Brief History of Psychology


While the subject of psychology in today’s modern world reflects the rich and colorful history of the discipline, its origins differ greatly from contemporary notions of the field. To fully understand what psychology is about, it is important to delve into its history. How did this discipline originate? When did it originate?

Contemporary psychology deals with a wide range of topics; while at the same time observing patterns of human behavior and mental processes from the cultural level to the neuronal level. Psychologists study all matters related to human mental problems that start from birth and continue until the death of the person. Therefore, by gaining a complete understanding of the history of psychology, you will be able to understand how individual subjects are studied and what has been learned so far.
Doubts and questions at the beginning

During the first years, psychology was established as a separate science, breaking with philosophy and physiology. Other additional questions that psychologists also faced throughout the history of the subject were:
What problems and issues should the subject of psychology address?
What research methods should be used when studying it?
Should research be used 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 second half of the nineteenth century, its early history dates back to the ancient Greeks. During the 1600s, the famous French philosopher, René Descartes, introduced the concept of dualism, which emphasized the fact that the body and 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, such as the relative contributions of nature to nurture, are deeply rooted in these primitive philosophical concepts.

So, why is psychology different from philosophy? While many of the early philosophers relied heavily on methods such as logic and observation, current psychologists tend to use methods to study and arrive at conclusions about human behavior and thinking. Physiology also made great contributions towards the eventual emergence of psychology as a science. Early physiology research on behavior and the brain had a very dramatic impact on psychology as it is today, ultimately leading to the application of many scientific methodologies that study human behavior and thinking.

A Separate Scientific Discipline

In the mid-nineteenth century, Wilhelm Wundt, a German physiologist, began to use scientific research methods to study reaction times. His works describe many of the most important connections between physiology and psychology.

So, what were Wundt’s views on psychology? He considered the topic as a study of human consciousness and even tried to apply certain experimental methods to study internal mental processes. While this process today is known as introspection and is considered to be very unscientific and unreliable, in those days it helped set the stage for all future experimental methods. And although its influence began to diminish in the coming years, this impact on the subject is absolutely unquestionable.

First school of thought

One of Wundt’s most famous students, Edward B. Titchener, became one of the founders of the first school of thought in psychology. According to structuralism, human consciousness can be divided into small parts. Using introspection, the trained students tried to break down reactions and responses to the most basic of all perceptions and sensations.

Although structuralism is notable due to its emphasis on scientific research methods, it is now considered unreliable, subjective and limiting. With the death of Titchener, the concept of structuralism vanished.


Psychology flourished in America in the 19th century. William James jumped to the 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 basis for a new school of thought, which was known as functionalism. Functionalism focused on how human behavior works to help people comfortably in their respective environment, using methods such as direct observation. The functionalists, however, emphasized the fact that consciousness is a constantly changing and more continuous process. Although functionalism is no longer considered a school of thought, it did influence the next generation of psychologists.

Sigmund Freud

Up to this point, psychology placed more emphasis on conscious human experience. However, Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian physician, changed the face of psychology in a dramatic way by presenting a theory of personality that emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind. His work with patients suffering from mental disorders such as hysteria led him to believe that our early childhood experiences, as well as our unconscious impulses, contribute greatly to the development of our behavior and adult 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 great impact on the psychology of the twentieth century, which influences mental well-being, as well as in many other fields, such as literature, art and popular culture. Although many of its concepts are viewed today with skepticism, its influence on modern psychology can not be questioned.

Appearance of behaviorism

Psychology evolved dramatically during the 20th century, and another school of thought known as behaviorism became dominant. Behaviorism was a very large change from all previous theoretical perspectives, and rejected the emphasis on the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. Instead, he endeavored to make the discipline more scientific by emphasizing observable behavior.

The behavior emphasizes the fact that the subject of psychology is basically the behavior of a human being. The impact of this school of thought was enormous and dominated the scene for almost 50 years. Although it eventually lost its importance, the basic principles of behaviorism are still used today. Therapeutic methods such as symbolic economies and behavior modification are often used to help children 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 second half of the 20th century. Known as the “Third Force” in psychology, this theoretical concept emphasizes conscious experiences.

Modern psychology

As you may have noticed, the discipline of psychology has seen a huge change and growth since its inception with Wundt. The story certainly does not end here. Since then, psychology has continued to change and evolve, and new perspectives and ideas have been introduced. Recent psychological research focuses on many aspects of human behavior and experience, from the impact of cultural and social factors to biological influences on human behavior.

Nowadays, most psychologists do not identify with only one school of thought. Instead, they prefer to focus on certain perspectives or specialized areas, often drawing conclusions from a wide range of theoretical backgrounds. This contemporary approach has brought new theories and ideas that still continue to shape the future of psychology.

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