Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

12 Fascinating Facts About Ivan Pavlov

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Thanks to Ivan Pavlov, we’re all familiar with classical conditioning and the Pavlovian response (ring a bell before giving a dog a plate of food enough times, and he'll eventually begin to salivate at the sound of the bell rather than the sight of the meal). But if you want to know more about the man himself, from his side gig selling canine gastric juice to his couch-surfing days, it's time to examine these 12 drool-worthy facts about Ivan Pavlov.

1. A LOT OF WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW ABOUT HIM IS WRONG.

Pavlov’s biographers point out that most people have misconceptions about the Russian physiologist. For example, instead of ringing a bell to train dogs, Pavlov actually used a variety of tools such as a metronome, buzzer, whistle, light, harmonium, and even electric shock. And Pavlov’s concept of the conditioned response is, in reality, not exactly what he pioneered. He discussed the conditional response, but a mistranslation of the original Russian word uslovnyi gave us the phrase conditioned response, which is still used today.

2. HE PLANNED TO BECOME A PRIEST.

Pavlov was born in Ryazan, Russia in 1849. His father was a priest, and Pavlov enrolled in a theological seminary. But after reading the works of Russian physiologist Ivan Sechenov, Pavlov decided to change course. In 1870, he left the seminary and enrolled at what is now known as St. Petersburg University to study natural science, physics, and math.

3. HIS CHEMISTRY PROFESSOR WAS A BIG DEAL.

During Pavlov’s first year of university, one of the classes he took was inorganic chemistry. His professor, Dmitri Mendeleev, was a big deal in the world of science. In 1869, Mendeleev published the first periodic table of elements and is credited as the father of the periodic table. Not too shabby.

4. HIS EARLY WORK DEALT WITH PANCREATIC NERVES AND ANIMAL DIGESTION.


Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, Pavlov studied the natural sciences and physiology, conducting research and working on his doctorate thesis. Specifically, he wrote about the function of the nerves in the pancreas and the heart. In 1890, Pavlov was asked to develop and direct a physiology department at the Institute of Experimental Medicine, where he studied the interplay between the nervous system and digestion.

5. HE WAS SO POOR THAT HE COUCH-SURFED FOR A FEW MONTHS.

Russian scientists worked in modest labs and were paid very little, so Pavlov struggled with finances. In 1887 he couldn’t afford his apartment anymore, so he spent a few months away from his wife Serafima (or Seraphima) Karchevskaya and young son. Pavlov crashed with friends or slept in his lab, and he took on extra jobs; he taught physiology and worked on a medical journal to earn more money.

6. HE FINANCED HIS LAB BY SELLING CANINE GASTRIC JUICE AS A CURE FOR INDIGESTION.

Pavlov kept his physiology lab running by selling something that he had easy access to: canine gastric juice. While conducting experiments on dogs’ digestive systems, Pavlov collected gastric juice from hungry dogs that stared at a big bowl of meat all day. Pavlov paid an assistant to run the gastric juice collection operation, and he sold thousands of containers of the juice each year to people around Europe, who drank it daily to treat dyspepsia (indigestion). Yum!

7. AFTER HIS FIRST SON DIED, HE NAMED ALL HIS FUTURE CHILDREN WITH “V” NAMES.

If you think Pavlov and the Kardashians have nothing in common, think again. After the sudden death of their first child, Wirchik, at a very young age, the Pavlovs had four more children: three sons and a daughter, whom they named Vladimir, Victor, Vsevolod, and Vera.

8. HE WON A NOBEL PRIZE FOR REMOVING DOGS’ ESOPHAGI.

Ivan Pavlov with students
Wellcome Images Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Although Pavlov’s best-known work—showing how an environmental stimulus can influence a behavioral response—was groundbreaking, he won a Nobel Prize in 1904 for something different. He earned the honor for his research into the animal digestive system. After surgically removing a dog’s esophagus, Pavlov fed the animal and observed how the process of digestion worked, measuring the digestive secretions of the stomach and pancreas.

9. H.G. WELLS WROTE ABOUT PAVLOV FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE.

In November 1927, science fiction writer H.G. Wells wrote an essay about Pavlov for The New York Times Magazine. Because Wells didn’t fully understand the science behind one of Pavlov’s articles about reflexes, he ignored the heavy-duty science and focused on Pavlov the man. Wells wrote about Pavlov’s "vastly heroic" nature and devotion to advancing science in the face of poverty, war, and revolution. After a 23-year-old B.F. Skinner read Wells’s article on Pavlov, he became a fan and grew up to be one of history’s most influential behavioral psychologists.

10. HE HAD A BAD TEMPER.

Ivan Pavlov
Wikimedia Commons

According to his biographer, Daniel Todes, Pavlov had issues with anger management. Beginning in childhood, his mood could change suddenly, and as an adult, he hit aggressive dogs in his lab and was known for his uncontrollable outbursts of anger. Pavlov himself described his angry outbursts as “morbid, spontaneous paroxysms.”

11. HE SPOKE OUT AGAINST SOVIET COMMUNISM.

In 1921, Vladimir Lenin publicly praised Pavlov for his scientific contributions, and the Soviet government funded his research and offered him increased food rations (he didn’t accept). But Pavlov spoke out against communism, requesting in 1922 that he be allowed to move his lab to another country. Lenin refused. Pavlov said, “For the kind of social experiment that you are making, I would not sacrifice a frog’s hind legs!” Pavlov also decried his government’s persecution of political dissidents and clergymen; in a letter, Pavlov told Joseph Stalin that he was "ashamed to be called a Russian." Pavlov wasn’t killed for his contrarian views because the government determined that his scientific work was too valuable for Russia.

12. HIS HOME AND APARTMENT WERE CONVERTED TO MEMORIAL MUSEUMS.

Pavlov’s estate in Ryazan, Russia is now a museum where visitors can explore his life and achievements. If you visit, be prepared to see stuffed dogs (and even a monkey) that Pavlov used in his experiments. And if you find yourself in St. Petersburg, you can check out The Pavlov Memorial Museum, where Pavlov lived for almost two decades before he died on February 27, 1936.

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15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter
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It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.

1. THE HABITAT

The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.

2. STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.

3. THE ALLUSIONIST

Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.

4. PHILOSOPHIZE THIS!

Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.

5. MORE PERFECT

In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.

6. SLOW BURN

The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.

7. LETTERS FROM WAR

Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.

8. LEVAR BURTON READS

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

9. BRAINS ON!

Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"

10. SCIENCE VS

There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.

11. FLASH FORWARD

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.

12. HIDDEN BRAIN

What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.

13. PART-TIME GENIUS

The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.

14. ASTRONOMY CAST

It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.

15. SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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