The Making of Mind. A R Luria


IT WAS 1923 when Professor K. N. Kornilov, who had just been appointed head of the Moscow Institute of Psychology invited me to join his staff. He selected me because he needed young, objectively oriented collaborators who would be involved in experimental psychology. My first soap-paper articles published in Kazan and using objective methods to study the effect of fatigue on motor reactions attracted his attention.

I arrived in Moscow to find a city that, like Kazan, was enthuslastically engaged in the work of reconstruction. Unlike my working conditions in Kazan, however, Moscow's psychologists had well-defined goals and specialized research facilities. I joined a small group of scholars who were charged with reconstructing Russian psychology in order to bring it into accord with the goals of the Revolution. But here a short digression is necessary so that the situation which greeted me in Moscow will be clear.

Russia's first psychology laboratories were created by Bekhterev in the 1880s, first in Kazan and then in St. Petersburg. It was not until 1911 that an institute of psychology was founded, by G. I. Chelpanov, a mentalistic philosopher and logician who had taught psychology as well. Familiar with the psychological research that had been under way for some time in the West, Chelpanov thought it would be useful to have such an institute in Moscow. A special building was erected on the grounds of Moscow University, and a fine collection of German experimental instruments (including my old friend the Hipp chronoscope) was set up. Chelpanov served as the institute's first director. In essence the work that went on there was an attempt to replicate the contents of Wundt's and E. B. Titchener's textbooks and even of Hoffding's Empirical Psychology (which by that time, owing to its boring content, had accumulated a certain negative symbolic significance for me).

Chelpanov had published a psychology textbook for secondary schools which went through almost twenty printings prior to the Revolution. This large volume, entitled Brain and Mind, was devoted to a discussion of the relation between subjective experience and the material world. Here Chelpanov tackled the perennial problem of European psychology at the time: Do mind and matter interact in the brain, or do they merely work parallel to each other? Chelpanov adopted the position that a materialist approach to the study of mind was useless. So deeply ingrained was the idea of splitting the brain from the mind that even Pavlov welcomed Chelpanov's institute into the circle of Russian science. In a letter addressed to him in connection with the opening of the institute, Pavlov remarked that because the activities of the brain are so complex, they require both intensive and varied methods of study, and therefore “he who fully excludes any mention of subjective states from his laboratory sends his cordial congratulations to the Institute of Psychology and its founder.” This letter, written in 1914, was not published until 1955.

If the institute's research had continued as it began, nothing much of importance would have been accomplished, save for additional evidence on visual thresholds or memory span, and descriptive studies of thinking. There appeared no way of linking psychology, in the academic style, to practical social problems. Research of this latter type existed, as in the case of the neurologist G. I. Rossolimo and the psychiatrist A. N. Bernshtein who were conducting important research in medical psychology, but there was none within the institute itself.

Following the Revolution, the work of the institute was reevaluated. An isolated, ivory-tower psychology was found to be antithetical to the goals of the Revolution, and in 1922 changes that would link the activities of the institute to a scientific reconstruction of life were started.

Kornilov, one of Chelpanov's students, had developed a technique which he claimed could measure mental effort. Working with variations on the reaction time paradigm, Kornilov used a device to measure both the strength and the duration of motor reactions. He assumed that there was a fixed amount of energy in an organism that had to be shared by the mental and motor systems; the more energy expended on the mental component of an action, the less remained for its motor component. Kornilov naively assumed that his technique could measure this “energy.” He predicted that motor strength would be maximum in simple reactions, less in reactions where the subject had to choose between two stimuli, and less still in complex, associative choice responses. Of course Kornilov never measured mental energy directly. He simply used his assumptions to claim he had measured it.

He also claimed to have created a materialist approach to the study of mind, which he supposed to encompass all of man's activity and to be consistent with Marx and Engels. Although his approach, which he dubbed “reactology,” was naive, naturalistic, and mechanistic, it seemed to offer an alternative to Chelpanov's openly idealistic psychology. Chelpanov was removed as head of the institute in 1923, and Kornilov was appointed as the new director.

