Tolochinov’s dog

15 02 2012

OK, so Ivan Filippovitch Tolochinov was the assistant of  Ива́н Петро́вич Па́влов (Russian not up to it? Try “Ivan Petrovich Pavlov“), and together in 1901 they cooked up the little theory since known as “conditioned reflex“.

No – this isn’t a Duran Duran song. Stay focused!

In a nutshell, this is the concept that one can come to expect an event to occur after some prior signal, if that association is repeated often enough to build the assumed sequence. An amusing early reference to this is in  The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) by Laurence Sterne.

I quote from Wikipedia:

The narrator Tristram Shandy explains how his mother was conditioned by his father’s habit of winding up a clock before having sex with his wife:

My father […] was, I believe, one of the most regular men in every thing he did […] [H]e had made it a rule for many years of his life,—on the first Sunday-night of every month throughout the whole year,—as certain as ever the Sunday-night came,—to wind up a large house-clock, which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands:—And being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age at the time I have been speaking of,—he had likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month. […] [F]rom an unhappy association of ideas, which have no connection in nature, it so fell out at length, that my poor mother could never hear the said clock wound up,—but the thoughts of some other things unavoidably popped into her head—& vice versa:—Which strange combination of ideas, the sagacious Locke, who certainly understood the nature of these things better than most men, affirms to have produced more wry actions than all other sources of prejudice whatsoever.

If you’re not into reading more shall we say “learned” books, there was a pretty dodgy film version made with Steve Coogan which also has the scene.

So anyway, Pavlov surgically altered dogs to catch their saliva and prove that by conditioning them to associate various things like electric shocks, whistles, metronomes, tuning forks, and a range of visual stimuli, in addition to ringing a bell (the only one we remember!), with the arrival of food, he could get them to salivate at will.

Wikipedia: One of Pavlov's dogs

Wikipedia: One of Pavlov's dogs


Pretty smart stuff really, though I also read on Wikipedia that he did similar experiments on children too, including the surgical procedure to collect saliva.

It might just be me, but I have a vision of him sat writing his greatest works, subsequently read and edited by his co-author, while sitting in a puddle of damp dribble!



One response

16 02 2012
misfits' miscellany


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