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The birth of experimental psychology: How do we measure beginnings?

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When was psychology born as a science? Image credit: Horia Varlan, Creative Commons.

Thursday 26th July saw the launch of, a new English language science blog network., the brand-new home for Nature Network bloggers, forms part of the SciLogs international collection of blogs which already exist in GermanSpanish and Dutch. To celebrate this addition to the NPG science blogging family, some of the NPG blogs are publishing posts focusing on “Beginnings”.

Participating in this cross-network blogging festival is’s Soapbox Science blogScitable’s Student Voices blog and bloggers from, SciLogs.deScitable and Scientific American’s Blog Network. Join us as we explore the diverse interpretations of beginnings – from scientific examples such as stem cells to first time experiences such as publishing your first paper. You can also follow and contribute to the conversations on social media by using the #BeginScights hashtag.


It’s 1879, and psychology is just about to be born. The place: the University of Leipzig. The birth parent: Wilhelm Wundt. The deed: establishing the first official university laboratory for the study of psychology, an event taken by many as the line that marks unofficial explorations from empirical, accepted science.

The laboratory has four rooms and a handful of students. By the early 1880s, it will grow to an astounding six rooms—and a total of 19 students. In 1883, it will award its first doctoral degree, to the first of Wundt’s advisees, Max Friedrich, on the topic of the time-course of individual psychological processes. That same year will see the publication of the first issue of the Journal Philosophische Studien, the first journal of experimental psychology, established—fittingly—by none other than Wundt.

From that point on, the future of the discipline will be assured: psychology will survive, and perhaps even flourish, with the dawn of the new century. It will not be just another experiment gone wrong.

That, at least, is the most straightforward story.

Wilhelm Wundt (seated) and his research group, ca 1880. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a date for the birth of Psychology as such. That 1879 laboratory is but one contender, and Wundt, but one possible father. But just think of how many paved the way for Wundt’s achievements. Is it fair to call him the start, or is he rather more of a point of coalescence (if that)? And how far back must we go, if we’re to be really fair?

Do we begin with the ancient Greeks and their reflections on the mind and body—and the links between the two? Surely, psychology would not be possible without these early philosophical musings. Or do we start with René Descartes and his contemplations of the nature of consciousness and thought? Descartes, after all, did make the soul into something much more physical than it had ever been before, with room for cause and effect, source and manifestation (specifically, he posited that the soul acted on the body at a particular organ in the brain, the pineal gland).

A portrait of Descartes, after Frans Hals. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Or perhaps, we’d do better to begin with Thomas Hobbes and his view of materialism: that everything is matter and energy and all of our behaviors, a product of the brain and physical processes. Hobbes’s logic sounds quite modern—and it did inspire the conception of empiricism, the notion that all knowledge comes through the senses – surely a scientific-sounding contention for our internal life.

Of course, all of those beginnings are, in a way, silly. They take the concept of origins one step too far. What we really mean when we talk about the start of psychology, it seems to me, is the birth of psychology as actual science. That point beyond theory and reflection (though, to be sure, those were essential), when a rudimentary methodology was put into place to put those theories and reflections to the empirical test—and to do so over and over and over again.

Is Fechner the proper Father of Psychology? Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

But even with that narrowed scope, we still come up against the same problem: can we really call Wundt the point of origin?

There’s Gustav Fechner, often credited with performing the first experiments that can be identified as psychological—and that, as early as 1839, when Wundt was only seven years old. Fechner might easily be called the father of psychophysics, which is today one of the most rigorous areas of psychological research. (Interestingly, today’s work is done largely in the field of vision—and what originally prompted Fechner’s interest was an injury to his eyes, sustained from staring too long at the sun, which left him temporarily blind.)

Between 1851 and 1860, Fechner developed three methods for finding the difference between two separate sensations: just noticeable differences, right and wrong cases, and average error. The methods, documented in Elemente der Psychophysik, are still in use today—and precede by over twenty years Wundt’s own explorations. Is this achievement—the demonstration that it was indeed possible to measure mental events, and to do so in physically understandable terms—not worthy of foundational status?

There are also those scientists who began, in the early-to-mid-1800s, to experiment with localized brain function: Pierre Flourens, who showed that damaging different parts of animals’ brains resulted in various types of movement deficits; Paul Broca, who demonstrated that damage to a specific area of the brain (which now bears his name) results in a loss of speech—but not a loss of understanding. Was this not early psychology—and a much more neuroscientific and biological one than much of what would follow?

