How Ivan Pavlov Handled a Piece of Steak

Most psychology students recognize the name of Ivan Pavlov, one of the great minds of psychology, who developed the theory of classical conditioning (dogs salivating when he rang a bell). From the Yale Alumni magazine comes this wonderful tidbit of a story:

“In mid-August 1929, the Harvard Medical School hosted the Thirteenth International Physiological Congress, one of the largest gatherings of scientists ever convened in the United States. Pavlov, the doyen of experimental physiology at almost 80 and honored by a Nobel Prize a quarter-century earlier, was the lion of the gathering. His pioneering work on conditioned reflexes had been crucial to understanding brain function, and he was keen to see the Harvard neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing ’91 operate. The preeminent brain surgeon and father of modern neurosurgery as a field, Cushing, two decades younger than Pavlov, was at the top of his game. Performing for Pavlov in a theater at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Cushing removed a large tumor of the left hemisphere from a cancer patient’s brain. The patient later recalled that Cushing introduced him to Pavlov, saying, “You are now shaking hands with the world’s greatest living physiologist.”

Pavlov was captivated by the new electrosurgical knife Cushing used in the operation, and at the end of the procedure, Cushing got a piece of beef so that the elder scientist could try his hand. After making a few incisions, Pavlov inscribed his name into the meat. “I asked him whether he wanted me to eat the meat in the hope of improving my conditional reflexes,” Cushing wrote in his journal, “or whether we could keep it in the museum, the latter we will proceed to do—’Pavlov’s beef-steak.’” A collector of old medical books and of brain tumors, when he died in 1939 Cushing bequeathed both to Yale, where his rare books would become the cornerstone for creating the Medical Historical Library.”

Anyway, I love this story, especially the concept of him eating the steak, to “improve his conditional reflexes!”

Next time I throw a barbecue party I’ll serve the Pavlov-Steak sandwich…

Copyright © 2010 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions


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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and other difficulties using evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.