The Making of Mind. A R Luria


I BEGAN my career in the first years of the great Russian Revolution. This single, momentous event decisively influenced my life and that of everyone I knew.

In comparing my experiences with those of Western and American psychologists, there is one important difference. Many European and American psychologists possess outstanding personal gifts. Like good scientists anywhere, they have made their share of important discoveries. But most of them have spent their lives in a comparatively quiet, slow-moving environment. Their histories reflect the course of their work as well as the people and events that have shaped them: their parents, teachers, colleagues, and the intellectual issues in which they have participated. Their work as scholars consists of doing research and sometimes moving from university to university.

The difference between us lies in the social and historical factors that influenced us. From the outset it was apparent that I would have little opportunity to pursue the kind of well-ordered, systematic education that serves as the cornerstone for most scientific careers. In its place life offered me the fantastically stimulating atmosphere of an active, rapidly changing society. My entire generation was infused with the energy of revolutionary change – the liberating energy people feel when they are part of a society that is able to make tremendous progress in a very short time.

I was only a youngster of fifteen when the 1917 Revolution broke out. Our family resided in Kazan, an old university town of about 140,000 people on the Volga River, 600 miles east of Moscow. My father was a doctor, specializing in stomach and internal diseases, who taught at the Kazan Medical School. Following the Revolution, he became an influential contributor to Soviet medicine. He established an independent institute for advanced medical studies in Kazan and after several years moved to Moscow where he was vice-director of the Central Institute for Advanced Medical Studies. My family was typical of what in Russia is called “the intelligentsia.” We considered ourselves progressive and had no religious traditions. Although we were sympathetic to the revolutionary movement, we were not directly involved in it.

The stifling restrictions of the tsarist period are difficult for modern people to understand. Prerevolutionary Russian society was comprised of strictly divided classes: workers and peasants, intellectuals (physicians, teachers, and engineers), merchants and businessman, and the gentry (aristocrats and high government officials). The repressive nature of the regime was reflected in the educational system, which was designed to see to it that everyone stayed in his or her “natural"' station in life and nothing changed. To make sure that this was the case, the Ministry of Education ruled that the gymnasium and the schools which prepared students for the gymnasium “shall be freed from the attendance of children of drivers, footmen, cooks, laundrywomen, small traders, and other persons similarly situated, whose children, with the exception perhaps of the exceptionally gifted, should not be encouraged to abandon the social environment to which they belong.”

Of course the revolution changed all this. It broke down the barriers between classes and gave all of us, no matter what our social class, new perspectives and new opportunities. For the first time in Russia people were able to choose their own careers without regard to their social origins.

The Revolution freed us, especially the younger generation, to discuss new ideas, new philosophies and social systems. Neither I nor any of my friends were familiar with Marxism or scientific socialist theory. Our discussions had not gotten beyond the utopian socialist schemes that were in the air in those days. I had no idea of the real causes of the Revolution. But my friends and I immediately threw our whole beings into the new movement because we recognized the opportunities that it offered. My enthusiasm came more from a strong emotional, romantic feeling toward the events of the time than from any deep intellectual appreciation of their social roots.

The content and the style of our lives changed almost immediately. Instead of cautiously groping for a foothold in life, we were suddenly faced with many opportunities for action that went far beyond the confines of our own tiny circle of family and friends. The limits of our restricted, private world were broken down by the Revolution, and new vistas opened before us. We were swept up in a great historical movement. Our private interests were consumed by the wider social goals of a new, collective society.

This atmosphere immediately following the Revolution provided the energy for many ambitious ventures. An entire society was liberated to turn its creative powers to constructing a new kind of life for everyone. The general excitement, which stimulated incredible levels of activity, was not at all conducive, however, to systematic, highly organized scientific inquiry.

