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Psychology: a Science Impacted by Aspects and Prospects of The 19th Century

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Psychology has long moved away from philosophy which regarded the brain as separate from the body, and gone are the days where psychology was studied from the viewpoint of religion which was largely interested in the morality of humankind. Early attempts at empirical psychology like craniometry, which proposed that brain size correlates with intelligence and phrenology, which suggested that the shape of the brain gives insight to a person’s character, has also been abolished because of the lack of verifiable evidence (Hughes, 2012). Yet, one of the most popular fields of study at universities today is psychology. The 19th century saw a great peak of curiosity amongst scientists to understand the brain and human behaviour. Factors like the universities liberation from authority also contributed to professor’s endeavours to study their own intellectual interest and the evolutionary theory proposed by Charles Darwin led scientist to be more inquisitive about humanity in terms of where we came from, where we are and where we are going. These factors and perspectives made psychology a science to the fullest extent and are continuing to shape scientific psychological research in 2018.

In the 17th and 18th century scientist like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton evidenced that observed regularities in the universe are governed by laws that in turn can be explained by mathematical formulas. This gave observation a significant role in science and caused scientists to show more interest in human perception in the 19th century. One of these scientists was the German physician, Ernst Heinrich Weber, who investigated what ratio is needed for a human being to discern the difference in weight when lifting two objects with a marginal discrepancy in mass. This inspired his colleague Gustav Fechner to devise a law that numerically measured the degree in which a sensation was felt by a human against the strength of a stimulus (Brysbaert & Rastle 2013). Fechner also tested this theory on other human senses and by doing this refined his way of measuring the just noticeable difference. This became Psychophysics: a way that measures the most primitive and intrinsic form of human perception that is known to all normally- functioning humans (Read, 2015). This verifiable technique of observing human perception has its current uses, especially when combined with technological advances like functional magnetic resonance imaging or magnetoencephalography to broaden the knowledge of higher brain functioning (Read, 2015).

Fechner’s contemporary, Hermann von Helmholtz, also from Germany, began to inquire about the speed of nerve impulses. To measure this von Helmholtz stimulated the motor nerve of a frog at different locations on its leg, by means of electric shock, and measured accurately how long it took for the muscle to contract. He conducted similar studies on humans but with a weaker electrical shock and found surprising consistency at their reaction times. However, von Helmholtz admitted his result on humans depended entirely on the participant’s attention during the time of the experiment (Schmidgen, 2002). This research motivated the Dutch professor of physiology, Franciscus Cornelius Donders to reproduce the experiment, giving more attention to the psychological aspect of the speed of communication between the human brain and the nervous system (Schmidgen 2002). Donders became disillusioned with the galvanization of participants and later formulated his own test using human utterance as both stimuli and reaction. In this test, Donders used a simple phonetic sound like “ki” and asked his participants to repeat it as soon as they heard it. A second test was designed where participants were given a succession of syllables (for example “ki”, “ko”, “ka”) but participants were asked to respond only if they hear the word “ki” (Brysbaert & Rastle, 2013; Schmidgen, 2002). By comparing the result of both tests Donders concluded that he found the time needed for a basic psychological process (Schmidgen, 2002). This method became the basis of Mental Chronometry: the valid procedure, still used today, to measure the time needed to perform a mental task (Brysbaert & Rastle 2013).

In the 1800’s Charles Darwin discovered that plants with a particular trait can survive on a certain terrain while others can’t. The plants with the trait that helps them survive on the specific territory then mate with each other to form a new species. This process was termed Natural Selection (Brysbaert & Rastle, 2013) and is perhaps the most significant scientific breakthrough of the 19th century. This hypothesis would rouse scientists to explore human evolution. Darwin’s own cousin, Francis Galton, was triggered by this theory and had a notion that intelligence is genetically passed on to children from their parents. To prove his proposition, he designed and distributed a questionnaire to his to fellow scientist to establish their personal background and their intellectual influences. This was arguably the first time a questionnaire was used to investigate psychological factors (Fancher, 2009), an approach which is still popular amongst psychologist. From the questionnaire, Galton concluded that scientist’s talent was innate, however, their intellectual interest was enhanced and modified by other environmental factors. This coined the term Nature vs Nature wish is still a hot topic of debate today. Galton also designed similar questionnaire to investigate behavioural characteristics of twins only to realise that he could not really decipher if the similarities in a pair of twin’s characteristics were because of their genetics or if the differences in their characteristics were because of the environmental influences (Fancher 2009). Besides never really finding conclusive evidence Galton’s work has an influence on how intelligence and other psychological factors are measured presently.

