Pavlov's theories

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Pavlov's theories
All Pavlov’s theories concern behaviourism, the observable behaviour and responses in humans. ( Images)

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who worked for almost 60 years in the medical field during the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century. He won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1904. Much of his research focused on human behavioural mechanisms and his theories remain important in physiology.

Conditioned reflex

Pavlov’s most famous theory concerns reflexes. Pavlov studied the digestive systems of dogs. During this research he conducted experiments whereby a dog was given food when a bell sounded. Pavlov was able to induce salivation in the creature when the bell sounded, even though no food was forthcoming. He had found that non food-related stimuli could produce a physiological reaction related to eating. As such, he concluded that physical reflexes could be conditioned by outside agencies.


Pavlov’s work on conditioned responses has had a far-reaching impact on psychological theory and practice. It has been used in classrooms to help patterns of learning, as well as psychological counseling. For instance, phobia sufferers are taught, over time, to associate the conception of a fearful situation with a state of relaxation. This is called systematic desensitisation.


As a young scientist, Pavlov’s research centred on the heart rather than the digestive system. He developed the theory of “nervism.” This conceived of the nervous system, with the heart at its centre, as the primary regulator of physiological processes in the body. Pavlov asserted that the more developed an animal became, the more important its nervous system became in its existence.

Higher nervous activity

An extension of his ideas on nervism, Pavlov’s theory of higher nervous activity posited that there was a second centre of nervous activity in the human body, located in the brain’s cerebral cortex. Pavlov believed that it was in this physiological location that the “psychic” activity occurred, such as consciousness and thought. This is in contrast with the more instinctual responses such as the drive to reproduce or flee danger, which are generated in the nervous system. However, Pavlov believed that higher nervous activity could be conditioned just like other, simpler physiological responses.

Types of response

Pavlov also studied transmarginal inhibition. This refers to the way a human’s body responds to situations of great stress or pain. Pavlov theorised that there were four types of character temperaments when it came to the body’s response to these extreme stimuli. The actual physiological processes were the same in each, but the speed with which each type moved through the responses was different. Pavlov described the four types as "the strong, impetuous type,” “the strong, quiet type,” “the strong, lively type” and “the weak type.”

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