PAVLOV – NOT THE FRIENDLY (science) GIANT?
What (we think) Pavlov taught us: ring a bell before feeding time, and a dog will learn to associate the bell with food, and salivate just at the ring of it.
Wait, we can trigger automatic reflexes with mere association? Epic! This concept of ‘classical conditioning’ has led to treatments of phobias as well as effective marketing.
We love Pavlov because this experiment sounds like a nice, friendly one you could do at home with full PETA approval.
Even the apparatus just involves loose rope to hold the dog at a wooden structure, and a little test tube attached to the jowls to catch and measure the saliva. Kinda neat.
However, there are two things wrong with the previous impressions:
- Pavlov may or may not have even used a bell.
- Pavlov was not kind to animals
- Americans are not kind to babies.
That third one is a bonus misassumption that I bet you didn’t even know you were assuming! Allow me to explain:
NERD DEBATES – DEFINE ‘BELL’
The best part of science is the nerd arguments among researchers – the red rage of their faces when debating whether T. Rex was a scavenger, or whether Neanderthals bred with humans – it’s the best part of any documentary.
The Spockian part of their conscience tells them to calm the F down and be presentable as a logical scientist, while the Yosemite Sam part is OOOOoooo!!! bursting with the Bunsen burner flames of the years of research at stake from this varmint!!
I’m not sure it got quite to this level, but in 1994, yet another mostly useless debate began about whether the famed Russian scientist in fact used a bell.
First guy: there’s no evidence he did
Second guy: yeah, it was the reporters misled us
Third: No, here are three instance that specifically say ‘bell’ in Pavlov’s writings
Fourth (or back to first? I’m lost now): but maybe ‘bell’ refers to an electronic sound?
…until even I was like OH MY GOD it’s so not the point! The only thing at stake is whether the joke “Does Pavlov ring a bell?” even works anymore.
WHAT PAVLOV ACTUALLY USED
Whatever, regardless, Pavlov didn’t use bells often – what’s actually more interesting is what he did use, which includes a buzzer, a harmonium, a metronome, and electric shock.
And it didn’t just stop at one sound. For example, in one trial he only fed the dogs when the metronome was at 60 beats per minute. 120 beats per minute, no chow for you.
Interestingly, the dogs subsequently became more discerning, only salivating at the speed of say, the classic Michael Jackson original “Smooth Criminal”, while dry-mouthed at the spastic Alien Ant Farm version.
NOBEL PRIZE IGNORES BELLS, PRAISES TORTURE
Pavlov did win a Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine but not for his (non)bell experiments. It was actually for researching the digestive system of mammals, via dogs.
Horrifyingly, this involved surgically removing their esophagus and adding a tube so that the food would just fall right back into the bowl. Pavlov would measure the gastric juices that the stomach (from another tube) makes when expecting to get humanely treated, I mean, fed.
Meanwhile, another tube was inserted into the stomach so the gastric juices could be collected and measured. …And then sold as a treatment for dyspepsia – digestive trouble. Let the irony sink in there for a minute.
This was a good side business – some dogs could reportedly drop a thousand cubic centimeters of gastric goodness a day! (Which is like a quart, but sounds way impressive to Americans cuz of the word ‘thousand’ and because metric jargon is inconceivable to us. “This lettuce is five thousand cents per kilogram – it’s an outrage!”)
I guess we didn’t really know anything about digestion, so, this was epic.
AMERICA JUMPS ON THE TORTURE TRAIN
Okay, so Ivan “Dr. Moreau” Pavlov removed parts of dogs to catch the fluids at every part of the digestive system. Many dogs didn’t survive the surgeries let alone enjoy being Dr. Suessian machines behind curtains, but don’t give all the heinousness credit to the Russians.
First of all, Pavlov was kind of anti-Russian. He called Marx a fool, wrote to Stalin that he was “ashamed to be called a Russian”, and said publicly “For the kind of social experiment that [Russia is] making, I would not sacrifice a frog’s hind legs!” to which his dog subjects were moderately offended.
Anyway, while Russia was removing any non-red citizens, America took Pavlov’s dog torture and brought it to the next level: babies and Santa Claus.
THE LITTLE ALBERT EXPERIMENT
Arguably (always arguably!) the greatest and most deplorable application of Pavlovian concepts was carried out by oft-cited American psychologist John B. Watson. In his famous ‘Little Albert’ experiment, he wished to show that he could turn what is naturally pleasant to all human children, furry things, into terrifying realizations of our nightmares.
He took a nine month old infant, and first simply allowed him to interact with a monkey, a rat, a rabbit, a dog, fur coats, etc. The child was happy and unphased.
Then Watson paired the items/animals with the deafening sound of a hammer hitting a steel bar behind from where the child could see. After doing this, well, more than once and therefore, a horrendous number of times over days, the child burst into tears at the mere sight of the fur of any his former plush pals.
INCLUDING (and it doesn’t get better than this) Dr. Watson himself in a crude Santa mask with all the poofy white fur attached, on his hands and knees getting right up into the kid’s grill. Science!
P.S. The idea that Santa Claus produces an innately friendly response has been disproved by decades of photographic evidence of screaming children in shopping centers. Let alone an aggressive man-stranger with a mask a 4yr old could have glued together more tastefully.
THE PSYCHOLOGY TRAIN WRECK CONTINUES
But be comforted baby Albert, in a mere 54 years, they’ll make the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects. Oh, and sorry that Dr. Watson didn’t desensitize you. Why?
Because he was fired. Not because of child abuse, no, but for having an affair with his grad student assistant, Rosalie Rayner, who later died young from eating tainted fruit. Because Watson, I guess, just wasn’t tainted enough.
But she managed to co-author the book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, in which she tells mothers that “When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.”
And because the fun never stops, she and Dr. Watson’s two children both suffered depression and attempted suicide, with one saying that their upbringing “eroded [their] ability to deal effectively with human emotion.” You think?
DEBATE! WHERE’S ALBERT TODAY?
But why focus on the horrors of our past ideas of child-rearing when there’s a pointless debate to be had? Decades later some scientists dutifully wondered, where’s Albert now?
Some say that he was Douglas Merrite who was sadly sick with neurological problems (not divulged by Dr. Watson, and therefore totally disqualifying any results humanity can scrape from this disaster) who, also, died 5 years later.
But wait no – that kid would have been vastly underweight and clearly from the video (shown below!) he is not. So maybe it’s Albert Barger who reportedly disliked animals, especially dogs, and died 10 years ago! Let’s speculate with creepy, old timey video (Santa footage at 3:10)!
Photos are public domain except:
Pavlov drawing: photo by Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0
Taxidermy dog: photo by Rklawton, CC BY-SA 3.0
Spock: photo by e_chaya, CC BY 2.0
Yosemite Sam: photo by Mark Anderson, CC BY 2.0
Five dogs: photo by Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0