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Wilhelm Wundt: biography of the father of scientific psychology

Wilhelm Wundt: biography of the father of scientific psychology

September 5, 2023

In the history of Psychology there are few figures as relevant as Wilhelm Wundt .

In the 19th century, this researcher caused scientific psychology to be born and was one of the first to face the practical and epistemological problems of studying mental processes with the intention of extracting generalizable knowledge from many people. In this article I propose to make a brief review of his role as initiator of a science that until not so long ago was one of the many facets of philosophy.

Wilhelm Wundt: biography of a fundamental psychologist

I know many people who, when they have proposed to start studying psychology on their own as part of a hobby, start by reading books by classical philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle.

I do not know exactly why they start with this type of reading, although I can imagine it: they are well-known authors, their books are easily accessible (although difficult to interpret) and, in addition, they represent the first attempts to systematically examine the functioning of the human mind.

However, the works of these philosophers do not deal fundamentally with psychology (no matter how etymologically the word psychology has its roots in the origins of Western philosophy) and, in fact, they do not tell us anything about the methodologies that are used today. in research about behavior. The origin of behavioral science is relatively recent: it took place at the end of the 19th century and was carried out by Wilhelm Wundt.

The role of Wundt in Psychology

Psychology seems to have been part of our existence for a long time; basically, 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.

That is why, although in certain aspects it can be said that philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations of psychology, the one in charge of making this science emerge as an independent discipline was Wilhelm Wundt , a German researcher who, in addition to philosopher, invested many efforts in making mental processes somewhat prone to be studied through the experimental method, something that had not been done in previous centuries. This is the reason why, by general consensus, it is considered that psychology was born in 1879, the year in which Wundt opened in Leipzig the first laboratory of experimental psychology in history.

The new investigation of the mind

Until the nineteenth century, the task of many philosophers had been to create theories about the functioning of the human mind based on speculation. Authors like David Hume or Rene Descartes they talked about the nature of ideas and the way in which 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 explain in detail how the human body is. Descartes, for example, spoke about innate ideas not because he had come to the conclusion that they exist from controlled experiments, but from reflection.

However, in the time of Wundt, the development of the study of the brain and the advances in the field of statistics contributed to the preparation of the necessary bases so that one could begin to study behavior and sensation through measurement instruments. Francis Galton , for example, developed the first tests to measure intelligence, and by 1850 Gustav Fechner He began to study the way in which physical stimulation produces sensations according to its intensity and the way in which our senses are stimulated.

Wundt took further the scientific study of the mind to try to generate theories about the global functioning of consciousness based on experimentation. If Galton had tried to describe the psychological differences between people to find statistical trends and Fechner had used laboratory tests to study sensation (a very basic level of consciousness), Wundt wanted to combine the statistics and the experimental method to generate an image of the deepest mechanisms of the mind . That is why he decided to stop teaching physiology at the University of Heidelberg to move on to investigate the most abstract mental processes in Leipzig.

How did Wundt investigate?

Much of Wilhelm Wundt's experiments were based on the methodology used by Gustav Fechner when studying perception and sensation. For example, for a short time a light pattern was shown to a person and he was asked to say what he experienced. Wundt It took a lot of trouble to make it possible to compare cases with each other : the time a stimulus should last was strictly controlled, as well as its intensity and form, and the situation of all the volunteers that were used must also be controlled so that the results obtained were not contaminated due to external factors such as the position, the noises coming from the street, etc.

Wundt believed that from these controlled observations in which variables are manipulated could be "sculpting" an image about the secret basic mechanisms of the mind. What I wanted was, fundamentally, to discover the simplest pieces that explain the functioning of consciousness to see how each works and how they interact with each other, in the same way that a chemist can study a molecule by examining the atoms that they form it.

However, he was also interested in more complex processes, such as selective attention. Wundt believed that the way in which we attend to certain stimuli and not to others is guided by our interest and our motivations; unlike what happens in other living beings, Wundt said, our will has a very important role when it comes to direct mental processes towards goals decided by our own criteria . This led him to defend a conception of the human mind called voluntarism.

The legacy of Wundt

Nowadays Wundt's theories have been discarded, among other things, because this researcher relied too much on the introspective method , that is, in obtaining results according to the way in which people talk about what they feel and experience. As is known today, although each individual has a privileged knowledge about what happens in his head, this is almost never valid and is the product of a large number of perceptive and cognitive biases and limitations; our body is made in a way in which objectively knowing how the psychobiological processes that operate in its back room are much less priority than surviving without getting too distracted.

That is why, among other things, that current Cognitive Psychology takes into account those unconscious mental processes that, despite being different from those theorized by Sigmund Freud, have a powerful influence on our way of thinking and feeling without our realizing it and without that we have a chance to guess their causes by ourselves.

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

Wundt and the Founding of Psychology (September 2023).

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