Will Pavlov’s Trick Work on Us? An Invitation to Rethink
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Will Pavlov’s Trick Work on Us? An Invitation to Rethink

As the world peeks from behind nearly shut doors, waiting and standing on tiptoes, fearful of the new plague, an old plague continues to ravish hearts and lives.

It might be worthwhile, while we are in the “free” meditation space available in our voluntary quarantine, under the impact of the major earthquakes that are turning the world upside down, and in light of the indisputable facts, that we rethink a few major “concepts” that have dominated the planet over the last thirty years.

Reductionism and Mental Laziness

In an experiment that is perhaps the most well-known in the field of biology, Pavlov repetitively connects two stimuli, one is called a secondary or neutral stimulus and the other natural or unconditional stimulus. Pavlov provides a piece of meat (an unconditional stimulus) to a dog under experiment, but first he rings a bell (a neutral stimulus). The reflex of serving a piece of meat to a dog is a high level of salivation in preparation for the chewing process.

After repeating the connection between the bell ringing followed by presentation of the piece of meat, Pavlov noted that the process of saliva secretion began immediately after ringing the bell and before introducing the piece of meat. Pavlov even tried ringing the bell without introducing a piece of meat many times, and the secretion of saliva continued, but then began diminishing after several iterations. That is, the neutral stimulus (ringing the bell) has become linked by the dog in question to the unconditional stimulus (the piece of meat), so that the neutral stimulus plays the role of the unconditional stimulus. Pavlov called this reflexive action (reflexive actions meaning, in general, involuntary actions) conditional reflex.

Despite the seeming simplicity of experiment, the conclusions that can be deduced from it are of such importance that they may change the way a person looks at oneself and at the world. In particular, a person’s way of looking at and assessing to what extent and how accurate is their understanding of the world around them.

Initially, we should answer the question: Why did the bell stimulate the dog’s saliva even though this is not a “normal” response, as there is no need to release saliva when hearing a bell ring? What is new is that the sound of the bell has become associated with the piece of meat? However, first it is worth asking what does this mean at the neurological level? At the level of the dog’s brain?

It means precisely that a neural circuit (similar to an electrical circuit), has formed as a result of the frequent linking of the bell to the piece of meat; a circuit that has formed through the development of the neural elongations of specific nerve cell bodies bound together by chemical neuromagnetic synapses. In other words, the dog’s brain has created a circuit that is limited to perform the required function, via mechanisms including a neurochemical mechanism called synaptic facilitation:

(Before learning): piece of meat ⇒ saliva secretion

(During learning): bell sound + piece of meat ⇒ saliva secretion

(After learning): bell sound ⇒  saliva secretion




If we consider this process, but at the level of human thinking, albeit useful in many cases, but carries severe risks at the same time.

Seeing a snake, for example, directly stimulates in a person the secretion of adrenaline – the fear and exercising hormone. Although the first contact between a snake and a human being did not have this effect, the danger of this creature to humans through long experience has created an association to a state of fear of it; even the non-poisonous types of snakes provoke the same reaction in humans. As a prelude to what we want to get to, we can say that in principle: The repeated linkage between any two stimuli, one harmful and the other harmless or even beneficial, will prompt us to deal with the beneficial one as harmful and vice versa, and without noticing; rather, it becomes a “natural” thing that does not require any thinking, even needing a quick and simple “reflexive / involuntary” response.

Freud and “Free association”

During the historical period close to the one in which Pavlov conducted his experiment, Freud and Gramsci both dealt with the same core issue, but from different perspectives and from the standpoint of social sciences.

Freud focused on what he called “free association” in psychoanalysis as an alternative to hypnosis, which overall is based on the basic idea of ​​trying to go back with the patient, and through the patient’s own thoughts, words, and drawings, step-by-step to the root cause of the problem, where the patient begins his free association, while with the therapist, starting from the present time, from the current problem, or from any time the patient wants, and with the least amount of intervention by the therapist. Through this, the associations formed in the patient’s mind appear among incidents, symbols, and feelings that are not “logically” linked by any clear link but the patient’s own life experiences that had created those links. The treatment lies, in many cases, especially phobia cases, in undoing this link. This, as a whole, is somehow similar to the link between Pavlov’s bell and saliva secretion.

From Freud’s point of view, ideas in a person’s mind are divided into two areas: consciousness and the subconscious. We can simplify the match between “voluntary actions / reflexes” at the organic physiology level that Pavlov worked on, and “consciousness / subconscious” at the psychological physiology level that Freud worked on. Consciousness in this approach represents the limits that a person controls and through which – and only through it – a person believes to be formulating his/her various decisions and judgments. What Freud argues is that the decision-making process and the formation of feelings – though they pass through consciousness – a significant and perhaps decisive influence therein, passes through the subconscious, wherein a person’s experiences are stored.

Modern brain sciences support Freud’s conclusions in principle, albeit paraphrasing them in more precise terms and thereby obliterating many parts of Freud’s own theses. Modern brain sciences rely mainly on studying the electrical activity of the brain, and connect electrical activity with inductive activity, which has a pivotal influence in the formation of our feelings and reactions, and even in our decision-making mechanism. Some scientists have resorted to matching “Freud’s subconscious” – which appears to be a natant and vague concept – and the hypothalamus, which is the section of our brain that the electrical and chemical study of the brain has shown to be the center of handling endocrine activity in the body, i.e. the center of stimulation and inhibition of secretion of different hormones.

