Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How Everyone Gets Pavlov Wrong

As a college student, B. F. Skinner gave little thought to psychology. He had hoped to become a novelist, and majored in English. Then, in 1927, when he was twenty-three, he read an essay by H. G. Wells about the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. The piece, which appeared in the Times Magazine, was ostensibly a review of the English translation of Pavlov’s “Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex.” But, as Wells pointed out, it was “not an easy book to read,” and he didn’t spend much time on it. Instead, Wells described Pavlov, whose systematic approach to physiology had revolutionized the study of medicine, as “a star which lights the world, shining down a vista hitherto unexplored” ... Pavlov had formulated a basic psychological principle—one that also applied to human beings—and discovered an objective way to measure how it worked. Skinner was enthralled. Two years after reading the Times Magazine piece, he attended a lecture that Pavlov delivered at Harvard and obtained a signed picture, which adorned his office wall for the rest of his life. Skinner and other behaviorists often spoke of their debt to Pavlov, particularly to his view that free will was an illusion, and that the study of human behavior could be reduced to the analysis of observable, quantifiable events and actions. But Pavlov never held such views, according to “Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science” (Oxford), an exhaustive new biography by Daniel P. Todes ... In fact, much of what we thought we knew about Pavlov has been based on bad translations and basic misconceptions. more

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