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Vladimir Bekhterev

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"Only two know the mystery of brain structure and organization: God and Bekhterev"- Bekhterev[1]

Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev (Bechterev) (Владимир Михайлович Бехтерев; January 20, 1857 – December 24, 1927 was a Russian Neurologist and the Father of Objective Psychology. He is best known for noting the role of the hippocampus in memory, his study of reflexes, and Bekhterev’s Disease. Moreover, he is known for his competition with Ivan Pavlov regarding the study of conditioned reflexes.

Early life

Vladimir Bekhterev was born in Sorali, a village in the Viatka Territory of Russia[2]. Bekhterev's chilhood was not without difficulty. For instance, his father, a low ranking government official, died when he was young. While his childhood was not simple, Bekhterev did have the opportunity to attend Vyataka gymnasium in 1867, one of the oldest schools in Russia as well as the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg in 1873[3]. He also attended the Medical and Surgery Academy of St. Petersburg where he studied under J.P. Merzejewsky [4]. It was here where Bekhterev's interest in the discipline neuropathology and psychiatry was first sparked[5].

Russia went to war with the Ottoman Empire in 1877. Bekhterev took time off from his studies in order to help the war effort by volunteering with an ambulance detachment. After the war, he returned to school. While attending school, Bekhterev worked as a junior doctor in the clinic of mental and nervous diseases at the Institutes of Medic’s Improvement. Here he began performing his experimental work. In 1878, Bekhterev graduated from the Medical and Surgery Academy of St. Petersburg with a degree similar to a Bachelor of Medicine[6]. After graduating, Bekhterev worked at the Psychiatric Clinic in St. Petersburg. where he was inspired to begin studying the anatomy and physiology of the brain, the area in which he would later make some of his most notable contributions[7]. It was also during this time that Bekhterev married Natalya Bazilevskaya[8].

In 1880, Bekhterev began publishing his research. One of his earlier works described Russian social issues. In this paper, he wrote essays describing the individual characteristics of the Votyaks (Udmurts), a group of people under Russian rule who live in the Republic of Udmurita between the rivers Vyatka and Kama[9]. Then in April 4, 1881, Bekhterev successfully defended his doctoral thesis, "Clinical studies of temperature in some forms of mental disorders," and received his doctorate from the Medical and Surgical Academy of St. Petersburg. This doctorate allowed Bekhterev to become a "privant-docent" or associate professor, where he lectured on the diagnostics of nervous diseases [10].

Contribution to Neurology

Throughout his career, Bekhterev conducted a large amount of research which greatly contributed to the current understanding of the brain. This research was described in works such as The Conduction Paths in the Brain and Spinal Cord, written in 1882, followed by a second edition written in 1896. In 1884 he published 58 scientific works about the functions of the brain. His extensive research led to an 18 month travel scholarship awarded to study and conduct research in both Germany and Paris[11]. On this trip he worked with and learned from a variety of notable contributors the field of science such as Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), Paul Emil Flechsig (1847–1929), Theodor Meynert (1833–1892), Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal (1833–1890), Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896), and Jean Martin Charcot (1825–1893)[12]. Bekhterev's scholarship lasted until September 1885, after which, he returned to Russia and worked as the head of the Psychiatry Department at the University of Kazan until 1893[13].

During his time at the University of Kazan, Bekhterev made some of his greatest contributions to neurological science. He established the first laboratory of experimental psychology in Russia in 1886 to study the nervous system and the structures of the brain. As a result of his research, Bekhterev believed that there were zones within the brain and each of these zones had a specific function. Moreover, because nervous disorders and mental disorders usually occur in conjunction with each other, he believed that there was no definite distinction between these disorders[14]. When conducting research at the University of Kazan, Bekhterev also identified Ankylosing Spondylitis or Bekhterev’s disease (more frequently spelled in English as Bechterew’s disease, following the German transliteration system for Russian names), a degenerative arthritis of the spine. As a result of his groundbreaking research, in 1891, Bekhterev was granted permission by the Kazan government to open and become the chairman of the Neurology Science Society[15].

In 1893, Bekhterev left the University of Kazan to return to St. Petersburg Military Medical Academy to become the head to the Department of Nervous and Mental Diseases. Here he continued his contribution to neurological research by organizing the first Russian neurosurgical operating room to specialize in neurosurgery. While Bekhterev never performed any surgeries himself, he was highly involved in the diagnostics of neurological diseases, eventually earning him the Full State Chancellor Title in 1894[16].

Between 1894 and 1905 Bekhterev was very busy with his research. He completed between 14 and 24 scientific works per year and founded Nevrologichesky Vestnik (Neurology Weekly) in 1896, the first Russian journal on nervous disease[17]. Eventually, his hard work earned him the Baire’s Prize, awarded in December 1900, for the two volumes of his writing “Pathways of brain and bone marrow” in which he noted the role that the hippocampus plays in memory. Bekhterev's other writings include “Mind and Life,” a book written in 1902, which contained multiple volumes including “Foundations for Brain Functions Theory” written in 1903. “Foundations for Brain Functions Theory” described Bekhterev's views on the functions of the parts of the brain and the nervous system. It also suggested the Energetic Inhibition Theory which describes automatic responses (reflexes). This theory claims that there is an active energy in the brain which moves towards a center, and when this happens, the other parts of the brain are left in an inhibited state[18]. Bekhterev's research on associated responses would become highly connected with the important area of psychology called Behaviorism. It also led to a long-standing rivalry with Ivan Pavlov, described in further detail below.

