Pavlovian Affairs: The Quest for Mans’ Mind and Life Imitating Art

by Sheyi Oriade

‘Guard your heart with all diligence for out of it comes the issues of life’ is a wise injunction derived from the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and one with which I am in complete agreement. But nonetheless, I am inclined to paraphrase it somewhat to read as follows: ‘guard your mind with all diligence, for what you let into it will determine how well you perform in life.’ Right through the dim vistas of time to the present, philosophers and scientists alike have viewed the mind of man as a priceless treasure, and one which distinguishes him from, and elevates him above, the beasts of the field. And up to the present time, mans’ mind continues to generate interest in the form of exploratory studies as scientists attempt to unravel the mysteries of its workings and discover how it shapes man and his environment.

Now since mans’ mind is of such importance to his overall well being, it stands to reason that he would have a vested interest in ensuring its well being, by carefully vetting what he lets into it and what he keeps out of it. In fact, such is the value of mans’ mind that special interest groups like politicians, governments, the media, big business, educational institutions, and religious organisations constantly seek to influence it for their own ends. And such is their unrelenting quest towards this objective that quite often the mass of mankind has been reduced to being mere somnambulists dreaming their way through life with ‘eyes and minds wide shut.’ Mental slaves gyrating to the drum beat of others, constantly being bombarded by advertising pitches, news reports, policy announcements, and conflicting religious doctrines leaving them with little room to formulate their own thoughts. But how did things come to be this way?

About a century ago a Russian scientist/psychologist, Dr. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, set about a series of studies to determine the role of automatism in human behaviour. As part of his studies he undertook a number of experiments with canines to establish if they were susceptible to behaviour modification through external conditioning. In one experiment, he rang a bell in order to attract the attention of the dogs, whilst simultaneously offering them food. After a while, he observed that whenever he rang his bell the dogs would salivate in anticipation of being offered food, even when no food was on offer. The dogs had in their minds come to associate the sound of the ringing bell with the provision of food, thus demonstrating their susceptibility to mental programming through external conditioning. And with this realisation, the ‘Pavlovian’ effect was born.

Being as he was, a scientist/psychologist of enquiring bent, Dr. Pavlov broadened the scope of his investigations to encompass some experimentation with man. And in so doing, he made an extraordinary discovery – to wit – that what was true of mans’ best friend was also true of man. To all intents and purposes, man was as every bit as susceptible to mental programming and behaviour modification through external conditioning as dogs!

In the light of Dr. Pavlov’s incredible discovery, the development and evolution of man from that point on, was to be profoundly impacted in ways far beyond anything that Dr. Pavlov could have possibly envisaged. But by establishing the scientific basis for the wide-scale influencing of mankind, Dr. Pavlov unwittingly opened the door for the systematic control of the collective mentation of the mass of mankind. As special interest groups, regardless of their differences, both corporately and separately, busied themselves towards the goal of shepherding the mass of mankind towards predetermined ends.

Of these special interest groups, no group more so than the media, has played a greater and more defining role in achieving this end. Very often the media has worked ‘hand in glove’ with politicians, governments, big businesses and religious organisations to shape the thinking of their intended audiences. It matters not whether these special interest groups are situated in Moscow, Washington, Rome, Berlin, or London all of them, without exception, are driven by a desire to dominate the collective mindset of mankind in their quest for untrammelled power.

Now it would be misleading of me to create or convey the idea or impression that all attempts at shaping the mindset of the mass of mankind are of a sinister nature. This is not true, even though there have been clear cases in history where this has definitely been the case. One needs only to look as far as Nazi Germany during the Second World War to form a picture of some of the horrors that can occur as a result of the malevolent external conditioning of the minds of masses of people. But there are, thankfully, positive instances of the beneficial use of the practice in the affairs of man.

To illustrate one such positive use of the ‘Pavlovian’ principle, one only needs to look at America to see how the media has used this principle to influence national politics. And by so doing, it has been instrumental in bringing about the emergence of the presidential candidates currently vying for the nomination of the Democratic Party.

Every so often American Television Networks commission and roll-out captivating fictional political dramas, which supposedly depict life in, out, and around the corridors of political power. Television programmes such as NBC’s the ‘West Wing,’ Fox Television’s ‘24,’ and ABC’s ‘Commander-in-Chief’ are some examples. All of these programmes, to varying degrees and towards similar ends, were produced to entertain, inform, and ‘programme’ the minds of their viewers.

