Sechenov, Ivan M.

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Sechenov, Ivan M.



Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov (1829–1905), Russian physiologist, neurologist, and founder of objective physiological psychology, was born the son of a small landowner in the village of Tyoply Stan (now Sechenovo) in Simbirsk Province (now Arzamas Region). Taught first by private tutors, he mastered German and French in addition to Russian. At 14 he entered the St. Petersburg Military Engineering School. He served from 1848 to 1850 as a field engineer in a Kiev brigade. Then he resigned his military commission and from 1850 to 1856 studied medicine at the University of Moscow. He spent the next three and a half years doing postgraduate research and studying physiology, chemistry, and physics at Berlin, Heidelberg, Leipzig, and Vienna. Among his teachers were Johannes Müller, Emil DuBois-Reymond, Hermann von Helmholtz, Carl F. W. Ludwig, Robert W. Bunsen, and Heinrich Magnus.

Sechenov returned to Russia in 1860 to become at first adjunct and then full professor of physiology in the St. Petersburg Medico-Surgical Academy. Ten years later he resigned from that institution, giving as the reason, according to his Autobiographical Notes (1907), his distaste for its administrative policy and citing specifically the veto of his proposal to appoint Ilya I. Mechnikov to a vacant chair. (Mechnikov presumably was turned down because he was a Jew; later, in 1908, he won the Nobel prize.) For a while, Sechenov was without a professorial position and worked in the chemistry laboratory of his friend Dmitri Mendeleev, but he was soon appointed professor of physiology at the University of Odessa. He left that university in 1876 for the University of St. Petersburg and stayed there until 1888, when he resigned—alienated again by the academic atmosphere of St. Petersburg—and in 1889 moved finally to the University of Moscow.

In 1862 Sechenov took a year’s leave to do experimental work in the laboratory of Claude Bernard at the College de France. There he discovered “central inhibition,” namely, that spinal reflex movement may be “inhibited”—diminished or stopped—by the stimulation of higher-neural inhibitory centers. Further experimentation led to the important conception of higher-neural action as an interplay of excitation and inhibition. [SeeNERVOUS SYSTEM, article onSTRUCTURE AND FUNCTION OF THE BRAIN.] This view was taken over wholly by Pavlov and more recently has won increasing acceptance as a result of direct microelectric neural probing. Sechenov’s report on inhibition was published in German and French (1863a).

Sechenov’s physiological contributions soon became part of Western science. This is not true of his psychological essays—“Reflexes of the Brain” (1863b), “Who Must Investigate the Problems of Psychology, and How” (1873a), “Elements of Thought” (1878), and a number of others—which presaged the systems of psychology of Pavlov and Bekhterev and radically affected the world views not only of such distinguished men of science as Mendeleev, Mechnikov, Vladimir O. Kovalevskii, and Arkadii K. Timiriazev but also of such widely known men of letters as Turgenev, Gorki, and Tolstoi. Translated in part into French in 1884 and into English only in 1935, the radical Sechenov system of psychology was for years almost unknown outside Russia and had no influence whatever on Western and American thought in the field, from Wundt through James to Watson and the neobehaviorists. Only in 1950, in the second edition of Boring’s A History of Experimental Psychology (1929), is Sechenov first mentioned in English in any significant sense. Recently, in A History of Psychology, by Esper (1964), a nine-page passage is devoted to his contributions, and it is asserted that Sechenov “wrote the first ‘objective’ psychology and became the first .’behaviorist.’ of modern times” (p. 324).

Briefly stated, Sechenov’s psychological system rests on five interrelated theses:

(1) A consistent physical monism: Sechenov held that psychology will become a science only insofar as it studies the muscular and neural action of the psyche. He asserted that no “conceivable demarcation [from a scientific point of view] can be found between obvious somatic, i.e., bodily, nervous acts and unmistakable psychical phenomena” (1873fc, p. 151).

(2) Physiological and psychical reactions are both considered to be reflex actions: in Sechenov’s words, “All movements bearing the name of voluntary in physiology are reflex in a strict sense”([1907] 1965, p. 109), and a thought “is the first two-thirds of a psychical reflex” ([1863b] 1935,p. 321).

(3) The reflex as the mechanism of association: “An association is,” according to Sechenov, “an uninterrupted series of contacts of the end of every preceding reflex with the beginning of the following one” (ibid., p. 312). The actual experience of an event and the memory of it are both represented by identical psychical reflexes but are evoked by different stimuli.

(4) The psychic as associative in genesis and central neural in mediation: perception and idease merge from associations of reflexes and their integration in the sensory sphere; both association and integration are mediated by the central nervous system.

(5) A radical environmentalism: the largest part of thoughts and ideas, 999 parts out of 1,000, as Sechenov would have it, derives from training, and only a minimal part is due to heredity.

Of these five theses, the first and last do, of course, have roots in earlier Western thought; the middle three are essentially original contributions by Sechenov.

Gregory Razran

[see also the biographies ofBekhterev and Pavlov.]


1863a Physiologische Studien über die Hemmungs mechanismen für die Reflexthdätigkeit des Rückenmarksim Gehirne des Frosches. Berlin: Hirschwald. → Also published as “Études physiologiques sur les centres modérateurs des mouvements réflexes dans le cerveau des grenouilles” in Volume 19 of the Annales des sciences naturelles.

(1863b) 1935 Reflexes of the Brain. Pages 263–336 in Ivan M. Sechenov, Selected Works. Moscow: State Publishing House for Biological and Medical Literature. → First published as “Refleksi golovnogo mozga” in Volume 3 of the journal Meditsinskii vestnik.

(1873a) 1935 Who Must Investigate the Problems of Psychology, and How. Pages 337–391 in Ivan M. Sechenov, Selected Works. Moscow: State Publishing House for Biological and Medical Literature. → First published as Komu i kak razrabatyvat.’ psikhologiiu?

1873b Psikhologicheskie etudy (Psychological Studies). St. Petersburg: Sushchinskii.

(1878) 1935 Elements of Thought. Pages 401–498 in Ivan M. Sechenov, Selected Works. Moscow: State Publishing House for Biological and Medical Literature. → First published as “Elementy mysli” in the journal Vestnik evropy.

(1907) 1965 Autobiographical Notes. Washington: American Institute of Biological Sciences. → First published posthumously as Avtobiograficheskie zapiski.

Izbrannye filosofskie i psikhologicheskie proizvedeniia (Selected Physiological and Psychological Works). Moscow: Akademiia Nauk SSSR, 1947.

Selected Works. Moscow: State Publishing House for Biological and Medical Literature, 1935.


Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton. → See especially pages 635–636 on I. M. Sechenov.

Budilova, E. A. 1954 Uchenie I. M. Sechenova ob oshchushchenii i myshlenii (Sechenov’s Views of Sensations and Thinking). Moscow: Akademiia Nauk Sssr.

Esper, Ervin A. 1964 A History of Psychology. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Iaroshevskh, M. G. 1961 Problema determinizma v psikhofiziologii Xix veka (The Problem of Determinism in the Psychology of the 19th Century). Dushanbe (U.S.S.R.): Dushanbinskii Gosudarstvennyi Pedagogicheskii Institut.

Razran, Gregory 1965 Russian Physiologists.’ Psychology and American Experimental Psychology: A Historical and a Systematic Collation and a Look Into the Future. Psychological Bulletin 63, no. 1:42–64.

Shaternikov, M. N. 1935 The Life of I. M. Sechenov. Pages ix-xxxvi in Ivan M. Sechenov, Selected Works. Moscow: State Publishing House for Biological and Medical Literature.