These new conditions immediately changed the course of my education. By 1917 I had completed only six years of an eight year gymnasium curriculm. About all I can remember now from those years of formal, classical education was the five hours a week of Latin lessons at which we learned to write extemporaneously on various subjects. This Latin training later proved useful in helping me learn English, French, and German. I did not complete the regular gymnasium course of training. Instead, like many of my classmates, I earned my diploma in 1918 by taking shortened courses.

I then entered Kazan University, where the situation was especially chaotic. The doors of the universities had been thrown open to all secondary school graduates, no matter how poorly prepared the graduates were. Thousands of students entered, but the universities were hardly in a position to educate them. There were shortages of all kinds in those days. Perhaps most important was the scarcity of professors prepared to teach under the new conditions. Some of the old, conservative professors were opposed to the Revolution. Others who were disposed to accept it had no clear idea of its import for what and how they taught.

The traditional curriculum had included such courses as the History of Roman Law and the Theory of Jurisprudence for prerevolutionary society, which now, of course, were inappropriate. But no one had yet decided what the new programs should be, and our professors were confused. I remember the pathetic efforts of one professor who had taught the History of Roman Law for many years to adapt to the new situation. He changed the name of his course to “The Social Foundations of Law,” but his attempts to modernize his lectures were hopeless. While this kind of confusion was minimal in the medical school and in physics, mathematics, and chemistry, it was rampant in the social sciences, where I was a student.

Under these conditions student discussion and student-initiated projects soon came to dominate the professors' lectures. There were countless meetings of student groups and scientific associations which spent their time discussing general topics, especially politics and the shape of the future society. I took part in many of these activities and under their influence became interested in utopian socialism, thinking it would help me understand future developments.

These discussions about contemporary history also led me to become absorbed in certain basic questions concerning man's role in shaping society: Where do social ideas come from? How are they developed? How do they spread? And how do they become a force leading to social conflict and change?

I searched for books that would deal with these questions. I remember a book by Petrazhiskis about the psychological roots of law and emotion. I also remember reading the economist L. Brentano's Theory of Human Drives. I even translated it into Russian and published it through the student's Association for Social Sciences. Both these volumes led me to want to develop a concrete psychological approach to the events of social life. I even developed a naive plan to write a book on these issues. Such projects were typical of the time, and although there wasn't the slightest chance that I could really write such a book, this kind of ambition shaped my intellectual development.

I found little of value in the dry, prerevolutionary academic psychology that then dominated the universities, which was strongly influenced by German philosophy and psychology. Most psychologists were still working out problems that had been set many years before by Wilhelm Wundt, the Wurzburg school, and the neo-Kantlan philosophers. Psychologists were maintaining that the subject of psychology is immediate experience. To learn about immediate experience, they collected introspective accounts of people's immediate experience in laboratory settings under highly controlled conditions. These people's statements about their sensations were then analyzed to discover the basic elements of mind and the ways in which these elements combine.

The approach led to endless arguments, in part because there was no general agreement on what the basic mental elements are, no matter how carefully the experiments were conducted. For me, this kind of psychology was unattractive on other grounds as well. Classical German theories of how associations combined relied heavily on ideas about the laws of association that had orginated with the Greeks. I remember sympathizing with Harold Hoffding, who argued that the laws of association could not account for memory. Hoffding's argument was compelling: If two elements, a and b, were associated because they occurred together, by what mechanism could a new experience A evoke a memory of b? Wundt would say that A was associated with a, which then evoked the memory of b. But if A were occurring for the first time, why was it associated with a? The answer would be that A and a were somehow “similar.” But there was no basis for establishing similarity in associationistic theory until after the associations between A and a had already been established!

Although Hoffding's work found fault with the weaknesses of simple associationism, he accepted the currently popular methods of collecting and analyzing psychological data. I concurred with the criticism but felt it did not go far enough. I was depressed by how dry, abstract, and removed from reality all those arguments seemed. I wanted a psychology that would apply to real people as they live their lives, not an intellectual abstraction in a laboratory. I also found academic psychology terribly unattractive because I could see no way to connect such research to anything outside of the laboratory. I wanted a psychology that was relevant, that would give some substance to our discussions about building a new life.

