History of Psychology

A narrative of discoveries, successes and failures

Delving into the past, psychology is enmeshed in philosophy, one single trunk with many branches, a constant asking of why and a repeating creation of answers, philosophical assumptions about reality (lie back on the couch and redefine the lives of the people outside the door), untested yet approved, waiting for a new theory to break them down. The forebrain free to dream and place words next to each other, in pretty patterns and solid alliances, ready to resist the inevitable storm of questioners and critics, words against words, book against book, thought against thought.

But the year is 1879. Mr. Wilhem Wundt (physiologist, physicist, philosopher) defines psychology as the science of conscious experience and leaps into the adventure of creating the first laboratory dedicated to such studies (an empirical study, based on facts and clear experiment, to be proven and repeated, forever and ever). The method is to break down experience (the pencil held up before the shining eyes of the subject, after some conversation and a little bit of tea) into its basic elements (the elemental characteristics of the experience of watching a pencil – the longness, the yellowness, the weight, the dreams of poetry). These elements must be categorized and their laws must be found, leading to a complete and detailed understanding of the most complex experiences. Structuralism. Divide into building blocks, find the unifying laws, then reconstruct into a whole – a new science has been born.

J.B. Watson balks at the process of gathering data and at the object of study itself. How can conscious experiences be measured when only the individual can truly know its real nature? Experience is private but behavior is not – the eyes of psychology must turn to publicly observable events; the human subject placed in a lab (or in its own habitat), stimuli introduced (clear and definable physical events) and reactions measured, the twinkling of the eyes, the rubbing of the nose, the rapid burning of the acid at the pit of the stomach, the thirst. Conscious experience is banished and direct observation is welcomed, along with its entourage of little white rats and endless mazes.

Gestalt balked at the process of breaking down the experience, which should be studied whole, an organized total entity, not a sum of parts. The moment of perception is a complex but unified crucible, the parts can’t find their owner once separated and the separation inherently removes the truth from the study. Reality must be seen as complete, a total configuration.

Sigmund Freud, away from the clean laboratories and the classrooms of the academy, was carefully noting down the dreams of hysterics and the restructuring them into a new theory of personality and a vision of the utter strangeness within you. Through a reckless delving into the world of the disturbed, a vision of mind appeared, a door that swing both ways, into and out of the viscous darkness that lies inside and underneath the daily thoughts of the human, the savage and carefree hunger that burns at the root of all movement.