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!