Psychology is an academic and applied field involving the study of behavior, mind and thought and the subconscious neurological bases of behavior. Psychology also refers to the application of such knowledge to various spheres of human activity, including problems of individuals' daily lives and the treatment of mental illness. It is largely concerned with humans, although the behavior and mental processes of animals can also be part of psychology research, either as a subject in its own right (e.g. animal cognition and ethology), or somewhat more controversially, as a way of gaining an insight into human psychology by means of comparison (including comparative psychology). Psychology is commonly defined as the science of behavior and mental processes.
Psychology does not necessarily refer to the brain or nervous system and can be framed purely in terms of phenomenological or information processing theories of mind. Increasingly, though, an understanding of brain function is being included in psychological theory and practice, particularly in areas such as artificial intelligence, neuropsychology, and cognitive neuroscience.
The late 19th century marks the start of psychology as a scientific enterprise. The year 1879 is commonly seen as the start of psychology as an independent field of study, because in that year German scientist Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory dedicated exclusively to psychological research in Leipzig, Germany.
Wundt is considered the father of Psychology. He pioneered the field with his historical approach of structuralism which attempted to understand the mind as the sum of varying underlying parts. Wundt collected data through the use of introspection with his subjects. He believed that the study of conscious thoughts would be the key to understand the mind. This experimental introspection was in contrast to what had been called psychology until then, a branch of philosophy where people introspected themselves.
Introspection is the direct observation or rumination of one's own heart, mind and/or soul and its processes, as opposed to extrospection, the observation of things external to one's self.
Cognitive psychology accepts the use of the scientific method, but rejects introspection as a valid method of investigation. It should be noted that Herbert Simon and Allen Newell identified the 'thinking-aloud' protocol, in which investigators view a subject engaged in introspection, and who speaks his thoughts aloud, thus allowing study of his introspection.
Wundt argued that "we learn little about our minds from casual, haphazard self-observation...It is essential that observations be made by trained observers under carefully specified conditions for the purpose of answering a well-defined question."
Many scientists criticized the idea of introspection as part of psychology because the observation of stimulation was speculative without an empirical approach and lacked objectivity. However the case, a new light to introspection has been created called Psychophysics. Psychophysics is the branch of psychology dealing with the relationship between physical stimuli and their perception.
Other important early contributors to the field include Hermann Ebbinghaus (a pioneer in studies on memory), the Russian Ivan Pavlov (who discovered the learning process of classical conditioning), and the Austrian Sigmund Freud.
The mid-20th century saw a rejection of Freud's theories among many psychologists as being too unscientific, as well as a reaction against Edward Titchener's abstract approach to the mind.
Edward B. Titchener (1876-1927) was an Englishman and a student of Wilhelm Wundt before becoming a professor of psychology at Cornell University. He would put his own spin on Wundt's psychology of consciousness after he emigrated to the United States.
At the turn of 19th century the founding father of experimental psychology Wilhelm Wundt tried to experimentally confirm his hypothesis that conscious mental life can be broken down into fundamental elements which then form more complex mental structures. Wundt's structuralism was quickly abandoned because it could not be tested in the same way as behavior, until now, when brain-scanning technology can identify, for example, specialized brain cells that respond exclusively to basic lines and shapes and are then combined in subsequent brain areas where more complex visual structures are formed. This line of research in modern psychology is called cognitive psychology rather than w:structuralism because Wundt's term never ceased to be associated with the problem of observability.
Structuralism could not survive the scrutiny of the scientific method, thus new approaches to studying the mind arose. One rather important historical approach was Functionalism. William James authored the book The Principles of Psychology which covered almost every topic that is now studied; learning, sensation, memory, reasoning, feelings, consciousness, and the revolutionary theory of emotions.
William James' approach to psychology was less concerned with the composition of the mind as Wilhelm Wundt wanted but rather to examine the ways the mind adapts to changing situations and environment. How for instance does one fear an a dangerous creature when they are running. Is the fear a product of the physiological changes that occur when a person notices a danger to himself? Or does the danger instigate the fear that causes the person to run away? These are topics that interested William James. Unfortunately Functionalism did not last as a unique approach but many of its elements have had great impact in other areas such as educational psychology.
Functionalism wasn't the only approach to develop during this time. A group of psychologists in Germany led by Max Wertheimer had been studying perceptions. One of their most famous experiments was to flash several light bulbs consecutively after one another to create a pattern of moving lights. Not much unlike how we see traffic signal that move in one direction. The bulbs them selves are not moving but they give the perception of movement. This early approach in studying patterns and perception was called the Gestalt approach literally meaning "whole pattern". The Gestalt approach emphasized that perception is more than the sum of the parts and studied how sensations are assembled into meaning perceptual experiences. Many of the principles of the Gestalt approach are still used to explain how we perceive objects.
No approach, though has lasted as a whole more than the Behavioral approach of John B. Watson. In his Book "Psychology as a Behavioralist views it" Watson rejected completely the technique of Wundt's structuralism and posed that the objective of psychology is to analyze observable behaviors to predict and control them. Behaviorism has been the dominant approach in psychology since the early 1900s and continues onto the present.
The majority of mainstream psychology is based on a framework derived from cognitive psychology, although the popularity of this paradigm does not exclude others, which are often applied as necessary. Psychologists specializing in certain areas, however, may use the dominant cognitive psychology only rarely if at all.
Cognitive psychology is the psychological science which studies cognition, the mental processes that are hypothesized to underlie behavior. This covers a broad range of research domains, examining questions about the workings of memory, attention, perception, knowledge representation, reasoning, creativity and problem solving.
Cognitive psychology is radically different from previous psychological approaches in two key ways.
- It accepts the use of the w:scientific method, and generally rejects introspection as a valid method of investigation, unlike phenomenological methods such as Freudian psychology.
- It posits the existence of internal mental states (such as w:beliefs, w:desires and w:motivations) unlike behaviorist psychology.