Dissatisfied with the competing arguments over mental elements, I looked for alternatives in the books of scholars who were critical of laboratory-based psychology. Here I was influenced by the work of the German neo-Kantians, men like Rickert, Windelband, and Dilthey. Dilthey was especially interesting because he was concerned with the real motives that energize people and the ideals and principles that guide their lives. He introduced me to the term reale Psychologie in which man would be studied as a unified, dynamic system. He contended that a real understanding of human nature was the foundation for what he referred to as the Geisteswissenschaften or “social sciences.” This psychology was not the psychology of the textbooks but a practical psychology based on an understanding of people as they live and behave in the world. It was a psychology that described human values but made no attempt to explain them in terms of their inner mechanisms, on the grounds that it was impossible to achieve a physiological analysis of human behavior.

While I was attracted to these ideas, the problems of implementing them became apparent to me as I read Windelband and Rickert's critiques of Dilthey. They raised the issue of whether psychology was a natural science, like physics or chemistry, or a human science, like history. In doing so, they made a distinction between the laws of the natural sciences and the human sciences. The laws of natural science were generalizations applicable to a multiplicity of individual events. Laws describing the acceleration of falling objects in general also describe any particular falling object. Such laws were referred to as “nomothetic,” in contrast to “idiographic” thinking in which events and people were studied as individual cases, not as examples of some scientific or natural law. Events and people studied by history are good examples of the idiographic approach. For instance, a historian would study Peter I as a tsar who westernized Russia, not as a convenient representative of the entire class of tsars, or even of all progressive tsars.

Although I was excited by Dilthey's ideas of a realistic psychology, one that would reflect what I knew to be generally true of the complexities of real people, I was convinced that his descriptive approach was insufficient. I wanted a psychology that would overcome this conflict, that would simultaneously describe the concrete facts of the mental life of individuals and generate general explantory laws.

While I was struggling with this conflict, I came across the early writings of the psychoanalytic school. Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and several other of his early books had been translated into Russian, and other writings of his as well as of Alfred Adler and C. G. Jung (including his Studies of Diagnostic Associations) were available in German. Many of Freud's ideas seemed speculative and somewhat fantastic to me, but the study of emotional conflicts and complexes using the method of associations seemed promising. Here, I thought, was a scientific approach that combined a strongly deterministic explanation of concrete, individual behavior with an explanation of the origins of complex human needs in terms of natural science. Perhaps psychoanalysis could serve as the basis for a scientific reale Psychologie, one that would overcome the nomothetic-idiographic distinction.

At the age of twenty, as I was completing my formal education, I began to write a book about these “insights.” The manuscript never advanced beyond the original handwritten copy which rests in my files today. Although this work had no scientific value, the fact that I even attempted such a task is worth mentioning because my ambitions were characteristic of the younger generation of the time.

Also characteristic was the way in which I plunged into psychoanalytic research. To begin with, I established a small psychoanalytic circle. I even ordered stationary with “Kazan Psychoanalytic Association” printed in Russian and German on the letterhead. I then sent news of the formation of this group to Freud himself, and was both surprised and pleased when I received a letter in return addressed to me as “Dear Mr. President.” Freud wrote how glad he was to learn that a psychoanalytic circle had been founded in such a remote eastern town of Russia. This letter, written in a Gothic German script, as well as another letter authorizing the Russian translation of one of his smaller books, are still in my files.

In their early stages these efforts of mine led to no more than a few exploratory studies of psychiatric patients at the Kazan Psychiatric Hospital, which was part of the medical school. Curiously enough, one of the patients I worked with was the granddaughter of Fedor Dostoevsky. While I was able to fill notebooks with her free associations, I was in no position to carry out my plan to use such data to capture “the concrete reality of the flow of ideas.” In fact, just posing the problem in this way makes it clear why such an approach could lead nowhere.

