Conditional Reflex

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24–27 NLT)

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist who was recognized during his lifetime for his contributions to the world of science; he won the 1904 Nobel Prize for his work on the physiology of digestion. However, Pavlov is best known today for his work on what he called “conditional reflex.” He noticed one day that the dogs he was using in his digestion research began to salivate much more profusely in the presence of the technician tasked with feeding them, even before they had seen the food. Thus, he began his experiments that showed this conditioned response could be trained. Pavlov’s dogs could be made to salivate simply from a sound they had been trained to associate with food, regardless of whether they were actually given anything to eat.

Since Pavlov’s research was first published, it has permeated popular culture and served as the basis for many different theories of human behavior. Though the human mind is far more complex than that of a dog, certain aspects of conditional reflex still apply. Whether we consciously choose to or not, we are constantly conditioning ourselves, training our brains, our hearts, and our souls to yearn for certain things. It is the reason some people automatically pull out their phones when they get bored in line at the store or seek the comfort of food when confronted with an uncomfortable truth or situation.

The question we must ask ourselves isn’t whether we’ve unconsciously conditioned ourselves into bad habits; we most certainly have. The real question we must answer is what those bad habits are and what we can do to replace them with good habits. When you get bored, what can you do to remind yourself to pray? When you find yourself confronted with an uncomfortable truth, how can you remind yourself to seek comfort in God? In what ways can you recondition yourself to connect your heart with God’s heart?

Everyone has habits, both good and bad. Rather than take credit for the good and minimize the bad, let us own up to the fact we’ve conditioned ourselves to respond certain ways as we go through our days, and let us resolve to recondition those bad habits into good so we might “run with purpose in every step.”