough to be classified as “sensitive schizoids” while others were judged to have exhibited symptoms similar to an alcoholic’s delusions of persecution.

Pavlov thought that animals could inherit the learned habits of their parents

In another series of experiments, he trained mice to associate food with a variety of sights and sounds (but not bells). The original generation of mice took 300 repetitions to build the association. The next generation took 100, the third took 30, the fourth took 10, and the fifth took only five. Darwin would have been proud.

Pavlov didn’t only experiment on dogs and mice

He liked to feed mice to hungry cats and zap their tails with electric shocks while they ate. Cats would spit out the mice and become terrified at the sight of a mouse. Pavlov reported that “these experimental neuroses are usually permanent.”

Pavlov paired stimulus with response to shape behavior, known as classical conditioning

Another pioneer in conditioning was B.F. Skinner. He was interested in how behavior is affected by its consequences, known to Psych 101 students as operant conditioning. Psychology Today says that if you train a person or animal using rewards or punishment (carrots and sticks), they will eventually perform a given task automatically.

What’s my takeaway?

As humans, we are conditioned to respond to things without even knowing what’s happening. Unscrupulous marketers know this and use it to manipulate us. For example, they take advantage of the words and metaphors we associate with a safe, clean environment by using words like eco-, bio-, and natural (all supported by the color green to reinforce the connection) to trick us into thinking we’re buyin genvironmentally safe products when they are not. Next time you read a product claim, be aware there’s a good chance you’re being manipulated by skilled professionals, especially greenwashing companies.


A fistula is a long, narrow ulcer that provides an abnormal connection between two things. It comes from the Latin word for pipe.

St. Martin’s wound never healed fully. Some say Beaumont deliberately created and maintained the opening so he could do his research on St. Martin. This was a highly curious doctor-patient relationship that lasted 10 years and would not be tolerated today. Bernard Becker Medical Library writer Steven Logdon concludes his excellent article with this: “As Beaumont was the solitary source of food, housing, and income for St. Martin, one may question if he was truly a voluntary participant in these historic experiments.”

Ivan Pavlov won the 1904 Nobel Prize for his research on the neural control of salivary, gastric, and pancreatic secretion, not for dogs drooling when they heard bells. Here’s his acceptance speech.

Graduate students working in Pavlov’s laboratory say he was an angry man who abused coworkers by writing spiteful letters and screaming at them for being careless in their work or even just standing in the wrong place.


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