Who was Ivan Pavlov? Psychology and the impact of classical conditioning

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated January 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Early clinical researchers paved the way for much of what current psychologists know about how the brain and body react to stimuli. Such groundbreaking discoveries have led to treatments that have improved the health and well-being of countless individuals throughout history. 

Ivan Pavlov was an early physiologist who devoted his career to advancing science around digestive secretions. Pavlov's early life and religious upbringing played a role in forming the man he became in his work in the laboratory. Like many of the clinical researchers of the time, Pavlov was curious and willing to innovate and experiment in ways that had never been done before. Learning more about Pavlov's work may help you understand the theory of classical conditioning, which is still used in modern treatments.
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Who was Ivan Pavlov?

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was born in 1840 in Ryazan, in central Russia. He was a Russian physiologist famous for developing the concept of conditioned reflex. Pavlov mastered philosophy by proving that animals could be conditioned to respond to various stimuli. He was rewarded for his work in 1904 when he won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for his research on digestive secretions and was the first Russian Nobel laureate in history.  

Ivan's family life 

Pavlov was born into a religious family. His grandfather was a sexton, a person the church employed to care for and maintain the church building and its grounds, including the cemetery. Pavlov's father was a Russian Orthodox priest and raised him and his ten younger siblings according to Christian teachings.

Pavlov spent much of his adult life in school. He married Seraphima Vasilievna Karchevskaya, also known as Sara, in 1881 at 41. He'd met Sara several years earlier when she was a student at the Pedagogical Institute. The couple experienced poverty and sometimes lived apart or with other families as necessary for housing. Their first child died during childhood, but they had four more children. 

While Pavlov ultimately declared himself an atheist, he attributed much of his success to Sara, who was religious and maintained her Christian faith. 

Pavlov's schooling

Pavlov was reading by the age of seven. After sustaining injuries from falling off a concrete wall and taking four years to heal, he attended a church school. Pavlov later went to a theological seminary where the teachers were dedicated to their craft. In 1870, he abandoned his faith and gained admittance to the University of St. Petersburg to study chemistry and physiology. There, he studied under Carl Ludwig, a cardiovascular physiologist, and Rudolf Heidenhain, a gastrointestinal physiologist.

Pavlov was often referred to as a complicated man, volatile, angry, and challenging. He was highly punctual and expected others to be as well. People described Pavlov as someone who pursued his truth even in the face of fierce opposition. While he proclaimed to be an atheist and a scientific agnostic, he admitted that religion had benefits in his life and admired his wife's devout faith.

Pavlov's early career

As a student of Carl Ludwig, Pavlov conducted his first independent research on the physiology of the circulatory system. Afterward, he furthered his study in cardiac physiology and blood pressure control. Pavlov became a highly skilled surgeon and performed tests and operations on dogs. In one of his experiments, he dissected cardiac nerves and stimulated the severed ends to show the effect of the nerves on the strength of the heartbeat.

Pavlov was promoted to professor of physiology at the Imperial Medical Academy, ranked as one of the best educational institutions in the Russian Empire. In his work there, he founded the Institute of Experimental Medicine, where he developed precise surgical procedures for animals with attention to postoperative care and continuing maintenance of their health.

Throughout his research career, Pavlov insisted that students ground their results in science. He insisted that researchers use findings that could be explained, verified, analyzed, and repeated. With a love for science, Pavlov was often considered one of the most influential surgeons in his area. 

In 1924, the Russian government announced that it would be expelling all students who were sons of priests at the Imperial Medical Academy. Pavlov took personal offense to the move, reminding the officials that he was a son of a priest. Standing firm in his resolve over the truth, he resigned. 

Pavlov's later career

From 1890 to 1900, Pavlov spent most of his time studying secretions and digestion. Working with Heidenhain, the pair created a miniature pouch as an external stomach. This experiment preserved the vagal nerve supply and allowed them to isolate the stomach from ingested foods to study the gastrointestinal secretions in a normal animal over its lifespan. Pavlov published the results of this work in his book, "Lectures on the Work of the Digestive Glands."

