The Birth of Psychology as a Science

From the Lecture Series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

According to the science of genetics, a person needs to be put under a microscope to be understood, and the study of reality starts with an atomistic view. However, psychology is different since it deals with a complex entity: the human mind. Read on to know more about psychology developing as a science.

A man is seen standing in front of a big drawing of a brain on a gray wall.
The study of the human mind was challenging due to the limitations of the brain.
(Image: Kotin/Shutterstock)

A Historical Pattern of Approaching Reality

The reality is decomposed into distinct entities and then each one is examined individually. For example, Aristotle tried to define reality in physics by explaining how a rock falls. The rock falls in a straight line towards the center of the Earth because it seeks to fall into its natural place. The movement of the rock is defined by a principle that is inside it. The composition of the rock tells why the rock would like to move towards its natural place. So, to understand the reality of something, that thing needs to be examined closely.

But then, the views in physics advanced towards external forces as opposed to internal drives that define the reality of objects. Thus, it is not the composition of the rock that leads to its fall; instead, it is the Earth’s gravitation that attracts the rock to the center of the Earth. It is the relations between objects that define their realities. So, the fall of the rock could not be justified by studying the rock itself, but by examining its relationship with another entity: the Earth’s gravitational force.

This view sees humans not as individuals but as parts of a systematic whole. The uniqueness of humanity was explored through genetics. But it was still thought that human beings had a uniqueness that needed to be explored separately.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Scientific Study of the Human Mind

The human mind needs some more in-depth consideration, as it seems to be a unique entity. Scientists started to investigate the human mind in a scientific way in the 19th century. Wilhelm Wundt and Gustav Fechner started to study the relations between a person’s internal experiences with the world surrounding him or her. Seeing was no longer believing because what is seen is different from what is.

Photograph of Gustav Fechner.
Gustav Fechner was the first person to provide a scientific explanation of the brain. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

One of these differences is seen in the insensitivity of a person’s senses towards two slightly different stimuli. Fechner was the first person who discovered this issue. He wanted to know what degree of difference would be noticeable enough for people. He found a mathematical relationship that was consistent in touch, sight, and hearing. For the first time in history, the relations inside the brain were accounted for through strict laws of physics. This marked the birth of psychology as a science.

But it was not that simple. The human mind does not lend itself to scientific observation as is the case for hard sciences. When this machine is working, it is not possible to see how its parts are functioning. But when the machine is not working properly, the faulty components can be found more easily. Thus, psychology started with the treatment of the ill.

Learn more about evolutionary psychology.

The Mind and the Brain

The next development was associating certain human abilities with specific regions of the brain. This was first discovered by the French physiologist Paul Broca. He realized that speech problems were associated with damage to a part of the frontal lobe of the brain. That part is now called Broca’s area. The problem with this approach was that the brain was not accessible to doctors when the person was alive. Therefore, the treatment of patients was not successful at that time.

Picture of Carl Wernicke.
Carl Wernicke found that speech problems were associated with damage to not just the frontal lobe of the brain, but also to other areas of the brain. (Image: J.F. Lehmann, Muenchen/Public domain)

The picture got more complicated when the German researcher Carl Wernicke found that speech problems were associated with damage to other areas of the brain as well. These areas are called Wernicke’s area. So, it was found that different regions of the brain were responsible for complex human actions. Individual parts of the brain were no longer associated with one action only.

Then, with the revolutionary ideas of Sigmund Freud, human beings realized that they are not what they think they are. An individual is more than just the self in his or her head. There is a part that stores one’s relationships with others, especially those that are traumatizing and painful. The people and their desires, goals, and actions are defined by those relationships, and they are not one’s own creation. So, people are not individuals but internalized relations. The relations between the people, between the parts of the mind and the events in the past – all determine a person’s actions and values.

Learn more about the rediscovery of the mind.

Common Questions about the Birth of Psychology as a Science

Q: What was Gustav Fechner’s contribution to psychology?

Gustav Fechner started to study the relations between a person’s internal experiences and the world surrounding him or her. He realized that humans perceived slightly different stimuli as the same. So he wanted to see what degree of difference was noticeable to humans. He was the first person to provide a scientific approach to the human mind.

Q: Why is Wilhelm Wundt important?

Wilhelm Wundt was the first person who studied the relations between people’s internal experiences with the world surrounding them. He and Gustav Fechner laid the foundations of psychology as a science.

Q: Who was Paul Broca?

Paul Broca was a French physiologist who realized that speech problems were associated with damage to a part of the frontal lobe of the brain. That part is now called Broca’s area.

Q: What part of the brain did Carl Wernicke discover?

Carl Wernicke discovered a part of the brain that is called Wernicke’s area. This discovery made psychology more complicated as it showed human speech was connected to more than one area of the brain.

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