Marxist philosophy, one of the world's more complex systems of thought, was assimilated slowly by Soviet scholars, myself included. Properly speaking, I never really mastered Marxism to the degree I would have liked. I still consider this to have been a major shortcoming in my education. It should be no surprise, therefore, that although many discussions invoking Marxist thought took place in those early days, they were on rather shaky ground. Nonetheless, Kornilov's stated goal of reconstructing psychology along materialist lines was at this time a step forward. It enabled him to point the institute in a more productive direction and to rally a crowd of young scholars to help accomplish the necessary reconstruction of psychology. The reason my work was attractive to Kornilov should thus be clear: he saw in it a reflection of his own prejudices.

The situation in the institute when I arrived was peculiar indeed. All of the laboratories had been renamed to include the term reactions: there was a laboratory of visual reactions (perception), of mnemonic reactions (memory), of emotional reactions, and so forth. All this was meant to eliminate any traces of subjective psychology and to replace it with a kind of behaviorism.

The staff was young and inexperienced. No one was older than twenty-four years of age and few had proper training, but everyone was extremely enthusiastic, and the variety of work that was carried out on various reactions was broad indeed: White rats ran mazes, motor reactions of adult subjects were studied carefully, and problems of education were given attention.

Along with an active research program, there was teaching to be done, since the institute was also the training ground for future psychologists. The young scholars were a mixture of newcomers like myself and holdovers from Chelpanov's program. I was no older and knew no more than many of my students, so I spent the evenings preparing lectures and demonstrations for the next day's lessons, hoping I could stay at least one day ahead of my students. It was at this time that I met the young Alexei N. Leontiev, with whom my later life was closely connected. Among my other students were I. M. Soloviev and L. V. Zankov, both of whom went on to become important scholars in Soviet psychology.

It is difficult to characterize my feelings at the start of my professional life except perhaps to say that they were highly ambivalent. I was in full sympathy with the institute's efforts to develop objective methods of research. I did not think much of the efforts to measure mental energy; Kornilov's mechanistic scheme was clearly an oversimplification. But my former interest in psychoanalysis was helpful in overcoming my ambivalence and in finding something useful to do. I even found a use for the “dynamoscope,” a U-shaped glass tube filled with mercury, which Kornilov used to record the strength of a movement on moving paper.

In my earliest experiments in Kazan I had used such an instrument to measure the strength of motor reactions, at which time I had noticed an interesting phenomenon. If conditions were created in which subjects were uncertain of what to do, such as whether or not to press a button, the line tracing their movements was disrupted; the smooth curve I usually obtained was distorted in a way that seemed to reflect the subject's uncertainty. I decided to see if I could expand these pilot observations into an objective, experimental study of conflict, stress, and strong emotions. In other words, I decided to initiate my own “experimental psychoanalysis,” using the distortion of motor-responses as an objective expression of inner, emotional conflicts.

Free associations as used by Jung in his Studies of Diagnostic Associations (1910) was one component of the technique we developed. We asked the subject to engage in a motor response simultaneously with each verbal associative response. I stress the word simultaneously because the logic of our approach required that the verbal and motor components of the response form a unitary functional system. Only when they were simultaneous could we be confident that an emotional reaction would be reflected in a break in the pattern established by the motor component of the system.

We began an intensive period of research that was to last many years. At first Leontiev and I conducted studies with students preparing to take their examinations. We instructed each subject to squeeze a small rubber bulb with his right hand while holding his left hand completely still on another rubber bulb, simultaneously giving us the first word that came to mind in response to our verbal stimuli.

We presented two kinds of verbal stimuli. First there were “neutral” stimuli, common words that we could assume had no special significance for someone taking an examination. Mixed in with these words were the “critical” stimuli, words such as “examination,” “formula,” and “passed,” which were bound up with the difficult experience the students were about to undergo. When we looked at the students' free association responses or reaction times by themselves, we found it difficult to distinguish their responses to these two classes of words. But when we added the motor component, showing how the voluntary movement of squeezing a bulb was disrupted by the emotions evoked by certain stimuli, we could reliably distinguish the critical words for that subject.

