Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov

Sechenov, Ivan Mikhailovich


Born Aug. 1 (13), 1829, in the village of Teplyi Stan, now the village of Sechenovo, Gorky Oblast; died Nov. 2 (15), 1905, in Moscow. Russian naturalist and materialist; founder of the Russian school of physiology and the naturalist trend in psychology. Honorary academician of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1904; corresponding member, 1869).

Sechenov graduated from the Main Engineering School in St. Petersburg in 1848 and the medical faculty of Moscow University in 1856. From 1856 to 1859 he worked in the laboratories of J. Müller, E. Du Bois-Reymond, and E. Hoppe-Seyler in Berlin, O. Funke in Leipzig, K. Ludwig in Vienna, and H. Helmholtz in Heidelberg. While abroad, Sechenov prepared his doctoral dissertation, Data for the Future Physiology of Alcoholic Intoxication, which he successfully defended in 1860 at the Medical and Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. In the same year he was appointed to the academy’s chair of physiology and established one of Russia’s first physiology laboratories. In 1863, Sechenov was awarded the Demidov Prize of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences for his lecture course “On Animal Electricity” at the Medical and Surgical Academy.

After leaving the academy in 1870, Sechenov held the chair of physiology at Novorossiia University in Odessa from 1871 to 1876. From 1876 to 1888 he was a professor of physiology at the University of St. Petersburg, where he also organized a physiology laboratory. He lectured at the same time at the Bestuzhev Courses, a women’s institution of higher learning. (He had been one of the founders of the institution.) In 1889 he became a privatdocent and in 1891 a professor of physiology at Moscow University. Although he retired in 1901, he continued his experimental work, and in 1903 and 1904 he taught at the Prechistenskie Workers’ Courses.

Sechenov founded Russia’s first school of physiology, which was developed at the Medical and Surgical Academy, Novorossiia University, the University of St. Petersburg, and Moscow University. At the Medical and Surgical Academy he augmented his lectures with experimental demonstrations, a practice that drew the pedagogic process and research closer together and to a large extent determined Sechenov’s success in creating a scientific school. Sechenov’s physiology laboratory at the Medical and Surgical Academy was the center for research not only in physiology but also in pharmacology, toxicology, and clinical medicine.

Early in 1861, Sechenov delivered his first series of public lectures entitled “Vegetative Functions in Animal Life.” In these lectures he affirmed the principle of the unity of an organism with its environment and suggested the idea of self-regulation, which is inseparable from the principle of homeostasis. In his doctoral thesis he asserted that reflexes, the centers of which lie in the brain, were unique physiological phenomena, and he suggested many ideas that facilitated future brain studies.

Sechenov verified the hypothesis that cerebral centers effect movement through experiments he performed in C. Bernard’s laboratory in Paris in 1862. He discovered that the chemical irritation of the medulla oblongata and thalamus by salt crystals inhibited the reflex movements of the extremities of a frog. He demonstrated this phenomenon to Bernard in Paris and to Du Bois-Reymond, Ludwig, and E. Brücke in Berlin and Vienna. The thalamic reflex inhibitive center was named Sechenov’s center (Setchenow’s center), and the phenomenon of central inhibition was named Sechenov’s inhibition. The article in which Sechenov described the phenomenon of central inhibition was published in 1863. In 1900, C. S. Sherrington affirmed that it was after Sechenov’s work that the old hypothesis of the inhibiting influence of one part of the nervous system on another, which was first conjectured by Hippocrates, became an accepted doctrine.

In 1863, Sechenov also published Additional Studies on Nerve Centers That Inhibit Reflected Motion, in which he discussed whether the brain has specific inhibiting mechanisms or whether the action of inhibitive centers is distributed over the entire muscular system and all muscular functions. In this work, Sechenov for the first time advanced the concept of nonspecific cerebral systems.

Upon his return to Russia in May 1863, Sechenov acted on N. A. Nekrasov’s suggestion and wrote the article “An Attempt to Introduce the Physiological Bases of Psychological Processes” for Sovremennik. The censor forbade the publication of the article, citing its propagandizing of materialism and its reprehensible title. The article, which was retitled “Reflexes of the Brain,” was published in 1863 in Meditsinskii vestnik and in 1866 was published separately. Its publication marked the beginning of the era of objective psychology. Sechenov demonstrated that since reflexes cannot occur without external stimuli, psychological activity is brought about by stimuli that act on the sense organs. He made a significant contribution to our knowledge about reflexes by determining that reflexes depend not only on current stimuli but also on past influences. Sechenov believed that the retention of vestiges in the central nervous system is the basis for memory, inhibition is the mechanism for the selective control of behavior, and the operation of the amplifying mechanism of the brain is the foundation for motivation. Sechenov’s psychological viewpoint was clearly described in “Reflexes of the Brain,” in which a materialist conception of the psyche was maintained.

Sechenov’s school of physiology became firmly established between 1863 and 1868. For many years, Sechenov and his students investigated the physiology of intercentral relationships, and the most important results were published in 1866 in Sechenov’s Physiology of the Nervous System. During this period, Sechenov also edited the translations of books written by foreign scientists, including The Physiology of Sensory Organs: Anatomie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane von A. Fick, 1862–1864. Vision (adapted version), which was published in 1867. Sechenov also edited the translation of C. Darwin’s The Descent of Man, which was published in Russian in 1871–72. He not only disseminated Darwinism but also applied Darwin’s ideas to physiology and psychology. Sechenov can justly be considered the precursor of evolutionary physiology in Russia.