An Idea on the Margins

Before delving into Gramsci’s approach to the matter, which will take us to a different field, one of dealing with concepts and ideas, it may be useful in this context to take a step back and look at the idea of “reflection” in its philosophical sense.

Consciousness is the “reflection” of the outside world in our brains. This reflection is not a simple one like that we see in the mirror, but rather a very complex reflection. Anything in the outside world that falls within the field of our senses is reflected in our brains through a huge number of properties: shape, size, movement, smell, weight, density, texture, etc. The most important and most sophisticated form of reflection is not that which is confined to the sense and which scientists call the “first emblem system”, but rather the perception that is the “second emblem system”, which leads from the phenomena of things to their core to the laws and bonds that govern them. This system characterizes the human consciousness, which distinguishes it from other consciousnesses. This consciousness’s mechanism is abstraction, and its means is the abstract concept – and the carrier of the abstract concept is language and words. When we say the word “tree”, we do not mean a specific tree, but rather any tree wherever it exists, the important thing that it satisfies a set of general properties.

There is no consensus on the issue of reflection in the philosophical framework, as schools of philosophy are sharply divided over it. Schools of agnosticism say the world cannot be known, and fundamentally reject the objectivity of reflection. On the other hand, dialectical materialism see reflection as a fundamental and objective issue.

The amusing thing about Pavlov’s experiment on conditional reflection is that natural laws are not only reflected in our brains as abstract ideas, but to some degree even materially and tangibly, through chemical synapses and neurotransmitters that the brain creates in response to reality. This has been proven in practice in Alexander Luria’s model, which is known as the “system of analyzers.”




Going back to the basic idea that we are trying to approach: the idea of reductionism and mental laziness. The outside world is reflected in our brains and consciousness through a set of concrete and abstract bonds, neurochemical and conceptual. We use this reflection in the thinking process and in the process of shaping our feelings and decisions. However, can this reflection process be wrong?

The obvious answer is yes. The misconceptions that prevailed in the past about the universe, astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, etc., and which get corrected with the evolution of humans and development of science, prove that reflection can be wrong. The most important way to correct a reflection is by experiment, whereby we test the validity of our knowledge time and again, and continuously verify and expand it.

However, there is another important aspect to pay attention to: mental laziness and reductionism. Humans tend to simplify realistic links to simplify and facilitate dealing with them, and within this process they deal with circumstantial ties, i.e. uncodified, and assumes they are always correct.

Gramsci worked extensively on this aspect, examining the influence of “terminology” and “concepts” in shaping individual consciousness. We can build on his idea: “to reframe one’s consciousness in the direction that serves you, you just need to introduce some misconceptions.”

For example, in order to disparage “socialism” you do not need to refute it one idea after another – rather, it is not in your interest to do so from the point of view of capitalism – all you have to do is hold one of its central ideas and link it continuously and stubbornly to a negative phenomenon. This way, you will have delved into the system of connections related to the idea of socialism and created within it a side road that can be easily taken towards rejection thereof.

For example, you can look at the issue of the public ownership of production means. Socialism says there are three types of ownership: public, private, and individual; what must be abolished is private ownership of production means, and its abolition necessarily leads to the expansion of individual ownership to the maximum limits that humanity has not yet witnessed. In order to distort this whole matter, we do the following: First, we drop the expression “production means”, and we only say: public ownership. Second, we say that public ownership includes everything, including personal property, and we build on this a conclusion saying that public ownership means stripping the individual of any personal property and putting every property no matter what it is in the hands of the state, including the clothes that you wear, your home, your car, etc. This way, we would have created a “bell” within the system of socialist ideas, and this bell’s function is to move thinking outside this system and in the direction of hostility and rejection thereof.

Let us consider some contemporary political and “ideological” examples, in light of the issue of reductionism and mental laziness, and in light of the current experience of the Coronavirus.

Role of the State

For several consecutive decades, particularly since the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, i.e. with the emergence of neoliberalism by Thatcher and Reagan, an idea was circulated that any interference with the state apparatus is harmful, and that a strong state apparatus automatically means: repression, totalitarianism, limiting personal freedoms, underdevelopment, etc. The issue in its essence was nothing more than that the giant transcontinental companies, now see the state apparatus as a hindrance to their movement and chasing after profit, and therefore they imposed neutralization and weakening thereof.

Facing the Coronavirus epidemic, it has become apparent that weakness of the state apparatus and control by companies that did not recognize any value other than profit, has made the entire Western system a weak and fragile one that is unable to deal with the crisis. The companies are the ones that decide whether or not to start a quarantine, and whether or not facemasks are useful. Boris Johnson tells the British that many families must prepare for the loss of their loved ones, but at the same time he does not close schools and does not promise workers any compensation if they miss work. The Federal Reserve in the US is pumping $1.5 trillion into the stock market in response to the oil price crisis, while the US government allocates $8.3 billion to tackle the Coronavirus. To demonstrate the two numbers in a clearer manner: for every $180 to address the major corporate crisis, the US government offers $1 to address problems suffered by people as a result of the Coronavirus.

On the other side, where the state has a strong role – that is, in China – the state stops all commercial and industrial activities, and guarantees compensation for everything, check-ups and treatments are completely free, and the citizen only has to stay at home and follow health guidelines, even though the total loss has exceeded $350 billion within two months.

Invitation to Rethink

The concrete example above is only one of hundreds. Therefore, this is an invitation to transcend the mental laziness relinquished to a set of misconceptions. In this context, we should rethink a number of concepts and the way we deal with them, including liberalism, globalization, freedom, democracy, and human rights, among others.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2020 00:50