Disclaimer: This article contains a description of animal suffering. Reader discretion advised.
Most of us have heard about Pavlov’s dogs.
It’s a famous tale in the fields of physiology and psychology: Pavlov rang a buzzer, then fed his dogs; eventually his dogs began salivating at the sound of the buzzer. Most people think the story ends there.
Most of us don’t know what happened next.
The lesser-known epilogue to the saga of Pavlov’s dogs tells us that life isn’t as simple as it seems. Tragedy, stress, and grief can disrupt any training, thwart any plans, re-shape any personalities.
But human connection can repair the wound.
Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was born in 1849 as the eldest of 10 kids. His father was a priest, so he enrolled in seminary school, but dropped out when he realized his passion was physiology and chemistry.
He enrolled at St. Petersburg Imperial University in 1870. His freshman year chemistry teacher was the guy who invented the periodic table.
After graduation, he began researching cardiac and gastrointestinal physiology, which is when he started paying close attention to dog saliva.
While studying dog digestion in a laboratory, he noticed that his dogs drooled when they saw the white lab coats of his research assistants. This sparked his curiosity.
He restrained his dogs in harnesses, placed food bowls in front of them, and measured their rate of saliva production. Then he started associating various noises with their feeding times, while exercising precise control over both the duration and tone of sounds.
He associated food with a buzzer and a metronome, testing a range of strong tones, weak tones, long-duration tones, and short-duration tones. He tested non-auditory stimuli, like electric shocks and light from an electric lamp.
Once the dogs learned to associate these stimuli with food, they salivated at everything.
Pavlov wrote a paper about his findings, created the concept of classical conditioning, and won a Nobel Prize in 1904.
Most people think that’s where the story ends.
But what happened next is far more fascinating.
On September 23, 1924, a catastrophic flood swept St. Petersburg.*
Pavlov’s basement laboratory flooded. Tragically, the dogs were trapped in kennels inside.
As water gushed around them, the desperate dogs craned their necks high, sticking their noses in the tiny crack of air between the top of their cages and the rapidly rising flood waters.
They lived like this for hours, cut off from human help, their muzzles barely above the ice-cold waves. The thud of snapping and falling trees thundered around them.
Then Pavlov’s assistants came to the rescue.
In order to free the dogs from the kennels, Pavlov’s assistants had to forcibly submerge the dogs underwater, then yank the dogs through the kennel doors. The terrified dogs, of course, had no idea why they were being pushed underwater.
To transport the dogs to safety, Pavlov’s team then forced the exhausted dogs to swim in groups for a quarter of a mile, from the kennels to the main laboratory.
Upon reaching the main laboratory, the dogs were finally safe, but traumatized.
Then a funny thing happened: the dogs stopped salivating when they heard the familiar sounds of the buzzer or the metronome.
Their conditioning broke.
The dogs, burdened by stress, forgot what they’d learned.
It got worse from there.
The dogs withdrew. They stopped roughhousing with one another. The dogs who previously held strong bonds with specific research assistants started shying away. Several refused to eat.
“A week after the flood the dog was brought into the experimental room and placed in its stand,” Pavlov wrote. “The animal was abnormally restless and all conditioned reflexes were practically absent, and, though usually very ready for food, the animal now would not touch the food and even turned its head away.”
Pavlov wondered if hunger could trigger their former conditioning. He starved his dogs for three days. It didn’t work.
“During three days while the animal was purposely left without food its general behaviour during the experiments remained unaltered,” he wrote.
Hmmm. He hadn’t expected this.
This is how Pavlov stumbled upon a far more interesting observation: stress leads to shutting down.
When life gets overwhelming, a natural response is to forget everything we’ve learned, refuse help, and shut down, even when the consequences — such as not eating — only hurt us further.
“Different conditions productive of extreme excitation – such as intense grief or bitter insults – often lead to profound and prolonged loss of balance in nervous and psychic activity,” he wrote.
Translation: everyone has a breaking point.
And when we reach it, we stop taking care of ourselves. We become self-destructive. We stop caring. We grow numb.
So how do we recover? How do we bounce back?
Pavlov devoted the rest of his life to understanding how stress-induced trauma could be reversed.
From Poor Charlie’s Almanack:
“[Pavlov] spent the rest of his long life giving stress-induced nervous breakdowns to dogs, after which he would try to reverse the breakdowns, all the while keeping careful experimental records.
“He found (1) that he could classify dogs so as to predict how easily a particular dog would breakdown; (2) that the dogs hardest to break down were also the hardest to return to their pre-breakdown state; (3) that any dog could be broken down; and (4) that he couldn’t reverse a breakdown except by reimposing stress.”
The first three points are easy to follow:
- Everyone can be broken.
- Those who are easiest to break are also easiest to recover.
- Those who are hardest to break are also hardest to recover.
Okay, got it.
But what about that fourth point?
“He couldn’t reverse a breakdown except by reimposing stress.”
Pavlov found that small doses of stress, in a well-managed environment, helped the dogs return back to their former selves. Their survival instincts kicked in. They rose to the occasion. They bounced back when they needed to.
- Sometimes, the road to recovery is not easy.
- Sometimes, things have to get worse before they get better.
- Sometimes, moderate doses of stress can be helpful.
- Sometimes, we have to wade through the muck and mud before we can cross to the other side.
- Sometimes, when life gets tough, we get tougher.
Of course, this is a limited study of dogs in a specific time and circumstance.** We don’t know if or how this applies to humans, and it’s best not to over-extrapolate.
The question “how does this apply to us?” is complex, multifaceted and open to interpretation.
But there are observations that, at a minimum, intuitively resonate with our own lives.
Here’s the ultimate example:
Pavlov noticed that one variable helped his dogs recover from stress and trauma better, faster and more reliably than anything else:
“On considering various possible interpretations,” he wrote, “we reached the conclusion that this extraordinary behaviour of the animal must still be an after-effect of the flood, and the following method of combating the disturbance was adopted:
“Instead of leaving the animal alone during the experiment, the experimenter now remained in the same room with it …
“All the reflexes showed an immediate restoration in the first experiment and the animal took the food with avidity, but it was sufficient for the experimenter to leave the animal alone for all the abnormal symptoms to recur.”
—-> Human companionship and connection inspired the dogs to eat again. <—-
Loneliness led to the dogs reverting back to their agitated state.
Let’s digest this idea for a moment (no pun intended). Notice that three days of hunger wasn’t powerful enough to motivate the dogs to start eating again.
Only human connection could.
When all feels lost, spend time with someone.
Spend time with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors. Spend time with your pets. Connect.
This may be the most powerful step towards recovering from, and triumphing over, anything that’s stressing you out and holding you back.
Connection is the world’s most worthwhile investment.
*At the time of the flood, the city was called Leningrad. However, although Lenin publicly praised Pavlov’s research, Pavlov refused to acknowledge Lenin, requested (and was denied) permission to move his laboratory abroad, and risked his life by telling Stalin that Soviet Communist policies made him “ashamed to be Russian.” He referred to the city by its previous name, Petrograd.
**He also named three stages of a breakdown: first, dogs respond to all stimuli equally, unable to distinguish between strong and weak stimuli; second, dogs respond strongly to weak or medium stimuli but grow apathetic and non-responsive to strong ones (quantity reversal); third, their behaviors reverse, as their previous likes turn to dislikes and vice versa (quality reversal).