Loretta F. Kasper

from Teaching English Through the Disciplines: Psychology

Whittier Publications

© 1998-Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D.


The Mind-Body problem

The theory of Dualism holds that the mind and body are separate entities and operate according to different principles. According to this theory, the body is governed by physical laws; the mind is not, since it possesses freewill. The mind could control the body; but there was little influence in the opposite direction.

Rene Descartes advanced the idea of mutual interaction: this meant that the body could affect the mind and vice versa. Later, The British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Hartley) believed that the mind could be modeled in a similar fashion to physical systems, i.e., in terms of elements (ideas) and forces (associations) that act upon those elements in lawful ways. The empiricists also emphasized the importance of learning in our understanding of the world. They believed that all the materials of reason and knowledge come from


Early Scientific Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), called the father of scientific psychology, wrote Principles of Physiological Psychology in 1873. He founded the Structuralist school of psychology, organized psychology as an experimental science, and helped to establish it as an independent discipline. Wundt established the first laboratory of experimental psychology in 1879 at Leipzig, and the first psychology journal. He did not believe that the higher mental processes such as memory, thought, and creativity could ever be studied experimentally; the experimental method could only be applied to the study of sensation and perception.

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1 850-1909) initiated his pioneering experiments on human learning and memory, which culminated in his important book On Memory in 1885.


Structuralism- the structure of mental life

Wilheim Wundt was the originator of the Structuralist school of psychology. Titchener brought structuralism to the US at Cornell University. The structuralist school believed that The Primary Questions for Psychology were: 1. What are the elements of experience?; 2. How are they combined?; 3. Why? What is the cause?

The structuralists believed that the basic elements of experience were sensations (sights, sounds, etc.); images or ideas, which represented experiences not actually present, and affections, which were emotional reactions such as hatred, joy, and love. They worked to break down complex mental experience into their components, or separate parts. The method used by structuralists to help the person break up, or decompose these events was called introspection.

The structuralist school died out after 1920. It was replaced by the functionalist school of psychology.

Functionalism- The Uses of the Mind

The functionalist school was concerned with the functions of mental processes and structures. It first developed as a result of Darwin's theory of evolution in England and in the US, as people began asking about the adaptive significance of psychological processes. This means they wanted to know how our behavior helps us to deal with changes in our environment; how we adapt our behavior so that we may survive changing situations.

John Dewey (1859-1952) initiated functionalism at the University of Chicago in 1894. Dewey argued that psychological processes were continuous, ongoing events; he talked about "the stream of consciousness." Dewey emphasized studying behavior in its natural context to determine its functions.

Functionalism emphasized applied activities such as mental tests and education, and helped introduce the study of lower organisms into psychology.

Freudian Psychoanalysis: The Role of the Unconscious

Freud believed that unconscious motivations, wishes, and desires strongly influenced behavior. Unpleasant or traumatic experiences were repressed, or pushed out of conscious awareness. Freud believed that these repressed impulses determine what we do, how we act, and even the jobs we get.

According to Freud, personality is made up of three interacting systems: the ID, the EGO, and the SUPEREGO. The id's impulses were ruled by the pleasure principle, and so needed immediate satisfaction without regard to consequences. The ego represents the reality principle. The ego helps keep the id in check by helping to fulfill the id's impulses in acceptable ways. The superego is like the conscience. The superego judges impulses, tries always to be perfect, and creates guilt in the individual.

Freud believed that these three systems were in constant conflict. A healthy personality resulted from a balance among the three systems. An imbalance created psychological problems. In order to solve these problems, the individual needed to face these unconscious conflicts by bringing them to the level of conscious awareness.

Behaviorism: Rejecting Mental Explanations

In 1913, John Watson published a paper, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It", and started the behaviorist school of psychology. The behaviorists were intent on establishing psychology as a natural science. They considered that most important behaviors were learned, so the study of learning became the central focus of interest. Behaviorists believed that mental constructs such as consciousness, imagery, and attention were not useful scientific constructs because they were not directly observable behaviors.

B.F. Skinner is probably the most famous of the behaviorist psychologists. Skinner believed that all behaviors were responses to environmental stimuli; therefore, anything that a person does has some cause originating in his/her surroundings. In addition, all behavior is learned. Nothing is innate, or inborn. The behaviorist point of view is central to the Nature-Nurture debate. Nature means that certain behaviors are inborn, inherited from our parents. Nurture means that behaviors are learned from models in our environment. This means that if our environment is violent, we learn violence; if it is peaceful, we learn peaceful behaviors.

Gestalt Psychology: Perception of the Whole

The Gestalt psychologists argued against the elementaristic position of structuralism, and they claimed that perception of objects was of wholes, not complicated sums of parts. The basic principle of Gestalt psychology was that People perceive the world in unitary wholes. Gestalt principles are very important in the area of perception. Wertheimer (1880-1943) advanced perceptual principles such as shape, size, and brightness constancy. For example, the principle of shape constancy means that if we stand in front of a table with a book on it, the image of the book on the retina is rectangular; when we move sideways, the retinal image may become trapezoidal, yet we still perceive the book as rectangular. Therefore, Perception appears to have qualities of wholeness independent of the changing sensations projected on the visual receptor (the retina). Köhler applied Gestalt principles to other areas of psychology, e.g., learning, memory, and problem solving. An interesting Gestalt experiment involved the chimp, Sultan. Sultan was placed in a cage with three hollow poles of different sizes. A bunch of bananas was placed outside of the cage. The only way to reach the bananas was to make a long pole out of the three smaller ones. Köhler found that Sultan was able to solve this problem after a period of thinking about it. This period of thinking about a problem is called "incubation". After the period of incubation, the solution came suddenly, like a light going on. This was called insight. Gestalt principles had a great influence on modern cognitive psychology, especially in the areas of perception, problem solving, and thought.


The era of schools of psychology declined around 1940. Experimental social and child psychology received considerable attention during the 1930s and 40s. In the 1950's, Cognitive psychology reinstated the scientific study of higher mental processes as a legitimate and feasible endeavor. Cognitive psychologists rejected the behaviorist school because they believed that many mental operations were difficult to explain in terms of conditioned associations between environmental stimuli and responses. In addition, modern technology such as computers allowed the quantification, or numerical measurement of concepts previously measured poorly.

Information processing models represent human cognitive processes in terms of information flow through the system. Cognitive psychology was greatly influenced by computer science. Computers provided a model for the way the human mind encodes, stores, processes, and retrieves information. Computer technology led to the development of artificial intelligence, which was aimed at exploring the relationships between human and machine intelligence.

The most notable recent trend in psychology is SPECIALIZATION-workers within one field of psychology are quite likely to know little about the other areas.