Brief History of Psychology

A Brief History of psychology: Most important developments since its foundation

Psychology is defined as the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, particularly the ones affecting human behaviour. However, psychology also studies human behavior and the processes behind it. Still, there is little agreement among scholars over whether psychology is a scientific study. Scientific studies are placed mainly in two categories. The first category is that of the physical sciences and the second of the social sciences.

Why psychology is considered a social science is for its relationship to the social life. Researchers in psychology make use of the scientific processes and values for the purpose of research. In this regard, it would be right to consider psychology a scientific study. The use of scientific methods like conceptualization of problems, collection of data, its analysis and then getting conclusions based on them are quite common in psychological research.  

Psychology has a very old history. It has evolved through stages over time. It was studied in ancient Greece and there is evidence related to its study in ancient Egypt as well. However, it was not till 1870 that it became an independent branch of study. Till then, it was considered a branch of philosophy. The first major development came with Wilhelm Wundt’s foundation of his laboratory dedicated to the study of psychology in 1879. Wundt was also the first person to have referred to himself as a psychologist and having written a book on psychology. He wrote the first book in psychology titled, “Principles of Physiological psychology’.

The developments that had taken place before Wundt were of little significance. The earliest studies that took place in ancient period did not produce anything noteworthy. Most important developments in this field occurred during the 1900s.  Some of the most important names who contributed to the evolution of psychology during its earliest phase are William James, Ivan Pavlov and Herman Ebbinghaus. While Ebbinghaus pioneered the study of memory, Pavlov is known for his theory of classical conditioning and James as the American father of pragmatism. Their research and theories proved foundational and guided the studies and research that followed. 1879 is considered the most important date in the history of psychology and Wundt still remains most important contender as its father.

Soon after the birth of experimental psychology, several other forms of applied psychology followed. The modern psychology differed from its ancient forms in terms of the methods and techniques it utilized.   Ancient psychology, however also saw some developments of minor significance. The ancient Egyptian physicians had become aware of brain damage. A Greek physician named Galen had derived some knowledge of brain functions by dissecting the brains of small animals. He combined it with his knowledge of human brain derived through the treatment of injured gladiators. Other important discoveries were made as Europe progressed by Luigi Galvani and Gioni Aldini. Johannes Muller had started studying the nervous system and the sensory mechanisms during the early 1800s. With it psychophysics was born which continued to develop till the birth of psychology in 1879. 

Since then, psychology has developed a lot as a scientific discipline. Modern psychology is comprised of several general areas of research. However, the general focus of research in all these fields has remained on behavioral and psychological traits. These traits include developmental, psychological, physiological, social, cognitive and personality traits. The focus of developmental psychology is mainly on the traits formed during the childhood and adolescence. Social psychology on the other hand focuses on interpersonal behaviour. Physiological psychology is mainly concerned with the chemical and biological processes underlying the psychological phenomena. Cognitive psychology, however, studies reasoning, creativity and problem solving.

Wilhelm Wundt founded a school of thought known as structuralism. This school of thought sought to break the conscious experiences of mind into their basic parts so as to know how they were assembled into our mental experience. However, functionalism later challenged this school of thought. It proposed a study of functioning of mind instead of the conscious experiences. In 1900, Freud published his 'Interpretation of Dreams'. He argued regarding the significance of studying the unconscious mind for treating the mental disorders. In 1905, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon had founded the field of psychometrics and Max Wertheimer founded the Gestalt School in 1912. One important aim of Gestalt school was to oppose structuralism and its emphasis on the study of consciousness which it did by breaking it into its basic parts. William James, an American psychologist with a background in anatomy, physiology and philosophy is known as the father of functionalism. John Watson published his ‘Behaviorism’ in 1913 where he laid emphasis on the fact that psychology should rely on observable behavior. For the next 60 years, this idea had dominated the study of psychology.

Psychologists use the scientific method to conduct research. They make observations, gather data, form theories, test predictions as well as interpret the results on their basis. Researchers make observations to measure and describe behaviour. They observe events repeatedly and then form theories explaining the observations. Under a theory, separate pieces of information are organized coherently.  However, researchers develop a theory only when they have considerable evidence to support or prove it. They also make sure that the research results can be reproduced. Psychological research should be able to meet some specific criteria before it can be considered scientific. It should be replicable, falsifiable, precise and parsimonious. Anything that can vary is considered a variable.

For example, memory, time, attention etc. A dependent variable is the one that is affected by changes to the independent variable. The independent variable is under the researcher’s control and he can make changes to it. The dependent variable undergoes corresponding changes which is known as correlation. A hypothesis is a tentative statement defining the relationship between two or more variables. A hypothesis does not always need to be true but is only a prediction of the results that the researcher expects. The objective of the research remains to determine if the predictions are correct or not. The results do not necessarily support the hypothesis. It is why researchers generally provide suggestions regarding other options that can be used to conduct further research in the same area. While a hypothesis is just a prediction, a theory is more like a well-developed principle that explains some important aspect of the natural world. A theory is tested extensively before being accepted.  A hypothesis is more like a speculation that remains to be tested.

Since its foundation in the small lab at University of Leipzig, by Wundt, psychology has seen a lot of development. Phenomenological perspective and psychoanalytic perspective are some of the dominant perspectives in psychology. The phenomenological perspective has its roots in philosophy whereas the founder of psychoanalytic research was Sigmund Freud. The shift from behaviorism towards more cognitive models in psychology had begun in 1951. However, behaviorism still dominated the psychological landscape till the 1970s. The shift however, had started with the works of Rogers and Noam Chomsky. ‘Syntactic Structures’ by Noam Chomsky published in 1957 suggested that language is an innate capacity of the human brain and not a fruit of behavioural habits.

Thus, since Wundt laid its foundation, psychology has developed a lot to the point where it stands today. Today, psychology has become relevant to every sphere of our life and even a separate stream of psychology called Industrial psychology has evolved which focuses on psychological issues related to workplace and work life. It is also known as business psychology, organizational psychology or work psychology. From our personal lives to social lives, the implications of psychology are evident everywhere. In case of social issues like crime, psychology is  hugely relevant. It has played an important role in the design and development of successful prevention strategy. From Wundt and Freud to Noam Chomsky, psychology has developed a lot and is far more relevant in our lives than several other sciences.

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