Ivan Pavlov Quotes – New Ideas and Old Books

Pavlov on Old Books

Ivan Pavlov is very well known for his dog(s), but Pavlov is also credited with a quote of which I am very fond. I first heard of the quote from Professor Andrew R. Wilson of the U.S. Naval War College in his excellent Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers

“If you want new ideas, read old books.”

Ivan Pavlov Quotes – Provenance

I’m a sucker for good quotes, but I have found the Internet an unreliable purveyor of their provenance, so I try to track down the source whenever possible. However, the absolute provenance of this quote is unclear, but I found it used by Professor Aidan Moran of University College Dublin in Ireland in an article that is also excellent reading entitled, “If you want a new idea, read an old book.” By the way, I think the points Professor Moran brings out from the research of William James and Margaret Floy Washburn are similar to my contentions about studying history to develop new ideas whilst trying to innovate in one’s chosen field. I contacted Professor Moran about the quote and he pointed me to the place he found it which was a presentation entitled, “Limits of anatomy to predict physiology” by Nils P. Johnson, MD, MS, FACC, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Department of Medicine and the Weatherhead P.E.T. Imaging Center University of Texas Medical School at Houston  Memorial Hermann Hospital – Texas Medical Center, Houston, Texas, United States of America. (phew). Dr Johnson also did not know the provenance, but pointed me to his source of Van Calster, B. (2012), “It takes time: A remarkable example of delayed recognition.” J Am Soc Inf Sci Tec, 63: 2341–2344. doi:10.1002/asi.22732 – with the quote listed here – Patrick Durusau’s Another Word for It blog.

Dr. Philip Teitelbaum referenced the quote from his mentor,  the Nobel Prize winner, Georg von Békésy (1899-1972), in “Some useful insights for graduate students beginning their research in physiological psychology: Anecdotes and attitudes.” Although Békésy was academically active in Pavlov’s lifetime, there is no obvious personal overlap, since Békésy was in Hungary and Pavlov in St. Petersburg during their lives at that time. Obviously, Pavlov was a Nobel prize winner in Physiology as well and very well known in the Physiology field, so Békésy would have read Pavlov and may have even corresponded with him or spoken with him at some point of which I am not aware.

So, how about it? Anyone have any leads for me on the above quote attributed to Pavlov?

More on Ivan Pavlov

There is an interesting personal aside on Ivan Pavlov that makes me like him even more. Pavlov was favored by the Communists, especially Lenin, after the Russian Revolution, but Pavlov did not disguise his disdain for the Bolsheviks. Later, Pavlov actively tried to help people he knew that were caught up in the murderous intrigues of Stalinism by writing to Stalinist officials in trying to get them released from arrest and the gulag.

Photo Credit: Mikhail Nesterov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
― Michael Crichton


Why Master Innovation & History?

The work world is changing fast. Robots, software, and off-shoring are eating jobs at an alarming rate. The robots, software, and people who will work cheaper than you can be taught most routine jobs. The road to continued career relevance is having an “imaginative intellect,” or in other words … to be innovative in your chosen field. Innovation can be learned and there is nothing magical about it. However, innovation skills divorced from knowledge and/or experience are almost useless. Innovation skills have to be paired with a wide ranging background knowledge and erudition across many subjects. Combining wide-ranging information is where the new stuff comes from.

Sounds like a Catch-22 situation for young professionals? How can one build this capability?

At any age from about 15 years old and up, one can learn the innovation skills and master the history of your chosen field (and others) to give one’s imagination a chance to make connections and design new ways of doing things.

Well, that sounds good, but school’s and university’s ideas of preparing young people for the world of work is an accounting or marketing course that is rarely practical about how things work in the real world. History courses can be good, but are too general and theoretical to be of daily use. Where can one learn these critical skills of Innovation and History?

I thought you would never ask.

Right here at Polyhistorious. Polyhistorious will help you start to learn Practical Innovation Techniques with a course named, appropriately, PIT-Start. Once you have completed this course, you can begin a course of study on the history of your chosen field. You can choose one of our History courses to get underway on your life-long commitment to understanding how your field got to where it is today.

Well, I can take a history course anywhere. In fact, I already have in school.

That is great! How much do you remember off the top of your head? When you are in a brain-storming session with your peers and boss and she asks you, “Any ideas?”, are you going to bring in your college text book to look up the facts you need?

At Polyhistorious, we use cutting edge teaching, learning, and studying techniques. We teach the courses in an engaging, often times comical and seemingly ridiculous, fashion to help our students remember better. Think of Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money teaching Innovation and History. We also teach the latest research-driven skills for learning and studying what we teach. Our focus is entirely on retention of information for future use. We believe that information that is well retained forms the basis for being able to take on new and continuing information in a logical and memorable way. When more and more information is taken on organically, it is easier to make connection for disparate fields and come up with new ideas, i.e. being innovative.

