Thursday, August 29, 2013

Pavlov's iPhone

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology & Medicine in 1904. Among other discoveries, he observed in his experiments that dogs salivate before anticipated food is actually in their mouths being masticated. He called this "psychic secretion" and this observation had such a ripple effect that his name has been immortalized in the lexicon, i.e. "When I pass a boulangerie I salivate like one of Pavlovs' dogs." Thanks to this psychic phenomenon, a baguette will always transform itself into a fold of fat around my middle, as the whole point is that an ingrained association in the subconscious mind will trigger an overt response or action.

Pavlov's findings were embraced by generations of experiment-prone psychologists, including two therapists who were married and put their young daughter Lucy in a cage, demanding that she salivate before being let out to chow down. They were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the 1960's when the miraculously full grown Lucy related this story to me, face to face, without drooling.

Pavlov's findings are not exclusive to food alone. It can apply to any one of the five senses, where a previous conditioned association can create a current, palpable feeling. When I was 13 and got kissed for the first time by my boyfriend Jeff after he had downed a pint of Scotch, my first thought was, "He smells like Grandpa did in the morning."
It seems that Grandpa was a serious alcoholic, but as a child of innocence my tiny sense buds registered it simply as his smell. Only in my teen years did this quasi-romantic olfactory information give me insight into Grandpa's not so unique odor.

Which brings me to the subject of the iPhone and its multitude of ring choices. For the last few years I have had the same ring for everyone who calls, caring not to discriminate and wanting to test my psychic abilities before reaching the phone. Would it be my sister? My daughter? One of my sons? My business partner? A desperate person who couldn't get me on the landline? For sure it wouldn't be my husband, because he assumes that our mind to mind connection has already communicated the necessary data, although to be fair he does call daily when he is more than 10,000 miles away on a different continent.

Today I resolve to designate a unique ring for each of the most frequent callers in my life, simply because of certain associations that have been built up over time. The ever-anxious mother, I certainly won't assign the Alarm ringtone to any of my children's phone numbers. Having survived their teenage years, my Pavlovian conditioning is still in force when I see their names showing up my screen. So for them I choose upbeat tones that remind me of their best and brightest qualities. For my sister, a Bach masterpiece that reminds me of the household in which we grew up; our parents were closet concertizers that chose safe, money-back guaranteed occupations over their real passion, chamber music. My current business partner on a money-starved documentary gets the ring tone of a smash TV series that still rakes in royalties the world over, 50 years after the fact. And for my beloved, the song "Happy," even if he is only on another continent away from me twice a year.

We shall see how the experiment goes, and if true to Pavlov, maybe my new ringtones will help to change some of my past stale thought patterns...that is if any of the person's mentioned in this blog ever call me again after reading it.

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