Ivan Pavlov was the first Russian to win a Nobel Prize. In fact, he created digestion physiology, and that was what brought him the prize. While studying digestion, he had an idea about conditioned reflexes. What is a conditioned reflex? Unlike unconditioned reflexes that are naturally inherent in us and in other live beings and are hereditary, an unconditioned reflex is a reflex learned by a certain person. Such reflexes arise under certain conditions and disappear in absence of those conditions. Imagine a dog who smells meat. At this moment, gastric juice secretion starts in the dog’s stomach. For any dog, this is a natural unconditional reflex. But now, let’s try another experiment: we’ll give meat to the dog and ring a bell. Once and again… And again.
At first, the dog will think this is a coincidence, but over time, its nervous system will start associating the sound with food, and finally – attention! – the sound will start provoking gastric juice secretion, even when there is no meat around.
An even better explanation of a conditioned reflex is given by a monkey to another monkey in a joke: “Now I’ll press the red button; the bell will ring and those quasi-monkeys in white robes will bring me a banana.” Thus, a conditioned reflex is the habit of acting the same way under same conditions. On a bicycle, one must spin the pedals, on roller skaters, one must maintain the equilibrium. In the course of our life, we accumulate lots of conditioned reflexes, and a whole system of neural connections is formed in the brain cortex. These systems are called movement patterns. They are the base of many habits and skills – not only in humans, but in animals as well.
There are some funny conditioned reflexes: people who live in Southern countries develop the reflex of never standing under a coconut tree: a coconut could fall on their head at any moment. And when an American psychologist, by way of experiment, taught a one-year-old baby to be afraid of white rats, the child, in full conformity with scientific theories, came to be afraid of a white fur coat and even of Santa Claus with his long white beard.