There is, too, Ivan Pavlov, he of the salivating dogs and the beginnings of those central concepts in psychology’s history, behaviorism and conditioning. (And he in turn owes a debt to fellow Russian I. M. Sechenov, who wrote the monograph Reflexes of the Brain and argued that even the most complex-seeming behaviors could be understood as a reflex.) Pavlov’s Nobel Prize may have been in physiology, but his work was essential to many of the leading psychologists of the twentieth century—John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and the lot.

Pavlov (sitting, center) with his students, in 1891. Image credit: Wikimedia commons, public domain.

And then of course, there’s William James, the other man frequently associated with that most eminent of titles, Father of Psychology. He, too, has been credited with having established the first experimental psychology laboratory: according to some sources, his was operational as early as 1874 or 5. And what of his monumental text, The Principles of Psychology? Is it any less—if not far more—influential than Wundt’s own?

Priority aside, consider the two scientists’ overall position. When Wundt established his laboratory, he was hoping, most specifically, to find a way to measure the speed of mental processes in order to discover the elements that made up thought. The faster the process, he argued, the more “basic” the element. A typical experiment: have people complete two reaction time tasks, one more complex than the other. Subtract the simpler from the more complex. End up with the extra mental effort, in units of time, that the more complicated task requires.

James, on the other hand, didn’t believe that the mind was composed of so many elementary parts that you could easily measure and identify. Wundt, he wrote, was going about it all wrong—much as the person who analyzes the content of bricks in order to understand the nature of a house. But that, said James, tells you nothing at all about the house; not really. Instead, it is necessary to determine, first of all, what the house is for, and then, to see how it attains that purpose, as a whole. This approach is known as functionalism: a focus on the function as opposed to the structure of the mind.

To see just how different this view is from Wundt’s, consider the following excerpt from James’s The Principles of Psychology:

Romeo wants Juliet as the filings want the magnet; and if no obstacles intervene he moves toward her by as straight a line as they. But Romeo and Juliet, if a wall be built between them, do not remain idiotically pressing their faces against the opposite sides like the magnet and the filings with the card. Romeo soon finds a circuitous way, by scaling the wall or otherwise, of touching Juliet’s lips directly. With the filings the path is fixed; whether it reaches the end depends on accidents. With the lover it is the end which is fixed; the path may be modified indefinitely.

James may have been less consistently methodical than Wundt, but in the end, it is his ideas, whether derived from experiments or personal experience and reflection, that have had the greater influence on psychology’s development. Does that then make him more of a starting point? Does it matter that his Principles are now read much more widely than Wundt’s textbook, Principles of Physiological Psychology (Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie)?

Is William James rightly the father of psychology? Portrait by Sarah Choate Sears, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

And what of the other strains of thought that come from neither man? Can one really talk about the birth of modern psychology without at least a mention of Sigmund Freud, the Gestaltists, Watson and Skinner and the behaviorists—not to mention the humanists (à la Carl Rogers) and the social pscyhologists (the Gordon Allports and the Kurt Lewins), the cognitive psychologists and the animal psychologists, the developmentalists and the physiologists (now neuroscientists)?


It all goes back to Mark Twain, doesn’t it? “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Twain wrote to Helen Keller, “and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.” He continued with the proclamation that, “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing.” And that’s not to mention an entire field of thought.

Let’s forget for the moment, then, the goal of pinpointing a point of origin. And let’s end instead on a different note entirely: psychology in its current guise.

If there’s one thing we should remember, it’s this. Psychology is, relatively speaking, still a rather small, if often precocious, child. And while it’s already toddling, maybe even in its terrible twos, some of its sub-disciplines—like neuroscience—have barely opened their eyes. To put things in perspective, one of my old professors once likened the current state of neuroscientific research and methodology to astronomy at the times of Galileo: much promise, but still far more to learn—and instruments that, while new and fascinating, remain crude and in want of refinement.

Psychology is vibrant. It’s growing. It shows much promise. But it still has a long way to go.

And who knows, a hundred years from now, whose ideas will have withstood the test of time, who will seem prescient and who, downright silly and wrongheaded?

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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