Polyhistorious™ Helps You Be a Better Version of You


Polyhistorious is an online education company that teaches history and innovation in a memorable and entertaining manner. It uses cutting edge teaching, learning and, memory techniques that enable students to master innovation techniques and the history of their chosen field in a short space of time. Call it Hacking Innovation, if you like.

The Reasoning

Why master a field of history? To be innovative in a given field, one has to have an understanding of the past in the present in order to scan the future for opportunities. This isn’t rote memorization of tactics, it is mastery of history to develop an innovative strategy. This requires what Von Clausewitz called an “imaginative intellect.”1 and it is what makes a difference when one’s career moves from low level operator to more senior leadership. The well known route to innovation is in making new and novel connections, but how can you do this if you don’t know the historical components of what you are working with?

The Current State

There is no shortage of history content. We are awash in it, but why can’t we as professionals put it to our use repetitively? There are several reasons.

  1. A stilted delivery. Often, history is presented in boring, technical, or jargon-laced ways. Too many book authors and teachers are too busy trying to show you how smart they are, rather than helping you master the material. Almost all focus on their points, not on your learning. This sounds excessive, but read any history book and see if the author is more focused on the reader’s understanding the topic or repetitively making unique claims on the topic that emphasize their thoughtfulness.
  2. No review built into the delivery. Even if the content is engaging, maybe one only consumes it in a leisurely manner and does not commit it to memory. The delivery does not require active mental engagement on the receiver’s part. Even if you take the time to reflect on a point, you may never focus on that exact point ever again.
  3. A narrow focus on a particular angle. A focus on an incredibly narrow point of a field of history distorts an overarching narrative of the field. This may be due to things like political correctness, conspiracy theories, or technocratic myopia, but the result is the same. You end up learning about a small part of the field without knowing much about the overall field at all.
  4. Few study aids or skills taught inside the content. For an example of how this should work, read Make it Stick 2 or A Mind for Numbers 3 to see how books can help the person learn the information contained in the book itself.
  5. An over emphasis on limited testing for grades and an under-emphasis on the value of testing for learning. A mid-term and a final are good ways to encourage students to cram. Repetitive and routine testing has been shown as the best way to truly master material, even testing before the material has been taught.

The Future State

So how will Polyhistorious be different? Polyhistorious will focus not only on the content, but also its delivery and cutting edge learning techniques to help the student remember it in context. This will happen in three specific ways.

  1. Memorable to real human beings. The content delivery will be dynamic, funny, and even a little bit over-the-top. Why? Because that is how we humans remember things. A funny story, a preposterous anecdote, or a splashy graphic are things our minds remember. Ask any car salesman or ad man if those things work. Imagine Jim Cramer of Mad Money teaching history. (In reality, Cramer does teach a lot of history and context. It is one of the strengths of his delivery.)
  2. Varied and interlocking methods. The delivery will be made in several interlocking formats that make it easy for you to use and review. Videos, podcasts, texts, graphics, and software will be used to allow you to take in the information in ways that you prefer and when and where you have the time to consume them. Watch the video at lunch, listen to the podcast on your run or walk, set the graphic as your screen saver for a couple of days, and use the digital flashcard app on your phone before you go to bed. The varying nature of the delivery helps you remember better.
  3. Leveraging cutting edge research to deliver mastery. The content delivery will use research-proven learning techniques that have been explored in bestsellers like, A Mind for Numbers 3, How We Learn 4, and Make It Stick 2. Using concepts like low-stress active recall, spaced repetition, interleaving of content, specific memory techniques, primed reflection, and embracing difficulty, Polyhistorious will use the latest research-driven knowledge we have on how people best learn material to deliver mastery.

The Polyhistorious Opportunity

Polyhistorious will launch with the field of Military History. That field will be expanded in the future. Additionally, Polyhistorious will also expand into other fields of history, such as science, economics, computing, law, medicine, and philosophy. Each field will begin with an introductory course that provides the mental hooks for future courses and knowledge to be hung upon.

Watch this Space

More information will follow very soon about the American Military History course. In the meantime, you can register your interest with your email address. I’ll inform you when we’re ready to roll.

1 – Book II pages 140-141. Clausewitz, Carl von, Michael Eliot Howard, and Peter Paret. On War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
2 – Brown, Peter C. Make It Stick The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
3 – Oakley, Barbara A. A Mind for Numbers How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). New York: Tarcher, 2014.
4 – Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens / Benedict Carey. New York: Random House, 2015.

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