During his career in digestive research, Pavlov became interested in psychology, which is when he started creating theories about conditioning and bodily functions.


Pavlov’s psychology of classical conditioning

The discovery of classical conditioning happened by accident. Ivan Pavlov was studying secretion and digestion with unanesthetized dogs. Pavlov discovered that the way his dogs were reacting to their food changed over time and the dogs were beginning to exhibit an unconditioned response before their food even arrived. These experiments led him to formulate the laws of conditioned reflexes, which were early theories about conditional psychology and associative learning. 

Pavlov used a metronome or buzzer in his most famous experiment to help a dog associate sound with food. He was able to train (condition) the dog to salivate at the sound of the metronome or buzzer by initiating the sound and then offering food to the hungry animal. The repeated association between the sound of the bell (stimuli) and the food led to the classical conditioning of Pavlov’s dogs. He measured the dog's salivary secretion to get a quantitative measure of the animal's subjective activity to show the connection between physiological measures of mental activity and higher nervous activity. 

Sir Charles Sherrington theorized that the spinal reflex was composed of integrated actions of the nervous system that involved stimulation of the nerves in sending impulses to the body's many nerve centers. Building on Sherrington's work, Pavlov drew on the connections between the conditional and spinal reflex. Pavlov added additional components to his work, including cortical and subcortical influences, the brain's mosaic action, sleep's effect, and the effects of disturbances between cortical excitation and inhibition.

The impact of classical conditioning

Pavlov's contributions to science have been considered able to be made possible by his willingness to work with normal, healthy dogs in the most natural conditions possible. Pavlov's success may have resulted from thinking outside the box to devise a way to yield measurable physiological effects that revealed the response by the brain. Often considered his most significant contribution to psychology, Pavlovian conditioning refers to the changes in behavior caused by the relationship between a neutral stimulus and a significant event. 

In 1930, late in his career, Ivan Pavlov attempted to apply his laws to explain human psychoses. He believed people shut themselves off from the world to rid themselves of noise and activity that overstimulated them. This idea became the basis for treating psychiatric patients in Russia using quiet, non-stimulating environments.

In the late stage of his career, Pavlov proclaimed that human language involved more than spoken words. He announced that long chains of conditioned reflexes involving words could produce elaborate generalizations that would be impossible to reproduce in animal life.

Researchers and clinicians of today may learn much from Ivan Pavlov. According to the American Psychological Association, Pavlov's work has led to new research on how the body can learn to anticipate and counteract some physiological effects of medications.

Counseling and conditioning 

The American Psychological Association credits Pavlov's discovery of conditioning principles as essential to the founding of behavior therapy. Today, therapists use behavior therapy to treat many psychological disorders, and it is also a part of one of the most studied and practiced types of treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy. 

You might consider contacting a therapist to learn more about cognitive-behavioral therapy or how your mind and body react to external stimuli. Although it wasn't available in Pavlov's era, online therapy is now a popular treatment option for those seeking convenient options to popular and unique treatment modalities.  

Online therapy can be cost-effective, and flexible. You can attend therapy from anywhere with an internet connection, and many platforms, like BetterHelp, offer the option to reach out to your therapist at any time to receive responses to questions after sessions. If you're looking to learn more about conditioning and behavioral therapy, you may also be able to request treatment from a therapist with expertise in these areas. 

A recent review found that online therapy provided a 50% reduction in symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder and was able to significantly decrease the impacts of chronic fatigue and stress. Regardless of the modality you choose, the impact of famous psychologists may remain in the treatment you receive. New research has also emerged on the best formats for treating specific symptoms or conditions. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
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During his research, Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to respond to the sound of a bell by salivating. His experiments with classical conditioning directly influenced the study and development of behavior and cognitive-behavioral therapy. These psychology theories are now used to treat multiple mental health conditions and concerns. You do not have to be diagnosed to receive therapy, so consider contacting a counselor in your area or online for further guidance into the conditioning theory and other potential therapeutic theories and treatments.
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