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Psychology’s Development into a Science

[10/15/11]

In a society where psychology is still associated with Rorschach tests and Freud, it seems debatable as to whether the study has really developed into a science or whether it is still stuck in an abyss of philosophy. More likely, the general population is simply still not informed well enough about the aspects of the study.

“Psychology” translates literally to the “study of the soul,” where the Greek word psykhe means “spirit” or “soul.” On the other hand, Merriam-Webster defines psychology as “the science of mind and behavior.” Evidently, much has changed since philosopher Christian Wolff created and first used “psychology” in his 1732 publication Psychologia Empirica.

Common misconceptions in psychology are largely derived from the study’s roots in philosophy. Seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, for example, is famous for proposing the connection between the mind and body. We now know that the mind and body do indeed associate together, but Descartes’s first theorizations of such a link were ironically not inspired by scientific discovery. They were instead procured by his arrival at the Saint-Germain royal gardens in France, where he observed hydraulically operated statues controlled by underground mechanical plates. Greatly interested by the immobile machinery that brought life to the animated sculptures, Descartes formulated his theory that paradoxically established a basis to psychology.

Soon after, British philosopher John Locke suggested the “blank slate,” the idea that humans are born with no knowledge and that their minds are “slates” onto which knowledge and experience are inscribed. Many philosophers posed varying opinions regarding Locke’s “blank slate” theory, but it was only until scientific experimenting and medical procedures that facts could be established.

In this sense, it was a kind of revolution in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt—properly deemed the “father of experimental psychology”—created a device that determined the cumulative processing and reaction time span for a person to hear a ball hit a surface and then press a key. The experiment was conducted in Germany’s University of Leipzig, thus creating the first official psychology laboratory. Soon after, more psychology experiments and labs emerged; as an offspring of this, psychology started stemming out into diverse subcategories. Some branches—such as neuro- and developmental psychology—favored the burgeoning scientific view, while others—like the various forms of therapy—still leaned toward the philosophical roots.

In the years to come, many new scientists staked their fame. Nonetheless, most were seemingly lauded only by fellow psychologists despite the significance of their discoveries and claims. Psychologist William James, for example, made great strides when he called psychology the “science of mental life” in his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology. His new definition alone doubtlessly helped incite the notion that psychology was a science.

Ivan Pavlov contributed equally to the science of psychology as he established the common Pavlovian conditioning method. Also called classical conditioning, his experiments introduced a form of learning where one unconsciously connects a physical automatic response with a random stimulus. In his research, Pavlov played a pitch prior to feeding a dog. Upon encountering the food, the dog started salivating. The pattern was repeated several times: the tone, the food, the dog’s salivating. After continued repetition, the dog unconsciously learned to salivate at the mere sound of the tone. In this sense, the animal acquired a learned response to a stimulus that was previously deemed random and unrelated. The dog now had a conditioned response (salivating) to a conditioned stimulus (the pitch).

In essence, Pavlov’s studies introduced a novel type of learning while simultaneously opening doors to more research in sleep, mental disorders, and other concepts related to the realms of the unconscious mind. A key concept driving his direction of research was behaviorism, the idea that psychology should be objectively studied with no mention of mental processes. In other words, he believed the study should be entirely focused on the unconscious beyond-awareness aspect.

Behaviorism’s unique perspective naturally sparked debate among psychologists, and, like any other young science, psychology experienced internal conflicts and clashes. A few years after Pavlov published his first findings on classical conditioning, three German psychologists—Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler—introduced Gestalt psychology. Though this theory was not direct opposition toward behaviorism, it was established around mental processing (which behaviorism avoided). Their gestaltism altogether emphasized one’s visual identification of an object’s parts in order to mentally create and comprehend the overall picture.

Wilhelm Wundt, William James, Ivan Pavlov, and Wolfgang Kohler are four noteworthy psychologists who contributed immensely to the development of psychology into a science. Yet when most people think of psychologists, Sigmund Freud is doubtlessly—and ironically—one of the first to come to mind. While Freud made his own contributions to psychology and human understanding, it is debatable as to how much forward these contributions drove psychologists and their strides to turn psychology into a science…

[To be continued.]

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  1. January 3, 2012 at 8:16 AM

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