In later years, I published some papers based on psychoanalytic ideas and even wrote a draft of a book on an objective approach to psychoanalysis, which was never published. But I finally concluded that it was an error to assume that one can deduce human behavior from the biological “depths” of mind, excluding its social “heights.”

My future course in science was by no means clear when I graduated from Kazan University in 1921. My father urged me to enter medical school. But my primary ambition was to become a psychologist. I wanted to take part in the creation of an objective approach to behavior that concentrated on real-life events. My compromise was to pursue both careers at the same time.

At that time it was possible to be enrolled simultaneously in more than one school. So, I began taking medical classes and completed about two years of medical school before interrupting my studies, which were resumed only many years later. simultaneously I spent time at the Pedagogical Institute and the Kazan Psychiatric Hospital.

Despite all these institutional affiliations, it was not a simple matter to obtain experience in the use of laboratory techniques. Neither at Kazan University nor in the Pedagogical Institute was there a working psychological laboratory. One of the first psychological laboratories in Russia, founded in the late 1880s by V. M. Bekhterev in the Psychiatric Hospital of Kazan University, had disappeared without a trace. The only experimental device I could find in the university was an old, unused Hipp chronoscope for measuring reaction time.

While casting around for an opportunity to learn laboratory methods, I continued to read every psychology book I could find. I was deeply impressed by Jung's Studies of Diagnostic Associations, which suggested entirely new ways of applying objective methods to the study of psychological processes. William James' work, especially The Varieties of Religious Experience, which I thought a brilliant example of the description of the concrete forms of psychological processes, also impressed me.

It was while I was working my way through these books that I came upon some papers by Bekhterev and by I. P. Pavlov. What immediately impressed me was that both men had objective approaches to problems that psychologists were able to discuss only in subjective terms. I was especially excited by Pavlov's conditioning experiments. Most of us have come to accept as commonplace his demonstration that it is possible to measure excitatory and inhibitory processes in the central nervous system which mediate the way in which peripheral stimulation produces salivary reflexes. At the time, however, they were revolutionary in their implications.

I seized the chance to put some of my ideas into practice by accepting a position as a laboratory assistant at the Kazan Institute for the Scientific Organization of Labor, which was established in the immediate postrevolutionary period. Using the old Hipp Chronoscope that I had found at the university, I started a study of the effect of hard work on mental activity. My subjects were workers at a foundry. I tried to measure the influence of verbal instructions on their reaction time. It was my first attempt to discover the role of speech in regulating reaction time. My results were sketchy and not very interesting, but in trying to find a way to get them published, I embarked on a course that eventually led me to Moscow.

Having read a good deal of Bekhterev's work and knowing the broad range of his interests, my colleagues and I decided to found a journal, in hopes that Bekhterev would be a member of the editorial board. The name we decided to give this enterprise was “Problems of the Psychophysiology of Labor,” and I was selected to go to Petrograd (now Leningrad) to ask Bekhterev to participate.

My first visit to Petrograd was a great adventure. Bekhterev, then an old man with a long white beard, showed me around his Brain Institute, which still bears his name. I was impressed both by his great energy and by the different world from the one I knew in Kazan.

Bekhterev agreed to become a member of the editorial board of our journal on one condition. We had to add to the title the words “and Reflexology,” the name he had given to his psychological system. We readily agreed, and Bekhterev became one of the editors-in-chief. The other was a venerable physiologist at Kazan University, N. A. Mislavsky, who actually had nothing to do with psychophysiology, labor, or reflexology. We were short of paper in those years, and I had to borrow some packages of yellow paper from a soap factory to print the first issue of the journal. This bit of academic entrepreneurship produced an outcome I had not anticipated: the end of my scientific “apprenticeship” in Kazan and an invitation to Moscow.

Throughout this period of my life I was naively groping. Still, after fifty years, I have the feeling that many of these activities were significant in my further development as a psychologist. In later years the surface appearance of my research changed a great deal. But the central themes that had guided my initial efforts remained.