We then decided to see whether we could use this technique to discover a person's “hidden complexes.” We had in mind the kind of phenomena Freud and the psychoanalytic school were interested in, emotion-laden experiences that motivate and guide people's behavior far beyond the boundaries of the experience itself. We began by devising a laboratory model of the problem as we thought it would occur in real life situations. For this purpose we needed to be able to distinguish reliably between responses to critical and to neutral stimuli.

Our experimental model worked as follows. My research assistant constructed a story that was told to several subjects. For example, one story was about a thief who broke into a church by climbing through a window and stole a golden candlestick, an icon, and a crucifix. The subjects were instructed to remember the story but not to reveal that they knew it. Then they and other subjects who had not been told the story were asked to participate in an experiment in which they would respond to a list of about seventy words, ten of which were critical to the story, by squeezing a bulb with their right hand while free associating. My task was to determine from the combined record of their motor and verbal responses what the critical words were, who did and did not know the story, and what the story was. This laboratory model was quite successful. As events turned out, the most extensive application of this technique outside our laboratory was in connection with the criminal justice system.

In principle, psychologists interested in studying the emotions have always sought ways to produce emotional states that are of sufficient stability and duration to be studied. Various attempts prior to our studies, however, had not been successful. As a rule, acute emotional states such as fear or disgust were evoked artificially in the laboratory by shooting off a gun unexpectedly behind the subject's head or holding feces in front of his nose for inspection. These methods suffered two shortcomings. First, the emotion was in no way a part of the subject's real life situation but only an artificial incident unrelated to his ongoing purposes and motives. Second, acute states evoked in this way were quickly dissipated.

We decided that one way to overcome these kinds of inadequacy in our own and others' previous research was to work directly with people who were experiencing strong emotions in real life situations. The people we chose were actual or suspected criminals. We thought that if we could study criminals just after they had been arrested and at various times following the arrest, such as on the eve of trial, we might be able to observe the strong emotions that are very much a part of the person's real life. Such situations usually produce several intense emotions: those arising from the crime itself, those evoked by being apprehended and jailed, and those evoked by the fear of punishment. We also thought that if we had an opportunity to test subjects who were later judged to be innocent, we would have a contrasting group in whom fears of incarceration and the emotions arising out of the uncertainties of the situation were present, but who had no knowledge about the details of the crime. In these cases we could observe general stress but no specific “emotional complexes” related to the crime. Our laboratory model suggested that if we knew the details of the crime, they could be used as the critical stimuli in the combined motor test, and we could use the resulting data to reconstruct the events and determine who was guilty.

We were not the first, of course, to think of working with criminals in such a way, but previous researchers had been confined to working with convicted criminals only after they had been released. We were able to work with suspects from the time of arrest until after their trials. During several years of study, we were able to collect experimental material on more than fifty subjects, most of whom were actual or suspected murderers.

One of the first things we discovered in this work is that strong emotions prevent a subject from forming stable, automatic motor and speech responses, although subjects of equivalent intelligence, operating under normal circumstances, can form such responses after only a few trials. It appeared as if subjects influenced by strong emotions adapted to each new situation in a unique way and did not settle into a stable reaction pattern. Not only did the subjects have unstable motor and speech responses when considered separately, but they seemed unable to create a single functional system that included both motor and speech components, often delaying the speech components of their reactions.

This diffuse disruption of organized behavior was an impediment to discovering the presence or absence of a localized source of emotion that one would expect from a criminal who had specific knowledge of the crime; the baseline responding was too variable. In all cases we adopted a procedure of cornparing the subject's responses to various stimuli: those that were fairly certain to be neutral, those that were doubtful, and those that were closely connected with the crime. Using this procedure of comparing responses to different stimuli within a single subject, we often found it possible to discriminate the actual criminal from other suspects. Since we were permitted to carry out this work prior to formal interrogation, we were able to use later criminal evidence to verify our hypotheses.

This work turned out to be of practical value to criminology.