Hi all. First and foremost, I would like to apologize deeply for my waxing and waning presence. I have actually had a lot going on. First, I’ve been working 100 hours a week between two jobs (which I do not recommend to anyone and especially those wanting to go to medical school), as well as my recent 21st birthday, and, the day after, the 9th anniversary of my mother’s death. I am hoping that now that I am down to about 75 hours a week, things should be a bit better. Still, my current situation is not ideal and I would at least like to cut things down to about 60 hours a week. Hopefully, I can work on achieving this and dedicate more time to the site, as I should be doing.
Today, we will be discussing the beginnings of the field of psychology. Psychology is said to have an “official” birth date of the year 1879. In this year, Wilhelm Wundt, a physiologist, established at the University of Leipzig Germany the first formal psychology research lab. Other German physiologists such as Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Fechner were making progress in the field at this time, as well. They were studying vision in addition to other sensory and perceptual processes that, via the theory of empiricism, were thought to be the channels through which human knowledge flows. Fechner discovered that someone could study such mental processes by observing people’s reactions to changes in stimuli. As an example, how much brighter a light would have to be before we consider it twice as bright was studied by Fechner, and he thus discovered complex but inferable relationships between alterations in physical characteristics of stimuli and changes in the way we experience them psychologically. This approach taken by Fechner was called psychophysics and it paved the way for more research to be done and more discoveries to be made in the field of psychology (Bernstein et al. 2012).
Wilhelm Wundt also used scientific methods in the laboratory in order to study sensory-perceptual systems. However, for Wundt, the focus was consciousness. Consciousness is defined as the mental experiences created by sensory-perceptual systems. Wundt had the goal of being able to describe basic elements of consciousness, the organization of these elements, and their relationships to one another. Wundt was able to study the speed of mental events such as decision making as just one example. In his efforts to observe conscious experience, Wundt used a technique known as introspection, which means “looking inward.” Wundt trained research participants in this method, and then he provided varying stimuli such as showing a light or making a sound, after which eh requested that participants give a description of the sensations and feelings they experienced as a result of exposure to the stimuli. Through this experimentation, Wundt found that “quality” (e.g., cold or blue) and “intensity” (e.g., brightness or loudness) are the two essential elements of any sensation. Wundt also found that feelings can be described in terms of pleasure or displeasure, tension or relaxation, and excitement or depression. Wundt’s research lead to the change in psychology from a philosophy to a science (Bernstein et al. 2012).
A student of Wundt’s, an Englishman named Edward Titchener continued with Wundt’s work by studying introspection in his own lab at Cornell University. His research lead to him adding “clearness” as an element of sensation. He called his approach structuralism, because he was attempting to define the structure of consciousness (Bernstein et al. 2012).
However, Wundt’s methods of studying psychology were also met with some criticism. For some of his fellow German scientists, such as Hermann Ebbinghaus, it was thought that using introspection to analyze consciousness was not all that important. Ebbinghaus used his own lab experiments and served as his only participant in order to form the basis of some of what we know about memory today. In 1912, psychology experienced a greater, significant change, when other German colleagues, such as Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler completely argued against Wundt’s method of doing things. That is to say, while Wundt believed in breaking down human experience or consciousness into its component parts, Gestalt psychologists believed that it was more important to focus on the whole shape of conscious experience to get a more accurate understanding of psychology, because the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts. As an example of how this is applied to our everyday lives, consider the case in which a pair of lights goes on and off in a particular sequence. If done just right, we will not see two separate flashing lights, but what we will see is a single light that is apparently “jumping” back and forth. This phi phenomenon as it may be known is common with advertising signs, as you might have seen, with some creating the impression of a series of lights racing around a display. Another example is movies. Movies start off as thousands and even millions of still images that are printed on a reel of film. If we just looked at these images by themselves, we would certainly not get the same feelings and sensations that movies provide us with; we might not even understand what is going on. But, when those images are projected onto a screen and played at a particular rate, the combination formed is rich and is able to create a much more deeply emotional experience than just pictures would. Therefore, for Gestalt psychologists, examples such as these served as evidence for their belief that a whole must be studied, rather than just its component parts (Bernstein et al. 2012).
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