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Pavlovian Sleight-of-Words

This is is the process of de-conditioning/re-conditioning that might come in handy with the problem of overeating. That's right, dear reader, I am still writing about mindless eating and how to make it mindful.
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As a preface, let me note in advance, that this reading does not conform to most expectations. It will seem at times tangential and pointless but, I assure you, it builds a network of semantic associations that is designed to serve as a supportive net of words. Mind is only as healthy as the words that support it.

Mind, just like stomach, is subject to conditioning and programming. Ivan Pavlov, the first psychologist to be awarded a Nobel prize for the theory of Classical Conditioning in 1904, understood that the mind (just like body) imprints onto environmental stimuli like an orphan duckling and that the environment always works to enslave the mind in return. Pavlov, a Russian who knew his Slavic history, understood the stimulus-response dynamics of slavery. Let us break for a bit of etymological safari to clarify the sentence above.

Slave (n). circa 1290, "person who is the property of another," from O.Fr. esclave, from M.L. Sclavus "slave" (cf. It. schiavo, Fr. esclave, Sp. esclavo), originally "Slav," so called because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples.

(continue the mind-flow)

Pavlov, a Slav-descendant of slaves, whose scientific career spanned from pre-Soviet Russia into the era of Stalinist purges, did not allow himself to be turned into a propaganda dog of cultural conditioning. Instead he openly barked on the fast-growing sequoia of Stalinist dictatorship. While treasured by Lenin, Pavlov was only being tolerated by Lenin's successor, Stalin, but he refused to be conditioned and to have his mind enslaved. Pavlov, ever a free-mind responsible for his own de-programming and re-programming, wrote appeal-letters to no one less than Stalin, in what would have been construed, by the standards of that time, as nothing less than a daring tone. He knew how not to be a robot. Let us break for another bit of etymological safari to clarify the sentence above.

Robot (n). 1923, from Eng. translation of 1920 play "R.U.R." ("Rossum's Universal Robots"), by Karel Capek (1890-1938), from Czech robotnik "slave," from robota "forced labor, drudgery," from robotiti "to work, drudge," from an Old Czech source akin to Old Church Slavonic rabota "servitude," from rabu "slave."

(continue mind-flow)

The Soviets (just like Nazis) knew how to build a reflex. We did send up a couple of well-trained Pavlov-dogs into space - no small feat! We knew how to tow a party-line, but, as descendants of slaves, we also knew how to rebel against mind-numbing. The tradition of Soviet dissidence counts among its fallen hundreds of thousands of minds that dared not to be conditioned. During the Gulag days of the USSR, minds that refused to become robots became slaves in the Gulag. In the post-Gulag days, minds that refused to be conditioned turned off the TV and had heated debates about what's what in the privacy of Russian kitchens. Which brings me full-circle back to Pavlov's classical conditioning. But, as you guessed, let us break for yet another bit of etymological safari.

Paul (n.). masc. proper name, from L. Paulum (nom. Paulus), literally "small" (see paucity). Cf. O.Fr. Pol, It. Paolo, Sp. Pablo, Rus. Pavel

(continue mind-flow)

Pavlov, semantically a son of "small," "is a pillar of modern psychology and his contribution to this discipline is, probably larger than the contribution of any other person with the exception of Freud" (as Rubin Ardila noted in American Psychologsit in1969). I, just another English-speaking Russian with a name "Pavel," born in 1969, the year of American moon-landing, am positioned to make a much smaller difference, but one that, I believe, might be of personal interest to you. As you have noticed from the arguably strange format of this writing, there is a certain kind of circularity to it: I tell you something, I get your mind-flow going making new associations between familiar words that, hopefully, lead to, not exactly epiphanies, but minor yet possibly useful insights. And then bam! We pause for some silly etymological safari and look into the history of words. We break the mind-flow, awaken a bit, and then continue the mind-flow. What's happening here is designed to parallel the process of de-conditioning/re-conditioning that just might come in handy with the problem of overeating. That's right, my dear reader, I am still writing about mindless eating and how to make it mindful. You see, mindless eating is a classic conditioned reflex: for example, if you eat in front of TV, then after a while, TV and eating become associated with each other, so that when you turn on the TV, you automatically turn on your appetite and vice versa, when you sit down to eat, you turn on your appetite for TV. The result is - you guessed it - mindless programming and conditioning of the mind to go blank when you open your mouth. Let us break for one final etymology safari before we summarize all this tangential sleight-of-words into practical advice.

Television (n). formed in English or borrowed from Fr. télévision, from tele- + vision. The word "tele" stems from Greek tele- which means "far, far off." The word "vision" stems from videre "to see," from Proto-Indo-European base weid- which means "to know, to see" (e.g. Sankrit veda "I know").

(continue mind-flow)

As you see, the word "television" basically means "seeing what is not here," i.e. not seeing and not knowing what is here and now right in front of you. The Soviet way of de-programming from cultural programming was to come home, boil a few potatoes, warm up yesterday's cutlets and/or borsch, to maybe pour yourself a shot-glass of vodka or, for minors, a glass mug of kvas, and to talk about the Orwellian nonsense that is happening outside the family's kitchen, about where to find a pair of American denim jeans that fade on knees so as to not remain on slave-knees of Soviet propaganda. I'm stereotyping my own people, of course, but I don't think they are that ego-frail to mind. In a nutshell, the Soviets kept themselves awake... over eating... by turning off the official TV and tuning in to each other and their own selves. The American way, unfortunately, is in just the opposite direction: the land of the free has been enslaved by TV, by watching what is not here and by mindlessly ignoring what is in front of one's own nose. American mind, for decades, is being programmed to be an eating zombie. Americans aren't to blame: after all it was another Russian scientist, Boris Rosing, who invented the cathode ray tube in 1907 and gave the world a slave-driver in each living room.

So, here's my small, name-proportionate, attempt at waking up the sleeping/overeating beauty of America: make a small change, kill the TV-eating reflex. How? For starters, eat in the kitchen, not in the living room. Reclaim your eating moments one meal a time: small changes, you know, add up to new reflexes.

Break the pattern to restore your mind-flow. Program the following noun for yourself:

Self (n). - a slave to eating or a master of eating?

Make a choice of what to serve yourself: a sense of self-presence or another portion of mindlessness. Break out of your associative chains! Is it doable? Heck, you guys put a man on the moon...


Mindful Eating Tracker
(workshops in PA, MD, NJ, VA in April-May 2010)


Ruben Ardila, Nobel Prizes for Psychologists, American Psychologists, 1969, 24, pp. 604-605