Wilhelm Wundt: biography of the father of scientific psychology

In the history of psychology, there are few figures as relevant as Wilhelm wundt.

In the middle of the 19th century, this researcher gave birth to scientific psychology and was one of the first to face the practical and epistemological problems of the study of mental processes with the intention of extracting generalizable knowledge to de many people. In this article, I have undertaken to do a brief review of his role as the initiator of a science which, until not so long ago, was one of the many facets of philosophy.

Wilhelm Wundt: biography of a fundamental psychologist

I know a lot of people who, when they began to study psychology on their own as a hobby, began to read books by classical philosophers like Plato or Aristotle.

I’m not sure exactly why they start with this kind of reading, although I can imagine it: they are well-known authors, their books are easily accessible (although difficult to interpret) and they also represent the first attempts at systematic examination of the functioning of the human mind.

However, the works of these philosophers do not fundamentally deal with psychology (although etymologically the word psychology has its roots in the origins of Western philosophy) and, in fact, does not tell us anything about the methodologies they use today. in behavioral research. . The origin of behavioral science is relatively recent: it took place at the end of the 19th century and was led by Wilhelm Wundt.

Wundt’s role in psychology

Psychology seems to have been a part of our existence for a long time; deep down, since we started asking ourselves questions about how we think and how we perceive reality, millennia ago. However, this is only a half-truth. Neither psychology is simply the formulation of questions about behavior and mental processes, nor has it existed independently of the development of our history.

This is why, although in some respects it can be said that philosophers like Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations of psychology, the person in charge of making this science emerge as an independent discipline was Wilhelm Wundt, A German researcher who, in addition to being a philosopher, invested a lot of effort in making mental processes something subject to be studied by the experimental method, which had not been done in previous centuries. That is why, by general consensus, psychology is considered to have originated in 1879, when Wundt opened the first laboratory of experimental psychology in history in Leipzig.

The new search for the spirit

Until the 19th century, the task of many philosophers had been to create theories of the workings of the human mind based on speculation. authors com David Hume He René Descartes they talked about the nature of ideas and how we perceive our environment, but they did not build their theories from experimentation and measurement. After all, his job was to examine ideas and concepts rather than explaining in detail what the human body looks like. Descartes, for example, spoke of innate ideas not because he came to the conclusion that they exist from controlled experiences, but from reflection.

However, during Wundt’s time, the development of the study of the brain and advances in statistics helped to lay the groundwork for the study of behavior and sensation by means of measuring instruments. Francis galton, For example, developed the first tests to measure intelligence, and around 1850 Gustav Fechner he began to study how physical stimulation produces sensations according to their intensity and how our senses are stimulated.

Wundt took the scientific study of the mind further by claiming to generate theories about the overall functioning of consciousness based on experimentation. If Galton had sought to describe psychological differences between people to find statistical patterns, and Fechner had used lab tests to study sensation (a very basic level of consciousness), Wundt wanted to combine statistics and the experimental method to generate a picture of the deepest workings of the mind.. That is why he decided to stop teaching physiology at the University of Heidelberg and move on to research the most abstract mental processes in Leipzig.

How did Wundt investigate?

Much of Wilhelm Wundt’s experiments were based on the methodology Gustav Fechner used to study perception and sensation. For example, for a short time, a person was shown a pattern of lights and asked to tell what they were experiencing. Wundt many disadvantages have been taken to allow comparison of cases between them: The time that a stimulus should last was strictly controlled, as well as its intensity and form, and the situation of all volunteers used should also be controlled so that the results obtained were not contaminated due to external factors such as as position, noise from the street, etc.

Wundt believed that from these controlled observations in which variables are manipulated, one could “sculpt” a picture of the secret basic mechanisms of the mind. What I wanted was basically to discover the simpler pieces that explain how consciousness works to see how each one works and how they interact with each other, the same way a chemist can study a molecule in examining the atoms that form.

However, he was also interested in more complex processes, such as selective attention. Wundt believed that the way we respond to certain stimuli and not others is guided by our interest and motivations; unlike other living things, says Wundt, our will plays a very important role in directing mental processes towards goals decided by our own judgment.. This led him to defend a conception of the human spirit called voluntarism.

Wundt’s legacy

Today, Wundt’s theories have been ruled out, among other things, because this researcher relied too much on the introspective methodIn other words, getting results based on how people talk about how they feel and experience. As we know today, although each individual has a privileged knowledge of what is going on in his head, this is hardly ever valid and is the product of a large number of biases and perceptual limitations and cognitive; our body is made in such a way that knowing objectively what the psychobiological processes operating in its backyard look like is much less of a priority than surviving without too much distraction.

This is why, among other things, current cognitive psychology takes into account these unconscious mental processes which, although different from those theorized by Sigmund Freud, powerfully influence our way of thinking and feeling without realizing it and without having the possibility to guess the causes for ourselves.

However, despite the logical limits of Wilhelm Wundt’s work (or perhaps because of them), the entire current psychological community is indebted to this pioneer for being the first to systematically use the experimental method in an exclusively dedicated laboratory. to psychology.

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