Sechenov, Ivan Mikhaylovich

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(b. Teply Stan [now Sechenova], Simbirsk guberniya [now Arzamas oblast], Russia, 1 August 1829; d. Moscow, Russia, 2 November 1905)

Physiology, physical chemistry, psychology.

Sechenov’s father was a landowner, and his mother was of peasant stock. He was educated at home and then attended the Military Engineering School in St. Petersburg (1943–1848). From 1848 to 1850 he was a military engineer at Kiev, and for the following six years he studied medicine at Moscow University. Upon graduation he went to Germany, where, until 1860, he studied and worked in the laboratories of Johannes Müller, E. du Bois-Reymond, Helmholtz, and Ludwig.

In 1860 Sechenov presented his dissertation presented his dissertation Materialy dlya budushchey fiziologii alkogolnogo opyanenia (“Data for the Future Physiology of Alcoholic Intoxication”) to the St. Petersburg Medico-Surgical Academy, at which he was appointed professor (1860–1870) and founded the first Russian school of physiology. After resigning to protest the rejection of Elie Metchnikoff, his candidate for the chair of zoology, Sechenov conducted chemical research in Mendeleev’s laboratory in St. Petersburg (1876–1888) and Moscow (1891–1901). Sechenov was elected an honorary fellow of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1904.

His first investigations were devoted to gaseous exchange (his dissertation) and electrophysiology O zhivotnom elektrichestve (“On Animal Electricity,” 1862). In November 1862, while working in the Paris laboratory of Claude Bernard (who did not, however, collaborate on this work), Sechenov reported on “central inhibition” — the repressive effects of thalamic nerve centers on spinal reflexes. He thus inaugurated research on inhibition phenomena in the central nervous system.

His discovery led Sechenov to suggest the theory of cerebral behavior mechanisms, according to which all conscious and unconscious acts are reflexes in terms of their structure (“means of origin”). This theory provided the basis for the development of neurophysiology and objective psychology in Russia, including the investigations of Pavlov and Bekhterev. Although accepted by the intelligentsia as an aspect of a scientific view of the nature of man, the theory was interpreted in more conservative circles as a threat to moral principles and social order. In elaborating the theory of the functions of higher nerve centers, Sechenov established a principle of self-regulation that was set forth in works published in 1866, 1891, and 1898. The main role was attributed to the coordination between nerve centers. Sechenov emphasized not only “form but activity, not only topographical isolation of organs but the combination of central processes into natural groups” —an interpretation that contradicted conceptions based on “anatomical principle.”

In 1881 Sechenov established the existence of periodic spontaneous fluctuations of bioelectric potentials in the brain. Proceeding from the conception of muscle as a “receptor” of sensory information, and having analyzed disorders of nerve and muscle activities (ataxia), he concluded that signals reflecting the muscle effects are involved in the regulation of motor activity in animals and man. This was a precursor of the conception of feedback as an essential factor in the organization of behavior. He introduced an essentially new interpretation of reflex by declaring that it consisted of sensation (a signal) and movement. Sensation, he believed, was determined not by information at the level of consciousness but on the basis of objective functions of vital activity and served to distinguish among conditions and to regulate actions.

Maintaining that the reality of sensation is rooted in the reality of the motor act, Sechenov developed a new approach to the functions of the sensory organs in Fiziologia organov chuvstv (“Physiology of the Sensory Organs,” 1867). A receptor was responsible merely for a signal and thus constituted only half of the complete physiological mechanism, the other half being muscle activity. (This represented “the principle of coordinating movement and sensation, a unity between reception by and action of a muscle.”) The signals of muscle sensation were the main source of information on the space-time characteristics of the environment.

On the basis of the new “reflective” scheme, Sechenov suggested a plan for reorganizing psychology into an objective natural science based on physiology (1873). Instead of being an adjunct of physiology, psychology should become a study of the psychic regulation of behavior using the methods and conceptions of natural sciences.

Sechenov also investigated the chemistry of respiration; the physiology of respiration, particulalry at reduced atmospheric pressure; and the physics and chemistry of solutions. He designed a new type of absorptiometer and used it to establish the law of soultion of gases in salt solutions with which they did not react. He also constructed a device for studying respriation when a man moving or at rest. His Oocherk rabochikh dvizheny u Chelovka (“A Survy of the Working Movements of Man,” 1901) laid the foundation for later investigations into the physiology of work in Russia.

Sechenov was active in the struggle for eqaul right for women and for self-government of the universites. His students and followers included many outstanding Russian physiologists: Vve-densky Pavlov, Ukhtomsky, I R. Tarkhanov samoylov.


I. Original Works. Sechenov’s main writing are Materialy dlya budushchey fiziologii alkogolnogo opyanenia (“Data for the Furture Physiology of Alcoholic Intoxiation” ST.Petersburg, 1860); O Zhvatnow elektrichestve (“On Animal Electricity” St.Petersuburg, 1862); “Reflesy golovnogo mozga” (“Reflexes of the Brain”), in Meditsinsky vestnik, nos. 47–48 (1863): Fiziologia nernoy sistemy (“Physiology of the Nervous System”, St. Petersburg, 1866): “Komu I kaka razrbatyvat psikhologiy” (“Who Must Investigate Psychology and How”), in Vestnick Everopy (1873), no 4; “Elementimysli” (The Elements of Thought”), ibid., (1878), nos 33–4; O pogloshenii ugolnoy kisloty solyanymi ratvorami i krovy (“On Absorption of Carbon Acid by Salt sloution and Blood” St. Peterburg, 1879); Fiziologia nervnkh tsentrov (“Physiology of Nerve Centers” St.Petersburg, 1891); and Ocherk rabochikh dvizheny u cheloveka (“A Surved of the Working Movements of Man”: Moscow, 1901).

Collections of his writing are available in French as Etudes Psychologiques (Paris, 1889) and in English as Selected Works, A. A.Subkov, ed, (Moscow-Lenin-grad, 1935)

II. Secondary Literature. See K.S. Koshtoyants, I. M. Sechenov (Moscow, 1950); A. F.Samolyov, “I M.Sechenov i ego mysil o roil myshtsy v nashem poznani prirody” (“sechenov and His Ideas on the Role of Muscle in our Knowledge of Nature”) in Nauchnoe slovo (1930), no 5; N. E. Vvendensky, “I M. SEchen-ov,” in his Polnoe sobranie sochineny (“complete works”), VII (leningard 1963); and M. G. Laroshevsky I.M. Sechenov (Leningrad, 1968).

M. G. Laroshevsky