Objective Psychology

Between 1907 anx 1910, Bekhterev also published a 3-volume book called “Objective Psychology.” This book was the first step in establishing the field of Objective Psychology, which is based on the principle that all behavior can be explained by objectively studying reflexes[19]. Therefore behavior is studied through observable traits. This idea contrasted the more subjective views of psychology such as structuralism, which allowed for the use of tools such as introspection to study inner thoughts about personal experiences[20]

Objective Psychology would later become the basis of Reflexology, Gestalt Psychology, and especially Behaviorism, an area which would later revolutionize the field of psychology and the manner in which the science of psychology is conducted.[21] Without Bekhterev’s beliefs about how to best conduct research, it is possible that these important approaches to psychology may have never been established.

Other Contributions

Bekhterev founded the Psychoneurological Institute at the St. Petersburg State Medical Academy; however, because of the Russian revolution of 1917, he was forced to resign in 1913. In 1918 he was reinstanted as a professor and in fact, became the chairperson the Department of Psychology and Reflexology at the University of Petrograd in St. Petersburg as well as established the Institute of Studying Brain Mental Activities[22].

During his time away from teaching, Bekhterev worked to open an orphanage, complete with both a kindergarten and school, for refugee children from the western regions of Russia. He also participated in creating health services in the "young country" of Russia[23].

Rivalry with Ivan Pavlov

Both Ivan Pavlov and Bekhterev independently developed a theory of conditioned reflexes which describe automatic responses to the environment. What was called association reflex by Bekhterev is called the conditioned reflex by Pavlov, although the two theories are essentially the same. Because John Watson first discovered the salivation research completed by Pavlov, this research was incorporated into Watson’s famous theory of Behaviorism, making Pavlov a house-hold name. While Watson used Pavlov’s research to support his Behaviorist claims, closer inspection shows that in fact, Watson’s teachings are better supported by Bekhterev’s research[24].

Bekhterev was familiar with Pavlov’s work and had multiple criticisms. According to Bekhterev, one of Pavlov’s major research flaws included using a saliva method. He found fault with this method because it could not be easily used on humans. In contrast, Bekhterev's method of studying this association (conditioned) reflex using mild electrical stimulation to examine motor reflexes was able to demonstrate the existence of this reflex in humans. Bekhterev also questioned using acid to encourage saliva from the animals. He felt that this practice may contaminate the results of the experiment. Finally, Bekhterev criticized Pavlov’s method by stating that the secretory reflex is unimportant and unreliable. If the animal is not hungry then food may not elicit the desired response, acting as evidence of the method’s unreliability[25]. Pavlov however was not without his own criticisms of Bekhterev, stating that Bekhterev’s laboratory was poorly controlled[26].


There is a lot of mystery surrounding the death of Bekhterev. It is known for certain that Bekhterev died in 1927, but controversy exists surrounding his death. It is speculated that Joseph Stalin asked for a consultation with Bekhterev. Stalin was in his final struggles for power and was suffering from depression. Bekhterev had consulted with Vladimir Lenin previously which led Stalin to call on him for help. After meeting, Bekhterev diagnosed Stalin with “grave paranoia.” Later that day Bekhterev suddenly died, causing speculation that he was killed by Stalin as revenge for the diagnosis. Moreover, after Bekhterev’s death, Stalin had Bekhterev’s name and all of his works removed from textbooks[27].

His Legacy

While the name Vladimir Bekhterev is largely unknown, his contributions to science and specifically psychology were impressive. Bekhterev was a huge force in the science of neurology; greatly enhancing our knowledge on how the brain works as well as the parts of the brain. For instance, his research on the hippocampus allowed for the understanding of one of the most central portions of the brain vital to our function of memory. Moreover, his influence to psychology was immeasurable. Bekhterev’s works laid the groundwork for the future of psychology. His ideas regarding Objective psychology as well as his views on reflexes were the cornerstone of Behaviorism and as a result, the future of psychology. Although Bekhterev’s name is largely unknown, the repercussions of his findings are certainly essential to the current fields of both psychology and neurology.

Overview of General Findings

Parts of the Brain[28]:

Bekhterev’s Acromial Reflex: a deep muscle reflex

Bekhterev’s Disease: An autoimmune disease characterized by arthritis, inflammation, and eventual immobility of joints

Bekhterev’s Nucleus: The superior nucleus of the vestibular nerve

Bekhterev’s Nystagmus: Nystagmus that develops after the destruction of the canals of the inner ear

Bekhterev’s Pactoralis Reflex: A reflex that extends the Pectoralis major muscle

Bekhterev’s Reflex: Three reflexes described by Bekhterev concerning the eye, face and abdominal muscles

Bekhterev’s Reflex I: Dilatation of the pupil upon exposure to light

Bekhterev’s Reflex II: Scapulohumeral reflex

Bekhterev’s Reflex of Eye: Areflex of the contraction of the M. orbicularis oculi

Bekhterev’s Reflex of Hand: The hand-flexor phenomena

Bekhterev’s Reflex of the Heel: Toe-flexion reflex

Bekhterev-Jacobsohn reflex: A finger flexion reflex which corresponds with the Bekhterev-Mendel foot reflex

Other Accomplishments:

Bekhterev’s Nucleus (Superior vestibular nucleus)[29]

Bekhterev’s Disease: Numbness of the spine[30]

Over 800 publications[31]

Reflexology: objective study of human behavior that studies the relationship between environmental stimuli and overt behavior[32]

Bekhterev’s Mixture: a medicine with a sedative effect.


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  20. Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Sixth Edition. Behaviorism (pp. 394-397). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  21. Brandist, C. (2006). The rise of Soviet sociolinguistics from the ashes of völkerepsychologie. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 42(3), 261-277.
  24. Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Sixth Edition. Behaviorism (pp. 394-397). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  25. Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Sixth Edition. Behaviorism (pp. 394-397). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  32. Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Sixth Edition. Behaviorism (pp. 394-397). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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