Bekhterev, Vladimir M.

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Bekhterev, Vladimir M.



Vladimir Mikhaylovich Bekhterev (Bekhtereff, Bechterew, von Bekhterew) (1857–1927), was a Russian neurologist, psychiatrist, physiologist, psychologist, and reflexologist. He made significant contributions to the first four of these disciplines and founded the fifth. Bekhterev’s band or layer, Bekhterev’s nucleus, Bekhterev s tract—all defined in any medical dictionary—attest to his neurological, more specifically, neuroanatomical, discoveries in the cerebral cortex, medulla oblongata, and neural pathways. Medical dictionaries also almost invariably include Bekhterev’s disease, Bekhterev’s reflexes(five in number),Bekhterev’s sign, Bekhterev’s symptom, and Bekhterev’s test—his contributions to clinical medicine, psychiatry, and physiology. And dictionaries contain only eponymic contributions. Bekhterev founded a laboratory of experimental psychology at the University of Kazan in 1886; and in 1896 he founded the periodical Obozreniye psikhiatrii, nevropatologii, i eksperimental’noi psikhologii (“Review of Psychiatry, Neuropathology and Experimental Psychology”), the first periodical to contain the term “experimental psychology” in its title. In 1904, he advocated “objective psychology” as a separate discipline. In 1912 he called it “psychoreflexology” and in 1917 simply “reflexology.”

Bekhterev was born in a small village near Viatka (now Kirov). He was graduated with high honors from the St. Petersburg Military Medical Academy at the youthful age of 21. By age 27, the number of his scientific publications amounted to 40 and he was appointed professor of psychiatry at the University of Kazan, both extraordinary achievements. He began his duties at Kazan in 1886, after spending a year and a half abroad studying with the neurologists P. Flechsig and Westphal, the psychologist Wundt, and the psychiatrist Charcot, and publishing all the while. (In 1893 he left Kazan for a professorship at his alma mater.) His bibliography, in Russian, contains 982 entries, 14 of which are books over 200 pages long. Most of his writings have been translated, either by himself or by others, into German or French, and often into both. His two classic compendious textbooks of neurology, the two-volume “Conduction Pathways of Brain and Spinal Cord” (1896–1898) and the seven-volume “Fundamentals of Brain Functions” (1903–1907), as well as his 660-page “Objective Psychology” (1907–1910) and 544-page General Principles of Human Reflexology (1917) are available in both languages. Only the last book is available in English.

Both Bekhterev and Pavlov preceded American behaviorists, notably J. B. Watson, in the formulation of principles of objective psychology. These principles centered, in each case, on the objectification of psychology’s age-old main explanatory principle of association. Pavlov effected this objectification through pairing neutral sensory stimuli with feeding and thereby producing salivation in response to the stimuli. Bekhterev brought it about through the pairing of such stimuli with electric shock and a consequent withdrawal in response to them. Pavlov preceded Bekhterev by one year, 1903 versus 1904, in the enunciation of objective principles and by four years, 1904 versus 1908, in the laboratory demonstration of the operation of what Pavlov called “conditioned reflexes” and Bekhterev “association reflexes.” Watson’s behaviorism, as first promulgated in 1913 in the article “Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It,” gave no evidence that he was cognizant of the Russians’ prior work and views. However, after having read the German and French translations that appeared in 1913 of Bekhterev’s “Objective Psychology” and also some of Pavlov’s articles (Pavlov’s first book in the field appeared only in 1923), Watson incorporated the Russians’ empirical findings into his system; indeed, he based his system on what they had started. His 1915 address as president of the American Psychological Association was entitled “The Place of the Conditioned Reflex in Psychology” (1916). Although Watson used Pavlov’s term “conditioned reflex,” the experiments he reported had been performed according to Bekhterev’s shock technique; and his general systematic theories were also much closer to those of Bekhterev.

Early American behaviorism may thus be said to have been influenced considerably more by Bekhterev than by Pavlov. Bekhterev’s influence may also be seen in two articles appearing in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method: one by F. L. Wells (1916), “Von Bechterew and Übertragung” (Freud’s “transference”) and another by H. C. Brown (1916), “Language and the Association Reflex,” which suggested, respectively, the interpretation of psychoanalysis and of verbal learning and behavior in Bekhterevian terms. Later, however, when Pavlov’s research became more widely known in this country, and particularly when his two books were translated into English in 1927 and 1928, the Bekhterev influence was overshadowed. For not only were the quantity and variety of empirical findings on conditioned or association reflexes several times greater in the Pavlov than in the Bekhterev laboratories, but Pavlov’s theoretical integration of the findings was much more consistent and systematic than that of Bekhterev. Indeed, Bekhterev himself came to use Pavlov’s interpretation, even as Pavlov later introduced Bekhterev’s methods into his laboratories.

In the Soviet Union, too, Bekhterev’s influence was predominant in the first decade after the Revolution. His General Principles of Human Reflexology went through four editions in Russia, the first in 1917, the last in 1928. “Collective Reflexology,” interpreting social behavior in terms of reflexes and association reflexes, appeared in 1921 and was followed by a number of articles on genetic, individual, pathological, industrial, comparative, “zoo-,” and other reflexologies. Indeed, for a while it looked as if reflexology would wholly supplant psychology in the Soviet Union. Beginning with the 1930s, however, reflexology lost ground and finally disappeared in favor of Pavlov’s “higher nervous activity,” on the one hand, and an independent reformulation of traditional psychology, on the other. A significant reason for reflexology’s decline was what Soviet ideologists call Bekhterev’s vulgarmechanistic interpretation of both society and philosophy.

Gregory Razran

[For discussions of the subsequent development of Bekhterev’s ideas, seeNervous system, article on thestructure and function of the brain; Learning, articles onclassical conditioning, reinforcement. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofPavlovandWatson.]


1896–1898 Provodiashchie puti spinnogo i golovnogo mozga (Conduction Pathways of the Brain and Spinal Cord). 2 vols. St. Petersburg (Russia): Ricker. → Translated into French as Les voies de conduction du cerveau et de la moelle, 1900.

1903–1907 Osnovy ucheniia o funktsiakh mozga (Fundamentals of Brain Functions). 7 vols. St. Petersburg (Russia). → Translated into German as Die Funktionen der Nervencentra, 3 vols., 1908–1911; translated into French as Les fonctions nerveuses, 2 vols., 1909–1910.

1907–1910 Obiektivnaia psikhologiia (Objective Psychology). St. Petersburg (Russia). → Translated into German as Objektive Psychologie; oder Psychoreflexologie, 1913; translated into French as La psychologie objective, 1913.

(1917) 1933 General Principles of Human Reflexology. London: Jarrolds; New York: International Publishers.

1921 Kollektivnaia refleksologiia (Collective Reflexology). Petrograd (Russia): Kolos. → Translated into German as Die kollektive Reflexologie, 1928; translated into French as La reflexologie collective, 1957.

1954 Izbrannye proizvedeniia (Selected Works). Moscow: Medgiz.


Brown, H. C. 1916 Language and the Association Reflex. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method 13:645–648.

Watson, John B. 1913 Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review 20:158–177.

Watson, John B. 1916 The Place of the Conditioned Reflex in Psychology. Psychological Review 23:89–116.

Wells, F. L. 1916 Von Bechterew and Übertragung. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method 13:354–356.