Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize Winner. Man the Unknown, 1939. [Source]
[…] A man’s value depends on his capacity to face adverse situations rapidly and without effort. Such alertness is attained by building up many kinds of reflexes and instinctive reactions. The younger the individual, the easier is the establishment of reflexes. A child can accumulate vast treasures of unconscious knowledge. He is easily trained, incomparably more so than the most intelligent shepherd dog. He can be taught to run without tiring, to fall like a cat, to climb, to swim, to stand and walk harmoniously, to observe everything exactly, to wake quickly and completely, to speak several languages, to obey, to attack, to defend himself, to use his hands dexterously in various kinds of work, etc. Moral habits are created in an identical manner. Dogs themselves learn not to steal. Honesty, sincerity, and courage are developed by the same procedures as those used in the formation of reflexes— that is, without argument, without discussion, without explanation. In a word, children must be conditioned.
Conditioning, according to the terminology of Pavlov, is nothing but the establishment of associated reflexes. It repeats in a scientific and modern form the procedures employed for a long time by animal trainers. In the construction of these reflexes, a relation is established between an unpleasant thing and a thing desired by the subject. The ringing of a bell, the report of a gun, even the crack of a whip become for a dog the equivalent of the food he likes. A similar phenomenon takes place in man. One does not suffer from being deprived of food and sleep in the course of an expedition into an unknown country. Physical pain and hardship are easily supported if they accompany the success of a cherished enterprise. Death itself may smile when it is associated with some great adventure, with the beauty of sacrifice, or with the illumination of the soul that becomes immersed in God.
The psychological factors of development have a mighty influence on the individual, as is well known. They can be used at will for giving both to the body and to the mind their ultimate shape. We have mentioned how, by constructing proper reflexes in a child, one may prepare that child to face certain situations advantageously. The individual who possesses many acquired, or conditioned, reflexes reacts successfully to a number of foreseen stimuli. For instance, if attacked, he can instantaneously draw his pistol. But he is not prepared to respond properly to unforeseen stimuli, to unpredictable circumstances. The aptitude for improvising a fitting response to all situations depends on precise qualities of the nervous system, the organs, and the mind. These qualities can be developed by definite psychological agencies. We know that mental and moral disciplines, for instance, bring about a better equilibrium of the sympathetic system, a more complete integration of all organic and mental activities. These agencies can be divided into two classes: those acting from without, and those acting from within. To the first class belong all reflexes and states of consciousness imposed on the subject by other individuals or by his social environment. Insecurity or security, poverty or wealth, effort, struggle, idleness, responsibility, create certain mental states capable of molding human beings in an almost specific manner. The second class comprises the factors which modify the subject from within, such as meditation, concentration, will to power, asceticism, etc.
The use of mental factors in the making of man is delicate. We can, however, easily direct the intellectual shaping of a child. Proper teachers, suitable books, introduce into his inner world the ideas destined to influence the evolution of his tissues and his mind. We have already mentioned that the growth of other mental activities, such as moral, esthetic and religious senses, is independent of intelligence and formal teaching. The psychological factors instrumental in training these activities are parts of the social environment. The subjects, therefore, have to be placed in a proper setting. This includes the necessity of surrounding them with a certain mental atmosphere. It is extremely difficult today to give children the advantages resulting from privation, struggle, hardship, and real intellectual culture. And from the development of a potent psychological agency, the inner life. This private, hidden, not-to-be-shared, undemocratic thing appears to the conservatism of many educators to be a damnable sin. However, it remains the source of all originality. Of all great actions. It permits the individual to retain his personality, his poise, and the stability of his nervous system in the confusion of the new city.
Mental factors influence each individual in a different manner. They must be applied only by those who fully understand the psychological and organic peculiarities which distinguish human beings. The subjects who are weak or strong, sensitive or insensitive, selfish or unselfish, intelligent or unintelligent, alert or apathetic, etc., react in their own way to every psychological agency. There is no possibility of a wholesale application of these delicate procedures for the construction of the mind and the body. However, there are certain general conditions, both social and economic, which may act in a beneficial, or harmful, way on each individual in a given community. Sociologists and economists should never plan any change in the conditions of life without taking into consideration the mental effects of this change. It is a primary datum of observation that man does not progress in complete poverty, in prosperity, in peace, in too large a community, or in isolation. He would probably reach his optimum development in the psychological atmosphere created by a moderate amount of economic security, leisure, privation, and struggle. The effects of these conditions differ according to each race and to each individual. The events that crush certain people will drive others to revolt and victory.
We have to mold on man his social and economic world. To provide him with the psychological surroundings capable of keeping his organic systems in full activity.
These factors are, of course, far more effective in children and adolescents than in adults. They should constantly be used during this plastic period. But their influence, although less marked, remains essential during the entire course of life. At the epoch of maturity, when the value of time decreases, their importance becomes greater. Their activity is most beneficial to aging people. Senescence seems to be delayed when body and mind are kept working. In middle and old age, man needs a stricter discipline than in childhood. The early deterioration of numerous individuals is due to self-indulgence. The same factors that determine the shaping of the young human being are able to prevent the deformation of the old. A wise use of these psychological influences would retard the decay of many men, and the loss of intellectual and moral treasures, which sink prematurely into the abyss of senile degeneration.