Wednesday, May 11, 2011

on Pavlov, old habits, and new responses

There was this space of time between when I got out from the bath and when I said my nightly prayers, during which I noticed I’d start off on a certain particularly negative train of thought. This had been happening for about a week already and honestly, I was just fed up with it.

I do know what triggered it the first time, and knowing that, you’d think I’d subsequently give myself a kick in the **** and just stop it, but no – as my particular brand of spiritual challenges would have it – I’d fixate on the thing and go on my little train ride every night after my bath, till I’d spoken to God about it during my prayers.

Well last night I cried out to God in sheer frustration, because I realised that this negativity was becoming a dangerously bad habit – I mean, it would even manifest itself in physical sensations, which didn’t bother me at all at other times of the day. On previous occasions when I’d spoken to God about it, He had pointed out that it was the end of the day, and I was weary, and that it is a favourite time for spiritual vulnerability and attack.

But last night two words popped into my head: Pavlovian conditioning. Now, I hadn’t heard those words since first year university (which you can bet was a long time ago) and even then I wasn’t paying much attention in class. But having them come to me now, I decided I’d better go look it up today.

From the lovely, I’m told Pavlovian conditioning is “a type of conditioned learning which occurs because of the subject’s instinctive responses, as opposed to operant conditioning, which is contingent on the willful actions of the subject. It was developed by the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov”.

I vaguely recall from class that Pavlov did some experiments on dogs, and observed that not only did the dogs begin salivating in the presence of meat, but they gradually began salivating in the presence of their feeder. He concluded that if a stimulus – say a bell – was used when the dogs were being fed, then eventually the dogs would associate that bell with food, and salivate whenever it was rung, even if there was no food present. Which essentially was what happened.

In looking up Brittanica, I chanced upon the phrase “Pavlov’s dog” – it is used to describe someone who instinctively reacts to a situation, rather than use critical thinking. And so now that it’s daytime, and I am critically thinking – do I behave like Pavlov’s dog?

I think the answer is probably yes – at first I started on that negative train of thought about something specific, but then – even though God had already reassured me on the subject – I began doing it habitually as I was getting into my pyjamas (looking back, I think pyjama-dressing is one of those mindless times where if you're not thinking right thoughts...). It reached the point where just being in my pyjamas, at night, somehow made me instinctively get into that negative mode.

Of course, even starting on that train at all is bad, but to keep doing it? Even after God had reassured me? When faced with a challenge, why is it so instinctive to get anxious, depressed, negative?

I’d clearly gotten stuck in the wrong response. Like the dog who salivated just hearing the bell, I was doing my negative thing out of sheer habit! And for what? There was no food for the dog, and there was nothing good or productive in it for me either.

Like the bell, the pyjama-dressing – or the allergy flaring up, or the husband forgetting to call, or the friend who says hurtful things, or whatever else it is that sets you off – is just a wicked deceit and strategy; put on God’s whole armour and resist it (Eph 6:11)!

The dog should have just stopped himself and thought, “Wait a minute. What am I getting all messed up for? It’s just a stupid bell. There’s no food there; we’ve been over this a hundred times. I’m getting all worked up for nothing. I’m going to just relax because my nice owner takes good care of me and is going to give me real, proper food soon”.

Well, that last is wishful thinking as far as Pavlov’s poor dogs went, but for me, I know – I know I AM in God’s good hands and He takes very good care of me. Our habitual, instinctive response to challenges should simply be – relax, and trust God.

And so I ask God to help me keep my mind set on the right things – all that is pure, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy (Phil 4:8) – so that I’ll be conditioned to think, feel and live right, the way God intends.

In John 16:33, Jesus says, “…in Me you may have [perfect] peace and confidence. In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]! For I have overcome the world. [I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you]”.

And the apostle John writes, “Little children, you are of God [you belong to Him] and have [already] defeated and overcome them [the agents of the antichrist], because He Who lives in you is greater (mightier) than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

It’s never to late to kick bad habits – even for old dogs :)


my thrifty closet said...

I learnt something, very thought provoking. Not sure if it's a women's thing but women seems more likely to have the tendencies to slip into negative thinking. For me, reading the bible and listening to spiritual songs helps. But as bible says, our spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, dear sister, I pray that the Lord gives you grace and strength to overcome. God bless!


Thank you dear sister! Don't know if it's necessarily just women, though surely we do tend to be more sensitive and emotional, but I often feel like what Paul said, "For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do". But as he also said, "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" AMEN!


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