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Brief History of Psychology

Natasha Bantwal Feb 27, 2020
While the subject of psychology in today's modern world does reflect the discipline's rich and colorful history, its origins differ quite considerably from the contemporary notions of the field. In order to fully understand what psychology is all about, it is important to delve into its history.
How did this discipline originate? When did it originate? Find the answers in this story.
Contemporary psychology deals with a vast range of topics; while at the same time looks into human behavioral patterns and mental processes from the cultural level to the neural level. Psychologists study all matters pertaining to human mental issues that begin right from birth and continue until the death of the person. So, by gaining full understanding of the history of psychology, you will be able to understand how the individual topics are studied and what has been learned so far.

Doubts and Questions at the Beginning

During the early years, psychology established itself as a separate science, breaking away from philosophy and physiology. Other additional questions that psychologists were also faced with throughout the history of the subject were:
  • What issues and topics should the subject of psychology deal with?
  • What methods of research should be used when studying it?
  • Should research be used in order to influence education, public policy, and other aspects of human behavior?
  • Is psychology a science?
  • Should psychology focus on internal mental processes or on observable behavior?

Physiology and Philosophy

While psychology did not really emerge as a separate science until the latter half of the 19th century, its initial history can be traced right back to the ancient Greeks. During the 1600s, the famous French philosopher, Rene Descartes, introduced the concept of dualism,
which stressed on the fact the body and the mind were basically two separate entities that interacted together to form the normal human experience. Many of the other issues that are still debated by psychologists today, like relative contributions of nature vs. nurture, are deep-rooted in these early philosophical concepts.
So why is psychology different from philosophy? While many of the early philosophers relied heavily on methods like logic and observation, the psychologists of today tend to use methods to study and come to conclusions about the human behavior and thought.
Physiology also made large contributions towards the eventual emergence of psychology as a science. Early physiology research on behavior and brain had a very dramatic impact on psychology as it is today, ultimately leading to the application of many scientific methodologies that study the human behavior and thought.

A Separate Scientific Discipline

During the mid 19th century, Wilhelm Wundt, a German physiologist started using scientific research methods to look into reaction times. His works outlined many of the most important connections between physiology and psychology.
So what were Wundt's views on psychology? He looked upon the subject as a study of the human consciousness and even sought to apply certain experimental methods in order to study the internal mental processes. While this process today is known as introspection and is considered to be highly unscientific and unreliable, in those days it helped set the stage for all the future experimental methods. And although his influence began to dwindle in the years to come, this impact on the subject is utterly unquestionable.

First School of Thought

One of Wundt's most famous students, Edward B Titchener, went on to become one of the founders of psychology's very first school of thought. According to structuralism, the human consciousness can be broken down into small parts. Using introspection, trained students attempted to break down reactions and responses to the most basic of all perceptions and sensations.
Though structuralism is notable because of its emphasis on scientific research methods, it is considered to be unreliable, subjective, and limiting today. With Titchener's death, the concept of structuralism faded out.


Psychology flourished in America in the 19th century. William James came out on top as the leading American psychologist during this period and his principles made him the Father of American Psychology. His ideas and concepts served as the foundation for a new school of thought, which was known as functionalism. Functionalism focused on how the human behavior works towards helping people comfortably in their respective environment, using methods like direct observation.
The functionalists, however, stressed on the fact that consciousness is an ever-changing and more continuous process. Although functionalism is no longer considered to be a school of thought, it did go on to influence the next generation of psychologists.

Sigmund Freud

Until this point, psychology stressed more on the conscious human experience. However, Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian physician, changed the whole face of psychology in a dramatic way by putting forward a theory of personality that stressed on the importance of the unconscious mind.
His work with patients suffering from mental ailments like hysteria led him to believe that our early childhood experiences as well as our unconscious impulses contribute greatly towards the development of our adult behavior and personalities.
According to him, psychological disorders are basically the result of unconscious conflicts that take place within us, and that become unbalanced or extreme.
His theory had a huge impact on the 20th century psychology, influencing mental well-being, as well as in many other fields like literature, art and popular culture. Although many of his concepts are looked upon with skepticism today, his influence on modern psychology cannot be questioned.

Emergence of Behaviorism

Psychology evolved dramatically during the 20th century, and another school of thought known as behaviorism became dominant. Behaviorism was a very big change from all the previous theoretical perspectives, and rejected emphasis on the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. Instead, it strove to make the discipline a more scientific one by stressing on observable behavior.
Behavior stresses on the fact, that the subject matter of psychology is basically the behavior of a human being. The impact of this school of thought was enormous and it dominated the scene for almost 50 years.
Even though it eventually lost its importance, the basic principles of behaviorism are still used today. Therapeutic methods like token economies and behavioral modification are often used to help kids overcome maladaptive behavior and to learn new skills. Conditioning is used in most situations ranging from education to parenting.

Third Force or Humanistic Psychology

Although behaviorism and psychoanalysis dominated the first half of the 20th century, a new school of thought, known to us as humanistic psychology emerged during the latter half of the 20th century. Referred to as the 'Third Force' in psychology, this theoretical concept lays emphasis on conscious experiences.

Modern Psychology

As you may have already noticed, the discipline of psychology has been seen enormous change and growth since its early beginnings with Wundt. The story certainly does not end right here. Psychology has since continued to change and evolve, and new perspectives and ideas have been introduced.
Recent psychological research focuses on many aspects of the human behavior and experience, right from the impact of cultural and social factors to biological influences on human behavior.
Today, most of the psychologists don't identify themselves with a single school of thought. Instead, they prefer focusing on certain specialty perspectives or areas, often drawing conclusions from a wide range of theoretical backgrounds. This contemporary approach has contributed new theories and ideas that still continue to shape the future of psychology.