Nicolai Alexandrovich Bernstein – reformer of neuroscience

Created: Saturday, 04 February 2012


Nicolai Aleksandrovich BernsteinAncestors of Nicolai Aleksandrovich Bernstein (1896-1966) came from famous Bernstein and Eger families, both with great scientific traditions. His father, Alexander Nicolaevich Bernstein, was an outstanding Russian psychiatrist. As a young boy Nicolai wanted to become a  linguist, but when he was 18  it brought out the First World War. Hence, Nicolai changed his mind and studied medicine, because many physicians were needed in the army.

When after First World War and civil war in Russia at last came peace, Bernstein worked in psychiatric clinic. At the same time he studied mathematics and theoretical mechanics. His special point of interest was neurophysiology and motor control processes. At that time in Soviet Russia the most outstanding scientist was Nobel Prize winner – I. P. Pavlov. Moreover, the science in soviet Russia (and not only in Russia, and not only at that time) was strongly influenced by politics, so it was not safe to propagate other views then Pavlov did. Nevertheless, Bernstein has chosen his own way in science. In 1935 he wrote a book, in which he discussed with Pavlov’s views. It was already finally prepared to be printed, but at that time Pavlov died and Bernstein decided not to publish it, because Pavlov would have no possibility to discuss. It seemed that this book were lost.

Until 1947 Bernstein worked at National Central Institute of Physical Culture in Moscow, where he was the head of scientific department. At 1947 he won very prestigious national prize (so called Stalin prize) for his famous book “O postroyenii dvizheniy” (On construction of movements), in which he presented five-level system of movements’ construction. Regrettably, somewhat later he was accused of being a cosmopolitan and deprived of job.  Fortunately enough, it was impossible to prevent him to think. Here his fate reminds the history of I. Newton, who made his most important discoveries in 1665 and 1666, when in Cambridge was a plague and the university was closed. Also Bernstein, deprived of possibility of experimental work and direct contact with the Institute, created a new branch of science: physiology of activity. Apart from this, he turned to cybernetics, because just then he saw great capabilities – at that time yet “sleeping” – of this branch of science.

After the Second World War, in the West the motor science was falling down, and in Soviet Russia the views not consistent with Pavlov’s theory were suppressed. Thus the Bernstein’s historic ideas were not allowed to  grow and flourish, as they deserve it. After his death in 1966 it seemed that Bernstein’s heritage will be lost. At the end of his life he managed still to authorize the book “The Co-ordination and Regulation of Movements” – until 1996 the only Bernstein’s book published in English. His not numerous disciples dispersed all over the world, and even in Russia main “motor science makers”  were followers of Pavlov’s stream of thinking.

Fortunately enough, his friend and disciple, Professor I.M. Feigenberg – honorary member of the International Association of Sport Kinetics and member of our Scientific Committee – managed to find out many of Bernstein’s books and papers and to publish them. Thus, only in 1991 the book “On Dexterity and Its Development” – for many years regarded as lost – was published in Moscow, and

five years later in English translation in New Jersey. In 2006 this book was translated into Chinese and published in China. In 2003 in Moscow appeared another Bernstein’s book saved by I.M. Feigenberg: “Contemporary Studies in the Physiology of the Neural Process”. It was Bernstein’s dispute with Pavlov, for many years also regarded as lost. 

What Nikolai Bernstein did in science?  It would be probably instructive to read some contemporary comments by outstanding western scientists. The three next quotations were published in 1996. According to G.J. van Ingen Schenau and J. van Soest: 

It has often been stated that the ideas of Bernstein, relevant to many disciplines that constitute the human movement sciences, placed him ahead of his time by 20-50 years.

M.T. Turvey and C. Carello wrote:

But with his recognition that synergies are  exploited in the execution of higher-level behaviors and with his focus on the level at which behavior can be said in a very real sense to ”run itself”, Bernstein was ahead of his time.

And the last quotation of E.S. Reed and B. Bril reads as follows:

It is worthwhile to compare Bernstein’s On Dexterity (or Gibson’s, 1950, Visual World) to several other important psychology books of that era. Hebb’s Organization of Behavior (1949), Ashby’s  Design for a Brain  (1952), and Miller, Galanter and Pribram’s (1960) Plans and the Structure of Behavior are all roughly contemporaneous with Bernstein’s book, and all the major contributions to the  study of behavior. Yet, in none of these is there anything approaching the scope or rigor of Bernstein’s analysis of behavior.

In 2005 R.A. Schmidt and T.D. Lee wrote that Bernstein’s papers:

(...) served as a significant catalyst to  the merging of the neural control and motor behavior areas.

In 2006 M. L. Latash of Penn State University so wrote about “Contemporary Studies in the Physiology of the Neural Process”:

It seems that the heritage of Nikolai Bernstein will never stop surprising researchers in the field of motor control. (...) What a shame that this book is unavailable to generations of scientists and is still inaccessible to those of us who do not read Russian.

What is to be noted, it’s true that Bernstein himself died, but his ideas and way of thinking – not. So, one may discuss with Nikolai the Great and tell him: at this point you are right, but here you are obviously wrong! Then Nikolai Alexandrovich smiles wisely from the old photo, as if he wanted to say: Read it once more, please! And usually he is right! Well, sometimes his particular statements might be regarded as slightly outdated, indeed, but his way of thinking remains instructive and fertile also today!

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