Psychology as a scientific study
The late 19th century marked the start of psychology as a scientific enterprise. Psychology as a self-conscious field of experimental study began in 1879 in Leipzig, when German scientist Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory dedicated exclusively to psychological research. Often considered the father of psychology, Wundt was the first person to refer to himself as a psychologist and wrote the first textbook on psychology, entitled Principles of Physiological Psychology (Figure 2).
Wundt believed that the study of conscious thoughts would be the key to understand the mind. His approach to the study of the mind was ground-breaking in that it was based on systematic and rigorous observation, laying the foundation for modern psychological experimentation. He systematically studied topics such as attention span, reaction time, vision, emotion and time perception. Wundt's primary method of research was "introspection," which involves training people to concentrate and report on their conscious experiences as they react to stimuli. This approach is still used today in modern neuroscience research; however many scientists criticize the use of introspection for its lack of empirical approach and objectivity.
Edward B. Titchener, an English professor was a student under Wundt, expanded upon Wundt's ideas and used them to found the theory of structuralism, which attempted to understand the mind as the sum of varying underlying parts. This theory focused on three things: (1) the individual elements of consciousness, (2) how these elements are organized into more complex experiences, and (3) how these mental phenomena correlate with physical events. The mental elements structure themselves in such a way to allow conscious experience.
Titchener attempted to classify the structures of the mind much like a chemist classifies the elements of nature into the periodic table (Figure 1) - which is not surprising, given that researchers were making great advancements in the field of chemistry during this time. He defined consciousness as the sum total of mental experience at any given moment, and the mind as the accumulated experience of a lifetime. He believed that if the basic components of the mind could be defined and categorized, then the structure of mental processes and higher thinking could be determined. What each element of the mind is (what), how those elements interact with each other (how), and why they interact in the ways that they do (why) were the basis of reasoning that Titchener used in trying to find structure to the mind. Similar to Wundt, the main tool that Titchener used to try and determine the different components of consciousness was introspection. Unlike Wundt’s method of introspection, however, Titchener had very strict guidelines for the reporting of an introspective analysis.
Structuralism was criticized because its subject of interest - the conscious experience - was not easily studied with controlled experimentation. Its reliance on introspection, despite Titchener's rigid guidelines, was criticized for its lack of reliability. Critics argued that self-analysis is not feasible, and that introspection can yield different results depending on the subject. Critics were also concerned about the possibility of retrospection, or the memory of sensation rather than the sensation itself.
As structuralism struggled to survive the scrutiny of the scientific method, new approaches to studying the mind were sought. One rather important alternative was functionalism, founded by William James in the late 19th century. Built on structuralism's concern for the anatomy of the mind, functionalism led to greater concern of the functions of the mind, and later on to behaviorism.
Functionalism considers mental life and behavior in terms of active adaptation to the person's environment. As such, it provides the general basis for developing psychological theories not readily testable by controlled experiments such as applied psychology. James' approach to psychology was less concerned with the composition of the mind, and more concerned with examining the ways in which the mind adapts to changing situations and environments. In functionalism, the brain is believed to have evolved for the purpose of bettering the survival of its carrier by acting as an information processor. In processing information the brain is considered to execute functions, similar to those executed by a computer.