Why Pavlov actually won the Nobel Prize – while teaching music to dogs

Below is the edito from the latest edition of Nautilus, titled Variables, a brilliant online journal on all things science. It relates the experiments of Ivan Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist, and how we’ve got him mostly reduced to classical conditioning, and mostly dogs.

Kevin Berger of Nautilus:

There’s always more to the story. Take Pavlov’s dogs. The great Russian
physiologist, who won a Nobel Prize for his research into the physiology
of digestion, seldom rang a bell to reveal dogs could be conditioned to
anticipate a reward of food. In experiments to illuminate the digestive
and nervous systems of mammals, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a master at
controlling variables to produce surprising and sophisticated results.
In his book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, science writer
George Johnson informs us Pavlov proved dogs could anticipate time,
discriminate between an object moving clockwise or counter-clockwise,
and distinguish between notes on a musical scale.

In one amazing experiment, Pavlov was
determined to control every possible variable that could affect the
outcome, and so placed dogs in a soundproof chamber. He played a dog
four notes in ascending order and gave it food. No reward was
forthcoming when the notes were played in descending order. The dog
quickly learned to tell the simple melodies apart and salivated at the
ascending order. Further, Pavlov showed, a dog could distinguish between
the ascending and descending melodies when the notes were played in 22
other combinations. Pavlov’s dogs were ready for Juilliard!
Controlling variables in search of a
hypothetical result is one of the most important methods in science. And
this month in Nautilus we spotlight how variables inform
experiments in a range of scientific and cultural fields. But the
concept of variables is not limited to methodology. A variable is a
reminder that a shift in perception can spring us from cliché and deepen
our knowledge and understanding.
Read the latest issue of Nautilus online