Vladimir Bekhterev


Vladimir Bekhterev : biography

January 24, 1857 – December 24, 1927

In 1893, Bekhterev left the University of Kazan to return to St. Petersburg Military Medical Academy to become the head to the Department of Nervous and Mental Diseases. Here he continued his contribution to neurological research by organizing the first Russian neurosurgical operating room to specialize in neurosurgery. While Bekhterev never performed any surgeries himself, he was highly involved in the diagnostics of neurological diseases, eventually earning him the Full State Chancellor Title in 1894.

Between 1894 and 1905 Bekhterev was very busy with his research. He completed between 14 and 24 scientific works per year and founded Nevrologicheski Vestnik (Neurology Bulletin) in 1893, the first Russian journal on nervous disease. Eventually, his hard work earned him the Baire’s Prize, awarded in December 1900, for the two volumes of his writing “Pathways of brain and bone marrow” in which he noted the role that the hippocampus plays in memory. Bekhterev’s other writings include “Mind and Life,” a book written in 1902, which contained multiple volumes including “Foundations for Brain Functions Theory” written in 1903. “Foundations for Brain Functions Theory” described Bekhterev’s views on the functions of the parts of the brain and the nervous system. It also suggested the Energetic Inhibition Theory which describes automatic responses (reflexes). This theory claims that there is an active energy in the brain which moves towards a center, and when this happens, the other parts of the brain are left in an inhibited state. Bekhterev’s research on associated responses would become highly connected with the important area of psychology called Behaviorism. It also led to a long-standing rivalry with Ivan Pavlov, described in further detail below.

Rivalry with Ivan Pavlov

Both Ivan Pavlov and Bekhterev independently developed a theory of conditioned reflexes which describe automatic responses to the environment. What was called association reflex by Bekhterev is called the conditioned reflex by Pavlov, although the two theories are essentially the same. Because John Watson discovered the salivation research completed by Pavlov, this research was incorporated into Watson’s famous theory of Behaviorism, making Pavlov a house-hold name. While Watson used Pavlov’s research to support his Behaviorist claims, closer inspection shows that in fact, Watson’s teachings are better supported by Bekhterev’s research.Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Sixth Edition. Behaviorism (pp. 394-397). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Bekhterev was familiar with Pavlov’s work and had multiple criticisms. According to Bekhterev, one of Pavlov’s major research flaws included using a saliva method. He found fault with this method because it could not be easily used on humans. In contrast, Bekhterev’s method of studying this association (conditioned) reflex using mild electrical stimulation to examine motor reflexes was able to demonstrate the existence of this reflex in humans. Bekhterev also questioned using acid to encourage saliva from the animals. He felt that this practice may contaminate the results of the experiment. Finally, Bekhterev criticized Pavlov’s method by stating that the secretory reflex is unimportant and unreliable. If the animal is not hungry then food may not elicit the desired response, acting as evidence of the method’s unreliability.Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Sixth Edition. Behaviorism (pp. 394-397). Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Pavlov however was not without his own criticisms of Bekhterev, stating that Bekhterev’s laboratory was poorly controlled.

Bekhterev’s legacy

While the name Vladimir Bekhterev is largely unknown, his contributions to science and specifically psychology were impressive. Bekhterev was a huge force in the science of neurology; greatly enhancing our knowledge on how the brain works as well as the parts of the brain. For instance, his research on the hippocampus allowed for the understanding of one of the most central portions of the brain vital to our function of memory. Moreover, his influence to psychology was immeasurable. Bekhterev’s works laid the groundwork for the future of psychology. His ideas regarding Objective psychology as well as his views on reflexes were the cornerstone of Behaviorism and as a result, the future of psychology. Although Bekhterev’s name is largely unknown, the repercussions of his findings are certainly essential to the current fields of both psychology and neurology.