Pavlov’s dogs and all that
Whenever I approach my house, I am overtaken by an urge to pee. I insert my key into the lock and have to twist my legs together – entirely ridiculous as quite often there should be no such need. Into the hallway, kick off shoes, dump my rucksack and after setting yet another new record in the eight metre dash I reach the haven of the bathroom. This never happens if I walk over to a friend’s house. It only happens at home. It’s as if my entire body sort of relaxes into primitive needs, a loud ”to the loo, to the loo” ringing in my head. Very strange.
“I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs,” I tell my husband.
“Really? You don’t drool that often, honey,” he replies (He has a knack with words, doesn’t he?)
“With this toilet thing,” I clarify.
“Aah.” His mouth twitches. “So you’re conditioned to void your bladder upon seeing your home, you mean?”
“Yupp.” I sigh.
It’s not only when coming home, this also happens when I turn off the bedside lamp. I can hear you laughing, but these are facts, dear people. After brushing my teeth, washing my face (and applying liberal amounts of anti-wrinkle cream in the vain hope that … well, you know…) I generally spend an agreeable half-hour reading in bed. But no sooner do I mark my place and turn off the light but my bladder starts to emit loud, clanking alarms. Impossible. I’ve done my things and no way do I want to leave my warm bed for a figment of my imagination. Ha. I always lose this contest of wills, and after five minutes of fidgeting I’m off for one last tinkle.
“Maybe there’s an electrical connection between your lamp and your organs,” my husband laughs.
“Yeah, that sounds really probable,” I snort. “I’m telling you, it’s a learnt behaviour, like …”
“I know, I know, Pavlov’s dogs.”
Leaving aside this rather banal example, a lot of what we do and say is a preconditioned response to a certain situation. We bump into someone, we automatically say “oh, excuse me.” (Some don’t; jerks!) We see an old lady on the bus and we rise and offer her our seat. (“Why are you offering me your seat?” demands said old lady. “Do I look infirm to you? Do I look OLD?”. Hmm; no good reply to that one, and so what do we do, sit down again? Nope, because in the meantime a young something has slid down to sit, gigantic feet shod in trainers tapping the beat of whatever music is pounding through his head.)
Some of us will raise our hands if we want to ask a question at a conference – yet another example of preconditioning – others will blurt out what they want to say without degrading themselves to schoolchildren again. Our societies work on the assumption that certain norms are valid for all of us. We don’t kill each other, we shouldn’t steal, we should be capable of queuing (very necessary skill in some countries, while in others it’s a waste of time as the locals never, ever queue), we follow preset rules in traffic, we take lunch in roughly the same window of time, we know instinctively (of course not, our mothers taught us) that we should NOT pick our nose in public – well, never really.
Sometimes behavioural patterns have more to do with discomfort than conditioning. (On the other hand, what better way to condition someone than to subject them to discomfort?) I have an acute fear of syringes. While I can survive a vaccination through a combination of willpower, closed eyes and nails sunk so hard into my palm they leave miniature red half-moons behind, I go into a panic when someone requires a blood sample – you know, the type they take from the elbow crease. I know why; in my tender youth I was subjected to a nurse who jabbed and jabbed with no success whatsoever. She sweated, I sweated, and the four vials that were to be filled remained empty. Nowadays I tell whoever is in charge of manning the syringe that I hate this procedure. Reactions vary …
“Seriously?” (A little snicker) “You’re telling me you have a problem with this?” (Syringe waved in the air)
“Yes.” (I try to not look at the very long needle)
“Oh come on! You’ve …” (she peers at her computer) “… got four kids!”
What does that have to do with anything???
Alternatively, I am urged to lie down, to think of something nice and soothing such as beech leaves in spring (Que? I’m to think of foliage when someone is approaching me with a needle?) It doesn’t help, my veins contract, my heart rate doubles and sweat dews my temples. Afterwards I stagger outside, anxious to escape this chamber of torture ASAP.
“It’s strange, isn’t it,” my husband says, “that you that have all these pre conditioning issues. I don’t have any.”
Huh. Know thyself and all that …The moment he sits down in the sofa, his hand closes round the remote control to the TV. He can’t pass a box of matches without pulling out a match to do some discreet probing of his ears, and then there’s all that typical male conditioning, like how he always makes a beeline for the driver’s seat when we’re making for the car.
All of us have them, a set of behavioral patterns that are so ingrained they are impossible to break. We don’t stick our knife in our mouths, we don’t tell a person to his face what a sleazy scumbag he is (but maybe we should, instead of whispering behind his back), some of us always take a turn round the car when we retrieve it in the parking lot – you know, to make sure it’s undamaged – others have a whole set of rituals to be performed prior to boarding a plane. If we pass a police car, we ease off on the accelerator – even if we’re not speeding – we know better than to say “good riddance” if someone has died, no matter how obnoxious, and most of us were taught to extend our hand when being introduced to a new person. It is somewhat disconcerting if this new person just looks at your hand, keeping his own clasped behind his back. Is this a way of signalling inequality? Or is the person just scared of germs? Whatever the case, by NOT offering us his hand, the person has made an indelible impression on us. “Oh yes; that’s the bloke who wouldn’t shake hands.”
Pavlov’s dogs were trained to equate a ringing bell with food, and over time it sufficed to ring the bell to make them salivate. Food is something all of us, whether humans or beasts, need, so such primitive reactions are probably easily induced in all of us. But all the rest of the stuff we do, from sweeping together the crumbs on the table, to how we greet each other, well, it’s the consequence of years and years of upbringing. One man once said to me that raising children was to be “a living, walking negation for like eighteen years. And then suddenly one day you look at your offspring and realise they’ve become adults – and eerily like yourself.”
It made me laugh. I mean, at one time or other I think all of us have said “I will never become like my parents,” and yet we don’t stand a chance in hell. It’s like my daughter once wrote: “When I was younger I made up my mind never to become like my mother. I was going to be tougher, cooler, more awesome than she was. Now I’m beginning to see the signs that I’ve failed; I study Finance (just like my mother did) I find Accounting interesting (just like my mother) and I mainly drink tea (just like my mother) I might as well give up.” I guess her daughter will, at one point or another, have a similar epiphany.
Some things do change. My grandmother didn’t work after she’d married, she ran the household. My mother worked AND ran the household. I work and SHARE the running of the household with my husband. That’s progress, although I have no idea how that ties back to dear old Pavlov and his dogs. Maybe we’re working to different bells these days!