Sechenov studied the various trends in philosophy and psychology in great depth and polemized with the representatives of different psychological and philosophical schools, including K. D. Kavelin and G. Struve. In 1873 Sechenov published a book entitled Psychological Studies, which included three works: “Reflexes of the Brain” (4th ed.), retorts addressed to Kavelin, and the article “Who Must Investigate the Problems of Psychology and How.” The greatest significance of Sechenov’s contribution to psychology lay in “the radical shift of the basis of psychological thought to objective behavior from the direct phenomena of consciousness, which had for centuries been considered the first reality for the cognitive mind” (M. G. Iaroshevskii, Istoriia psikhologii, 1966, p. 332). According to I. P. Pavlov, Sechenov made “a remarkable attempt for that period to represent our subjective world in purely physiological terms” (Poln, sobr. soch., vol. 3, book 1, 1951, p. 14).

In the 1890’s, Sechenov published a series of works on physiological psychology and cognition theories, including Impressions and Reality (1890) and A Physiological View of Subjective Thinking (1894). He almost completely rewrote his treatise on the theory of cognition. The Elements of Thought (2nd ed., 1903). Encouraged by advances in the physiology of sensory organs and research in the functions of the motor apparatus, Sechenov did a critical study of agnosticism and developed the idea that a muscle is an organ that possesses reliable knowledge about the spatial and temporal relations between objects. Sensory signals transmitted by a working muscle permit the images of external objects to be constructed and the positions of several objects to be correlated, thereby serving as the somatic basis of elementary forms of thought. The cognition of movements that are accessible to sensation is “not conditional but certain, extending to the root” (Izbrannye filosofskie i psikhologich. proizvedeniia, 1947, p. 343).

Sechenov’s theories on muscular sensitivity led to the development of present-day knowledge about the mechanism of sensory perception. His theories included the principle of feedback between the effects of muscular action and the signals emanating from the muscle and to the nerve centers regulating muscular action. Thus, the action of sensory systems, particularly the visual system, can be treated from the standpoint of their self-regulation. Sechenov advocated the materialist treatment of all neuropsychological phenomena, including consciousness and will. He also believed that the organism should be treated as a whole, a concept that has been accepted by contemporary physiology and psychology.

At Novorossiia University, Sechenov investigated the electrical irritation of nerves (1872) and locomotion in frogs and the influence of the vagus nerve on the heart (1873). He also became interested in the physiology of gaseous metabolism and the respiratory function of the blood.

Sechenov returned to St. Petersburg in 1876 and commenced his study of chemical solutions. Using an absorptiometer of his own design, he established the law of the solubility of gases in aqueous electrolytic solutions. He presented a series of public lectures entitled “On the Elements of Visualization,” which were adapted for publication (1878) under the title The Elements of Thought. In 1881 and 1882, Sechenov began a new cycle of research on central inhibition. He discovered the spontaneous fluctuation of electrical currents in the medulla oblongata.

In the autumn of 1889, Sechenov taught a course at Moscow University in physiology, which later became the basis for his synoptic work The Physiology of Nerve Centers (1891). In the work he analyzed various neural phenomena, ranging from the unconscious reactions of decerebrated animals to higher forms of perception in man. The last part of the work dealt with experimental psychology. In association with M. N. Shaternikov, Sechenov later developed the theory of the composition of air in the lungs.

Other published works by Sechenov that drew considerable attention included Physiological Criteria for Establishing the Length of the Workday (published 1894), A Survey of Manual and Other Work Movements of Man (published 1901), and The Scientific Activities of Russian Universities in the Natural Sciences During the Last Twenty-five Years (written and published 1883). In autobiographical notes written in 1904, Sechenov described his life as a scientist, experimenter, thinker, lecturer, and progressive social figure.

A monument to Sechenov has been constructed at his birthplace. The First Moscow Medical Institute and the Institute of Evolutionary Physiology and Biochemistry of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR have been named in his honor, in 1955 and 1956, respectively. Once every three years the Academy of Sciences of the USSR awards the Sechenov Prize to Soviet scientists who have contributed outstanding research in the area of physiology.


Izbr. trudy. Moscow, 1935.
Elementy mysli: Sb. izbr. statei. Moscow-Leningrad, 1943.
Izbr. filosofskie i psikhologicheskie proizvedeniia. Moscow, 1947.
Izbrannye proizvedeniia, vol. 1. Moscow, 1952.
Fiziologiia nennvkh tsentrov: Iz lektsii, chitannykh v Sobranii vrachei v Moskve v 1889–1890gg. Moscow, 1952.
Refleksy golovnogo mozga. Moscow, 1952.


Vvedenskii, N. E. “I. M. Sechenov.” Tr. S.-Peterburgskogo ob-va estestvoispytatelei, 1906, vol. 36, issue 2.
Kekcheev, K. Kh. I. M. Sechenov. Moscow, 1933.
Koshtoiants, Kh. S. I. M. Sechenov. Moscow, 1950. (Contains bibliography.)
Iaroshevskii, M. G. Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov. Leningrad, 1968.