The Sunday Intertitle: Human Behaviour

I picked up THE MECHANICS OF THE BRAIN on a whim — it struck me as interesting that Vsevolod Pudovkin had made a documentary about Pavlovian conditioning right at the start of his career, right before the amusing CHESS FEVER.

The behaviorists are our least favourite scientists, really, aren’t they? I mean, discounting Nazi scientists for the moment, the behaviorists got into a reductive view of humanity that extrapolated from successful experiments showing how learned responses can be created and ended up assuming that all consciousness is a purely mechanical stimulus-response affair.

This led to assumptions that the brain could be reprogrammed like a machine. The Ludovico Treatment in CLOCKWORK ORANGE wouldn’t work in reality because that’s not true, but it was certainly attempted. William Burroughs underwent aversion therapy to “cure” his homosexuality, being doped with apomorphone (acting “directly on the vomiting center of the brain”) while being shown muscle mags. As history tells us, this did not work, although Burroughs credited the drug with weaning him off heroin.

I was sort of interested, though, in the possible connections between Russian montage theory (which Pudovkin wrote about) and behaviorism. The idea of automatic and irresistible responses triggered by certain stimuli is common to both.

In the end, though, I was too outraged by the animal cruelty — hearing in school about experiments to measure the drool produced by a dog is a little disturbing, but doesn’t compare to seeing the poor pup in a harness with a hole bored in its cheek.

In fact, all of the behaviorist experiments on display seem to involve outrageous cruelty to animals, and in addition they’re flawed by an inability to distinguish between automatic learned behaviour (the salivation at the sound of the bell) and conscious learned behaviour (the monkey fetches food at the sound of the metronome) — Pavlov simply drew a line between conditioned and unconditioned (inborn) responses. It’s perhaps significant that this dehumanizing view of biology was so popular in the Soviet Union, though it caught on fast everywhere.

And then we learn that Pavlov, or at any rate his associate, I.N. Krasnogorski, repeated the experiment on children.

Well, on the one hand, you can at least explain to a child WHY you find it desirable to cut an opening in his cheek. But on the other hand, that kid doesn’t look too happy, even if he is getting free breadcrumbs. I have to say –

Fuck you, Ivan Pavlov!

Fuck you, I.N. Krasnogorski!

Fuck you, Vsevolod Pudovkin!

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14 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Human Behaviour”

  1. What really concerns me is where Krasnogorski got his child subjects. What parent would consent to this? Were they orphans? I briefly toyed with the idea that they might be parentless AND/OR learning disabled, then discarded the LD part. You’d want your human subjects to be ‘normal’, otherwise the experiment would be null and void. Anyone know anything about this? I did a quick shoofty through the interweb and found precisely NOTHING. I NEED TO KNOW!

  2. ‘No mention is made by Krasnogorski of the criteria
    used to determine the mental development of his sub-
    jects. Idiots, imbeciles, cretins, hysteria cases, neuro-
    psychopaths, epileptics, have all evidently been studied
    as well as normal children, but of how many and of
    what ages, degree of pathological characterization, and
    hereditary predisposition we can unfortunately find no
    statement.’ AHA! Not only was Krasnogorski a behaviorist bastard he was also A FOOL.

  3. Kind of hard to tell what Resnais thinks of behaviorism, isn’t it? I mean, the film could be taken as a wholesale endorsement (although it tries seemingly to make the science more sympathetic than it usually appears). I’d like to think AR is more skeptical than that…

  4. Renais is ALWAYS skeptical. Moreover Laborit doesn’t offer his theories as “Revealed Truth” but rather an area for study.

  5. Resnais’s film’s final image, the tree mural which seems organic but is ultimately made up of mass-produced bricks, is a striking and beautiful metaphor for what’s really a pretty unattractive theory.

  6. Actually it’s an image of hope: A Tree Grows in The South Bronx (where no trees — or anything else — can grow)

  7. …and it grows because its made of sturdy, mechanistic brickwork…

  8. Laborit’s theories aren’t exactly about behaviorism so much as about social conditioning, the former is often confused with the latter. Resnais’ film is really about the way human consciousness is determined by society and culture, adding to a telling portrait of French society.

    It’s reminiscent In a way of AMOLAD where Peter Carter’s poetic ruminations on love, life and death also involves observations on British culture. And AMOLAD, among many things, is about the human brain.

  9. That’s true. The neurology side was extensively researched, with much input from the esteemed Professor Cairns… It’s all still pretty accurate, I believe.

    I put some of my own feelings about neuroscience into last week’s episode of The Mysterious Mr If.

  10. One of my favourite bits of ‘film criticism’ is this piece by Diane Friedman,

    http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/46_AMOLAD/AMatterOfFriedOnions.html

    She wrote a medical paper on Peter Carter’s condition, it totally changed my understanding of the film which at the time I did not value as highly as COLONEL BLIMP and RED SHOES. Today I consider, as did Powell himself, their finest work.

  11. Terrific piece. Some of that information appears in Ian Christie’s BFI Classics book, but there’s more detail here.

    I’m fascinated that Dr Reeves is stated to have been educated at Edinburgh. Maybe that’s where he got the idea for his camera obscura: we have one in a tower overlooking the Castle, which also happens to be the building Donald Cammell was born in.

  12. For the ultimate combination of behaviourists and Second World War mad scientists, we of course have to look to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow!

  13. Ah, ridiculously enough I have yet to read that one. It is clearly “my kind of thing.”

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