I find inspiration in the history of psychology. A hundred years ago, the fight-or-flight response was explained by the research of Walter B. Canon. I saw this discovery through his eyes in his autobiography, “The Way of an Investigator: A scientist’s experiences in medical research.”
Old research is usually taken for granted in our busy lives, and old researchers are often viewed critically. But when you see the world through the eyes of people who didn’t have today’s knowledge, you can relive the excitement of putting the pieces together.
Dr. Canon got my attention because he figured out that neurochemicals cause the physiological responses we associate with emotions. His work established the empirical link between mind and body. Even more exciting for me was his understanding that animals and humans have the same core responses. Of course he was not the first person to have these insights, but he proved them in an amazingly methodical way. It’s explained in his 1915 book “Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage,” which is available on Google Books.
His 1932 book, “The Wisdom Of The Body,” explores homeostasis in the same careful way. What better path to positive psychology that a deep awareness of our capacity to restore balance?
As a Harvard undergrad, Dr. Canon was a student of William James. One day, Canon found himself walking home from class with the master, and expressed his wish to major in Philosophy. James endearingly suggested this was a bad idea that would “fill your belly with east wind.” Fortunately for us, Canon switched to physiology.
His autobiography describes his contacts with Ivan Pavlov and the research community of his day. It’s fun to read about science politics with a century of distance. The animal studies will seem jarring to modern readers, but it’s useful to see the labor and persistence it took to produce what seems obvious to us today.
My foray into science history felt so good that I moved on to Walter Ernest Dixon. He’s the British pharmacologist who figured out that nerve endings secrete chemicals, and that drugs work by mimicking such secretions. He studied opium, cannabis, alcohol, “the innervation of the testis,” and “the action of placental extract.” A hundred years ago, he explained the mechanisms behind a drug’s selective physiochemical action.
Dixon got little recognition for this work in his lifetime. A recent Memorial Lecture about him is titled, “The Man Who Never Was.” Today, we often speak bitterly of such neglect and the injustice of it. Alas, bitterness can distract us from the positive aspect of science politics. It’s frustrating indeed, but we can remind ourselves that each brain sees the world through the lens of its own life experience. Scientists try to exchange lenses with each other, and they keep trying in the face of disappointment. Knowledge builds more slowly than we’d like, but it builds.
Walter Dixon didn’t give up when he failed to get recognition. In fact, most of today’s knowledge rests of work that didn’t get short-run rewards. (A chapter full of examples is in my new book, The Science of Positivity.) We can enjoy our work more once we accept the unpredictability of rewards, and history helps us do that.
About the Author: Loretta Breuning, PhD, is author of Habits of a Happy Brain and The Science of Positivity, and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She founded the Inner Mammal Institute to help people manage the neurochemical operating system we’re inherited from our ancestors. InnerMammalInstitute.org