Are We Really Just Like Pavlov's Dogs?

dreamstimefree 190461

This week I have been watching UK hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown* and I must say I find it rather disconcerting how easily programmable we are! I was reminded of a teaching some years ago given by buddhist nun Robina Courtin. A student asked her about ‘free will’ and her reply was ‘what makes you think you have free will?’ Wow! Until then, I'd never questioned the assumption that we do. Now I’m thinking about this again, after watching Derren Brown.

It has prompted some deep contemplation on the nature of our mind, and conditioning. If we really watch how our mind works as we go through our day, we can see that we continously hypnotise ourselves! We create the same kind of conditioning by constantly making associations, which become attachments. For example I like honey in my tea. Now, in my mind, tea has become associated with honey. I don’t actually put it in my tea each time because I can see myself getting attached to it, but every time I make tea, just for an instant, I do think of honey.

Remember Pavlov’s dogs? In his classic experiment Pavlov rang a bell every time the dogs were fed. After some time the dogs would salivate each time they heard the bell, even if food was not present. This way Pavlov demonstrated that behaviour is conditioned by association: the dogs associated the bell with food and began to salivate. Hypnotists like Derren Brown use similar techniques to condition people. 

Something about this bothers me though. It isn’t giving us the full picture. Are we really just like Pavlov’s dogs? Apparently on some level we are! But isn't there is a danger of taking this information too far down the road of nihilism, in reducing the meaning and value of our lives to mechanical programming?  If I am programmed like a machine, and someone erases the program, what is left? We could easily think that nothing else exists other than our conditioning.

Yet countless spiritual masters down the centuries have told us that there is a  higher consciousness beyond our conditioning. That this consciousness is not nothing, but something beautiful, awesome, intelligent and alive. Our lives do have deeper meaning, and value.

“You live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality, but you do not know this. When you understand this, you will see that you are nothing, and being nothing you are everything. That is all.”

- Kalu Rinpoche

It is our everyday state that is like a trance. We are conditioned by all the attachments we have created and we go through our lives asleep**. The purpose of any spiritual path is to wake us up to our true nature. True liberation of the mind is possible when we are totally free of associations and attachments. Then we are beyond conditioning. 

Knowledge of Dzogchen is like being on the highest mountain peak; no level of the mountain remains mysterious or hidden, and whoever finds themselves on this highest peak cannot be conditioned by anyone or anything.

- from a tantra of the Dzogchen Upadesha, quoted by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in “The Crystal and The Way of Light"

In the latest episode of Derren Brown’s show he claims to create a ‘religious experience’ (his words) in a woman by creating an association between feeling ‘loved and cherished’, and an expanded state of ‘awe’.  Once he created the association and the two feelings came together, she did indeed have a deeply moving experience. 

However what was created was the result of conditioning through association. While her feelings were real, and may lead her to explore  spirituality in more depth at some point, it is still a long way to go before  being totally free from conditioning. While his experiment was a success, on one level, I think Derren Brown is missing the point of spiritual practice. The ultimate purpose of spiritual practice is freedom from conditioning.

"I hope that you understand what the word “spiritual” really means. It means to search for, to investigate, the true nature of the mind. There’s nothing spiritual outside. My rosary isn’t spiritual; my robes aren’t spiritual. Spiritual means the mind, and spiritual people are those who seek its nature."

- Lama Thubten Yeshe

Derren Brown's subject is not truly liberated because she is still in a conditioned state, and so her mind is not free. My concern with his approach is the implication that a religous or spiritual path is pointless, or unecessary because we can 'create' such experiences with our own mind.

The truth is that higher consciousness, or enlightenment, isn't created by our conditioned mind, but is ever present and obscured by our conditioning. When we become free of conditioning it becomes self-evident. As long as we have our pre-existing conditioning we can't realize this fact and so we need some kind of practice to set ourselves free. As Robina Courtin suggested, while we are driven by conditioning we don't have 'free will' any more than Pavlov's dogs did! 

The whole point and purpose of a spiritual path, and spiritual practice, is to lead us precisely to liberate our own mind and realize the ultimate state where we are no longer able to be conditioned. Only then are we truly free. I do feel better now that I have clarified that distinction for myself! Now, where's the honey... 

*In the UK: Derren Brown's latest show on Channel 4's You Tube Channel Outside the UK:  Derren Brown on YouTube

**For an intelligent and articulate look at different states of consciousness, including valuable distinctions between spiritual experiences vs drug induced states of bliss, see "Waking From Sleep: Why Awakening Experiences Occur and How To Make Them Permanent" by Steve Taylor.

Image: © Kitsen |


Soul Path Astrologer, Author and Coach Ruth Hadikin, specializes in supporting you on your own greatest adventure: as you find and express your purpose, passion, and unique Soul Path through self-exploration.

© 1999-2019 Ruth Hadikin Associates, 4 Blenheim Court, Peppercorn Close, Peterborough PE1 2DU United Kingdom.