One of the most fundamental laws of the scientific method is that a scientist should be able to recreate an experiment and generate the same results. In the second half of the 19th century, Adolph Quetelet observed that this law is extremely difficult to follow when studying human behaviour as psychological measures are planted in a lot of noise that can range from attention spend to biological differences between the participants. He called this accidental causes (Jahoda, 2015). To eliminate the accidental causes Quetelet examined many participants over a long period of time and calculated the average of how many times a certain type of behaviour can occur during the duration observation (Brysbaert & Rastle, 2013). Ronald Fisher refined this statistical method when he organised large amounts of data to see wish conditions will work best for cultivating plants. In the end, Fisher proposed that it is easier to split the plants into a group where the soil was fertilised for a long period and a group where it wasn’t and then to compare the average. Because all other confounding variables would also be averaged out the scientist can then see if the fertiliser has an effect or not (Brysbaert & Rastle, 2013). This is the method that psychologists still use to test a null hypothesis (Write, 2009).

According to Brysbaert & Rastle (2013), there was already a vast amount of psychological literature circulating around in 1850. However, psychology was still not seen as an independent discipline as it lent itself to theology and philosophy. This would all change in Germany where universities broke away from teaching religious dogma and professors were encouraged to pursue their own intellectual interest, giving Wilhelm Wundt the perfect opportunity to establish the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig in 1879. Wundt defined psychology as a study of ‘mind consciousness’ and therefore conceded to investigate consciousness empirically (Asthana, 2015). He actively promoted psychological research and inspired many young scientists to set up their own psychology laboratories and teaching psychology as an independent subject at universities around the world. Another contribution of Wundt’s was that he divided psychological processes into two distinct categories; simple psychological processes and complex psychological processes (Benjafield, 2002). He studied simple psychological processes like sensation and perception by using the experimental method wish incorporated psychophysical techniques, measurements of the duration of simple mental procedures and accuracy in recall tasks. For inquiring about complex psychological processes like language and the social aspect of human behaviour, Wundt proposed the historical method in which he investigated the differences between cultures and taking social and historical aspects into considerations (Benjafield, 2002; Brysbaert & Rastle, 2013). The distinction of using experimental methods for simple psychological processes and historical methods for complex psychological processes is still seen in how research is conducted by psychologists in the 21st century.

Although Wilhelm Wundt inspired many scientists to study the consciousness of the mind in laboratories it was a neurologist by the name of Sigmund Freud who conceptualised an empirical method through which it became possible to gain insight into the unconscious thought of men (Gedo, 2002), by the end of the 19th century (Moore, Meyer, & Viljoen, 2015). Freud was interested in patients with hysterical symptoms and was convinced that these symptoms were caused by repressed memories from their childhood (Brysbaert & Rastle 2013). To understand his patient’s unconscious thoughts Freud would ask his patients to remember and recall their dreams. He used this method because he believed that the patients’ forbidden or repressed desires can break through the barrier of the conscious while dreaming (Moore et al., 2015). After recalling their dream, sections of the dream are used as a stimulus to which the patients must reveal the first words that come to mind without emotional bias whether they think it is appropriate or not. From this practice, Freud can then interpret the dream and analyse the patient’s unconscious thoughts. This method works because the unconscious cannot be uncovered via introspection or conversation as the patient only see themselves through the perspective of their own biases (Moore et al., 2015). Through this method, Freud was able not only to uncover the unconscious thoughts of his patients he was also able to teach them coping strategies to deal with their now unveiled motives and by so doing he was able to help them overcome their neuroses. This method of therapy became known as psychoanalytic therapy which is a therapy still used by many psychologists, particularly in the west, at present.

In summary, the 19th century saw how scientist started to observe tangible proof of basic human psychological experiences and how they created a method that could measure the time it takes to perform a mental process. The period also inspired scientists to formulate techniques of investigating psychological matter while others proposed a way of calculating data of living beings. All these empirical factors would then make it easy for Wilhelm Wundt to set up the first psychological laboratory and to encourage the active investigation of consciousness which in turn inspired Sigmund Freud to develop a psychotherapy that focuses on the unconscious thoughts and motivations of his patients. The examples provided here are only a few amongst many other elements that shaped the science of psychology in the 19th century. However, by taking these components and viewpoints into consideration it is easy to see how psychology has become a science to the fullest scale and how the 19th century is still influencing scientific psychological studies in the 21st century. Although, like any other science, paradigms are continually shifting in psychology, its scientific method proofs to be difficult to alter.

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Psychology: a Science Impacted by Aspects and Prospects of the 19th Century. (2019, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from
“Psychology: a Science Impacted by Aspects and Prospects of the 19th Century.” GradesFixer, 14 May 2019,
Psychology: a Science Impacted by Aspects and Prospects of the 19th Century. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 May 2022].
Psychology: a Science Impacted by Aspects and Prospects of the 19th Century [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 May 14 [cited 2022 May 22]. Available from:
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