Thursday, February 27, 2014

Descartes' Dogs: A Precursor to Pavlov

It is well known in the history of psychology that Descartes was an early thinker on what we would now call classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, which he referred to as “reflex”. Most authors writing on the subject cite two of his works and one letter to make the connection clear: his Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method), 1637; Les passions de l’âme (Passions of the Soul), the last of Descartes’ published work, completed in 1649; and finally his letter to William Cavendish, 1st duke of Newcastle, Friday, 23 November 1646. However, another much earlier epistolary reference seems generally to be missed: his letter to his friend Marin Mersenne, dated 18 March 1630. What is particularly interesting in this earlier letter to Mersenne is Descartes association of sound (in this case the sound produced by a violin) to the ‘reflex’ response of dogs. As a precursor to Pavlov, and the Pavlovian dogs experiment, it is interesting to see Descartes constructing what is a remarkably parallel experimental test — albeit, in Descartes case and as far as we know, a thought experiment only. more

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