Image: Five dogs undergoing experiments on gastric secretion in the Physiology Department, Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine, St Petersburg. Photograph, 1904. Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

By Matt Adams

Animals have always played an integral part in our culture and society, and as academics we are still getting to grips with the richly varied histories of animals and us. In the last few years my research and writing has focused on human-animal and multispecies encounters across settings ranging from ‘lookering’ (volunteer shepherding) on the urban fringes of the South Downs, to Indigenous understandings of whale strandings and forest health Aotearoa New Zealand. In October 2022 I will be embarking on an 18-month Arts and Humanities Research Council Research (AHRC) Development and Engagement Fellowship to explore animal histories and human-animal relations at the heart of the history of psychology and science. My main focus will be Ivan Pavlov’s (1849-1936) famous experiments with dogs.

We all have at least a vague sense of Pavlov’s discovery of ‘classical conditioning’. This is one of the most well-known ideas in the history of psychology, a deceptively simple one that can be summarised as follows. Dogs salivating in response to the presentation of food is an automatic reflex response. Pair that presentation with an unrelated ‘stimulus’ – a sound, sight, smell – regularly and the dog will eventually develop the same automatic physiological response to the unrelated stimulus alone. This apparently simple finding was the basis for a profoundly mechanistic understanding of how we learn, and for a school of thought in psychology more generally – behaviourism – that was subsequently applied to all aspects of human conduct and experience.

Taking place during a period when experimental psychology was just emerging, Pavlov’s experiments were heralded as a success story in the application of the scientific method to problems of human behaviour and consciousness, helping revolutionise the popular image of psychology and its status as a science. Pavlov eventually became a powerful symbol of Soviet progress and a leading proponent of science globally, attracting widespread fame and celebrity in his own lifetime. Today, he remains one of the most-cited psychologists of all time, and an ever-present figure in popular and teaching texts.

We are tempted to come away from this scene with a sense of orderliness and rigour – carefully controlled experiments in which docile experimental animals obligingly produced desired responses. Those animals are otherwise interchangeable, mostly invisible conduits for eliciting universal laws of behaviour.  Yet when I started to dig a little deeper, a fascinating portrait emerges of their lives and experiences, as they are closely intertwined with Pavlov’s career, his co-workers, and technological and scientific developments, as they intersect with wider social, cultural and political transformations shaping St Petersburg, Russia and the world. The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dogs that passed through Pavlov’s laboratories were subjected to an array of often bizarre and brutal experiments, but were also named, developed bonds with assigned co-workers, and were often lively and unpredictable characters. Public pronouncements, media coverage and official results masked violence, secrets and intrigue and dramatic changes in fortune throughout a tumultuous period of history.

I am convinced that there are all the elements here of an important and fascinating narrative, with the lives of experimental animals in the spotlight. For the duration of the Fellowship I will be working with arts-based and visual methods to bring the story to life for both academic and non-academic audiences, and as a powerful way of representing and communicating animal experiences. Following an initial period of scholarship, analysing Pavlov-related biographies, photographic archives, museum and tourist sites, and contemporaneous newsprint coverage, my main focus will be the collaborative making of two artefacts in parallel. Working with a professional illustrator, story editor and publisher, I will produce a graphic novel – storytelling combining text and sequential art – focusing on Pavlov’s life and work and, vitally, the central role of experimental animals in the many twists and turns of a remarkably eventful period. I am a big fan of this medium, which has really flourished culturally and critically in recent years covering countless topics across fiction and non-fiction genres. It really makes sense to me in this context – illustration combined with text can uniquely depict the immediacy of animal experience and capacities for emotion, thinking, interaction and sociality with nuance, as well as conveying individual character, a key element of effective storytelling.

The second artefact will be a diorama (miniature three-dimensional scale models) based exhibition representing Pavlov’s St Petersburg laboratory complex, recreating key scenes and settings spanning 50+ years. We will take a playful and subversive approach to this perennially popular, familiar but slightly uncanny medium. Through a process of collaborative making we will construct these spaces as experimental ‘assemblages’, incorporating dogs, their bodily fluids (gastric juice, saliva), surgical appendages; lab equipment and machinery (experimenter booths and stands, harnesses, restraining and feeding devices, measuring and recording devices, stimuli metronomes, electric shocks, light and sound projections) and people (co-workers, students, handlers, visitors, auxiliary staff). Working collaboratively with technical project manager and model maker in the University of Brighton’s School of Art and Media, Jim Wilson, as well as a digital design agency and supporting technicians, my intention is to create an entertaining, unsettling and instructive world in miniature, brimming with multiple interacting elements, enhanced by text and audio guides.

As a whole, my ambition for the project and its outcomes is to encourage audiences to reflect on the role of experimental animals and to question their representation (or lack of it) in scientific, student and popular texts. Following the emergence of interdisciplinary fields such as Critical Animal Studies, Human-Animal Studies and the posthumanities, I hope to further provoke ethical and political questions about the role of animals in society and culture. More generally, it is anticipated that the graphic novel and the diorama-based exhibition, which will both exist in physical and digital formats, will invite a wider public into these debates, at a time of resurgent cultural interest in animal intelligence, welfare, rights and connectedness.

Matt Adams is a Principal Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Brighton, and a member of the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics (SECP). He is the author of Anthropocene Psychology: Being Human in a More-than-Human World (2020, Routledge).