We are not Pavlov's dogs | Pt. VII

Currently, I’m enrolled in a 10-month counseling training program in San Francisco called Interchange. The sessions are comprised of lectures on therapeutic theories and techniques, as well as a lot of practice as both clients and counselors. This update focuses on deconstructing limiting beliefs and freeing our minds. (You can read the previous updates here.) 


In many ways, we are all like Pavlov’s dog. And, in many ways, we are not.

If you’re unfamiliar with Pavlov and his dog(s), he was a Russian psychologist from the last century who worked in an area called Classical Conditioning. His test subjects were dogs repetitiously trained to associate the sound of a bell ringing with the availability of food to consume. Eventually, he conditioned the dogs to so thoroughly relate the bell’s sounding with food that they began to salivate at the mere sound of a bell, even when food was taken out of the equation.

This morning, my alarm went off at 7am. I had a meeting with someone on Central Time and was aware that my morning fatigue might be met by a person on the other line who’d already be invigorated by one or two more cups of coffee than me. My alarm signaled that it was time to become conscious. In fact, it was time to be awake, which brings with it all kinds of responsibilities and expectations.

I have trained myself to begin a process of becoming more aware at the sound of an alarm. This is so thoroughly ingrained that even the sound of my alarm tone coming from another person’s phone stirs something inside of me that is both alertness and irritation. Perhaps you’ve experienced the same.

But this small form of conditioning is self-imposed. This is one example of how we are actually not like Pavlov’s dogs. In setting an alarm every morning, we consciously choose to condition ourselves. We are the Pavlov of our own lives.

But there are many ways in which our conditioning has been externally imposed upon us.

Take your name as one simple example: You entered the world nameless and naked. As time went on you were consistently called something. You were rewarded with food and comfort when you responded to it. Eventually, you were told, “Your name is (INSERT NAME). That’s you!” And then you were conditioned to respond to that name whenever it was spoken. (This has been confusing for someone like me whose name sounds like Dave, Dean, Dan, and Dayna. I look up expectantly a lot in crowds.)

More complex examples of our being externally conditioned are found in the belief systems we hold as our chosen understandings of reality (i.e. religious systems, political associations, gender identifications, etc.). These beliefs, or concepts, determine the ways in which we navigate life. And they can cripple us, or liberate us. The only way to know whether or not they’re doing us any favors at all is to first recognize that they exist.

By noticing how we’ve been conditioned, we set ourselves apart from Pavlov’s pack of lab dogs.

If you want to engage in an exercise to reveal your own conditioning, try this:

Ask someone if they’ll sit with you and gently request, over and over again, that you tell them who you are. After they say, “tell me who you are,” you respond with whatever length of an answer you feel is adequately expressing your concept(s) of yourself. Then, they will reply with, “thank you.” Pause for a breath, then your partner will repeat, “tell me who you are.” Let this go on for no less than 15 minutes. (There are some practices where this exercise is repeated for hours every day for weeks on end.) By the end of even a shortened version of this exercise you will have a general understanding of what concepts you’ve been conditioned to hold as your own reality.

Over the course of our lives, we are both punished and praised for our responses to the conditioning put upon us. Drive across an intersection that is signaled red and you will be punished one way or another – either a fine or worse. Turn your assignments in on time and you will be affirmed with favor, a raise, or a better grade. Everything has conditioned us – society, family, faith systems, nationality, gender – to behave one way or another, and many of us conform to our conditioning unconsciously.

But we don’t have to do be that way. We are not Pavlov’s dogs.

As human beings, we have the ability to engage in a process of freeing our minds. It is a process that involves surrender and deconstruction.

Once we expose our unconscious beliefs, we are able to see how they guide our lives. From this place of exposure, we can then deconstruct the frameworks that have held our existence in place. The aim, however, is not to collapse into the deconstructed shambles of our old conditioning, but to see what core essence of ourselves emerge to fill the blank space. Who are we beyond our names, religions, accolades, interests and hobbies, political systems, nationalities, professional titles, genders, relational roles?

In other words, a bell rings, an alarm sounds, how might we respond?

Dane Johnson

Ramble with a Plan, 542 Brannan Street, South of Market, CA, 94107

Writer | Explorer | Pilgrim