How and Why Did Psychology Develop as an Academic Discipline

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Psychological thought has been around as early as the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates. Psychology’s routes stem from the early academic disciplines of philosophy, physics and biology.

In the 1600s philosopher and physiologist Rene Descartes was concerned with how the mind and body worked in coalition. He then went on to write the first physiological psychology extended essay about his theory of automatic reaction. He suggested that the body could affect the mind and that the mind can create a physiological affect on the body. Rene’s physiological and psychological theorising in his work and literature became the starting point for other investing psychological phenomena.

Empiricisms rise in the 1600s from philosophers and academics John Lock, Francis Bacon and David Hume impacted on the way psychology is thought about today. They believed the study of mind should be following observational and experimental techniques.

Other Philosophical ideas that influence psychology today came from philosopher Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz (1646-1716). He suggested the theory of the ‘unconscious’ and his conception would go on to influence Freud’s psychoanalytic approach.

Physics played a huge crucial part in the development of psychology. In 1834 a physicist educated in biology, Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887), was appointed professor of physics at the University of Leipzig. As a lecturer and professor at the University, Fechner laid the groundwork in experimental methodology. Drawing influence from theories such as Rene Descartes he developed the relationship between mind and matter by experimenting on and writting books about visual and sensory perception. The cognitive approach today incorporates the perceptual systems and work can be found on visual constancies and the nature/nurture debate.

Fechner is regarded as having proved that psychology was an actual measureable science and as a mathematician the value of using scientific quantitative data. Fechner’s biggest contribution to the world of psychology was introducing psychophysics, a method of using quantitative data to measure perception and the physiological effects.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book named ‘On the origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ which suggested radical ideas about the evolution of organisms. Darwin believed that a biological process had made some creatures more adaptable to survive in different environments. Studying animal behaviour he had noticed similarities with humans, from which “The Theory of Evolution” was born. It was Darwin who first tried to explain the fight or flight response and relate it to human heighten states of nervous arousal like anxiety. He suggested that it was an innate biological inheritance passed down from our ancestors in response to a threatening situation. This was also a time of advances in neurological science such as Franz Nissl’s contribution to Cytoarchitecture.

In 1879 Wilhelm Wundt founded the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig and founded the first school of psychology; Structuralism. His major influences were Fechner and Herman Von Helmholtz and his work reflected the same thinking. Structuralism was about understanding the mental processes, perception, sensation and feelings. In a process called introspection Wundt trained his subjects to describe exactly how they felt physically and emotionally when confronted with stimuli. Structuralists believed in studying the conscious mind and observing the observable. In opposition a second school of thought called functionalism was beginning to surface, led by William James. Functionalism was more about investigating the function of consciousness. James believed, as did Darwin, that the consciousness and thought function was simply a survival mechanism. Like structuralists they used the introspective method but also preferred the method of observing animals. Contributions to psychology from functionalists came from...
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