For readers who have not seen any of these programmes, I shall provide a very brief overview of two them: ‘24’; and ‘Commander-in-Chief’. In the first series of ‘24’ a fictional black senator David Palmer (played by the magisterial Dennis Haysbert) runs for the presidential nomination of his political party (sounds familiar doesn’t it); but there is a slight problem, in that he is the subject of an assassination plot, which is foiled by the Herculean efforts of a special Counter Terrorist Agent Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland). Senator David Palmer having survived the plot against his life goes on to become president of the United States.

In ‘Commander-in-Chief’ a fictional character, Mackenzie Allen, (played by Geena Davis) becomes the first female Caucasian president of the United States upon the unexpected death of the incumbent. In assuming office, she does so to the chagrin of the Speaker of the House of Representatives (played by Donald Sutherland) who is as much displeased at the fact that a woman has the top job, as he is at the fact, that it eluded him. Towards the end of the series, Mackenzie Allen decides to stand for election as president in her own right, and chooses as her running mate her black Chief of Staff.

The parallels between these fictional portrayals of a black man and a white woman as presidents of the United States are too striking and too close to reality to dismiss as mere coincidence. They are classic examples, in my view, of the application of the ‘Pavlovian’ principle by opinion formers in America, to shape the mindsets of Americans to the acceptance of the idea of a black president or a female Caucasian president. This is a perfect case of life imitating art in a crucial area of human endeavour.

In casting Dennis Haysbert, that great thespian and man of enormous presence, as the fictional President David Palmer, many Americans, possibly for the first time and from the comfort of their own homes, were able to view a dignified and charismatic black actor portray the role of president of America with distinction. The casting in itself marked a radical departure from the usual servile roles often given to black actors. There can be no doubt that by reason of Dennis Haysbert’s performance the lines between reality and fiction for many viewers became blurred, paving the way for life to imitate art.

I am of the view, that Dennis Haysbert’s commanding on-screen presence and brilliant performance in ‘24,’ was instrumental to the subsequent emergence of the talented Senator Barack Obama, and his acceptance as a credible and intelligent presidential candidate with cross over appeal. It is interesting to note that Dennis Haysbert is also shares this view.

Watching Geena Davis as the fictional president, Mackenzie Allen, in ‘Commander-in-Chief’, and in particular, seeing her take firm control of unfolding crises in the White House Situation Room flanked by Generals bedecked in full military dress, I believe did much to boost the idea of a female president and commander-in-chief in the minds of American viewers. Geena Davis’ persuasive portrayal, I feel, helped to facilitate the emergence of Hillary Clinton as a credible presidential candidate.

These examples, in my view, demonstrate the power of the media in utilising Pavlov’s insights to achieve positive predetermined ends. But, as we have seen elsewhere in this article, not all uses of the ‘Pavlovian’ principle have been as benign. And even in present times, the principle continues to be misused by certain special interest groups for negative ends. For this reason, I believe, it is incumbent upon man to take responsibility for his mental well being by ensuring that he does not become an unwitting dupe of the machinations of others. He must thus, guard his heart and mind with all diligence, in line with the biblical prescription, whilst also challenging his assumptions to test their validity.

Great people in times past have counselled against the dangers of this sort of intrusion by special interest groups and have admonished mankind to protect itself against such threats: George Orwell in his book ‘1984’; Fela Kuti with his ‘Suffering and Smiling’ and other powerful songs; and Bob Marley with his inspiring collection of songs. For our own sakes we must pay heed to their cries.

Much more than anything else, Dr. Pavlov’s insights, reveal the enormous potential available to man to liberate himself from his limitations and unfounded fears. He has the capacity to programme and re-programme his mind for his and his progenies’ greater benefit and well being. And better for him to take steps in this direction to safeguard his future.

As I end this article, I do so with a few inspirational words, taken from the famous ‘Redemption Song’ of that great prophet and musician, Bob Marley.

‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
(for) None but ourselves can free our minds…’

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1 comment

Peter Thorneycroft December 31, 2008 - 3:25 pm

fabulous, very simply put and makes a lot of sense. I shall guard my mind jealously.


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