The study of psychology has many different areas of interest brought about by the curiosity of pioneers and their fascination with the human psyche. The intellectual, social and political spirit of the times played a major role in shaping psychology into the scientific discipline it is today creating theories and models which can be built upon and enrich the lives of individuals. Most psychologists seem to agree that the only way these subjects can be explored is by the scientific method.
This involves using existing knowledge to pose a question, designing an appropriate study, collecting the data and then presenting the findings; although some areas of psychology use other methods which people argue are not scientific. At certain times in history people are willing to either reject or accept theories offered by great thinkers but each idea lays the foundation for continued investigation and understanding. Many subfields have developed over time including cognitive psychology which uses objective methods and the humanistic approach which generally focuses on subjective experience.
Cognitive psychology concerns itself with the mental processes of the brain such as memory and problem solving. The development of cognitive psychology has been as a result of the works of philosophers and pioneers, such as Jean Piaget (1896-1980), and as a backlash to behaviourism. Gestalt theory laid the foundations with the brain and its functions. In contrast humanistic psychology has developed mainly as a reaction against psychoanalytic theory and behaviourism.
It concerns itself with subjective meaning as opposed to more scientific methods. Psychology is a relatively new science but this essay aims to show that the journey has been long and has come from many different areas of interest to make it what it is today. Philosophy has played a major role in the development of psychology as the questions posed then are reflected in the questions raised today. The body mind problem and the nature versus nurture debate are issues which throughout history have exasperated scientists.
Examining the mind was the focus of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who was an empiricist. His philosophy of knowledge implied that the mind was a mechanism that reacted as a direct result of information from the senses. Hobbes theory was that all matter was in motion in the body and that prior causes triggered observable events. He rejected the idea that behaviour and thought are innate capabilities and suggested that consciousness was simply a reaction to the mechanism of the brain after it had been activated by the senses.
The senses have always been an area studied in psychology, John Locke (1632-1704) philosophised that sensation and reflection were the two aspects that enable a person to have simple ideas and through these ideas a person could gain experience on which they can reflect. For example, the colour, texture and smell of a rose are the sensations and the perception, thought and reasoning of whether or not it is a flower are the reflections of the sensory input. The importance of Locke in the development of psychology is that The Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Locke, 1690 as cited in Hergenhahn, 2005) was published.
This piece of work offered an explanation of the mind as an organised system and further suggested that the mind was passive. The human mind and its associative mechanisms was also of interest to David Hume (1711-1776). His principles of association were firstly resemblance, which means the original sense or perception, the second principle was contiguity which suggests a person cannot have an idea without it coming from an idea before and the third is cause and effect which infers that A causes B.
Cause means that when two events are caused one after the other the mind immediately connects the two together and develops what Hume called a ‘habit’, which he saw as the principle element from which people retrieve their knowledge (Thorne & Henley 2005). The significance of Hume and other empiricists is their belief that all knowledge is based on experience with people having no innate ideas.
The legacy of the empiricists was that it led the way for associationism to build on the belief that complex ideas are a result of smaller units of sensory input therefore the mind could be studied in a predictable manner which is how cognitive psychologists conduct their empirical studies today. In contrast existentialism put forward the idea that people could make their own choices because of free will. The main advocates of this thought were Soren Kierkgarrd (1813- 1855) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). They believed that life was about the meaning a person placed on their subjective experience.
This is significant because it provided an idea for humanistic psychologists to expand on in later years. Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) a physiologist set up the first experimental laboratory in Leipzig in 1879; this was monumental in making psychology a more scientific discipline. Wundt however disregarded the cognitive functions of the brain. This prompted Oswald Kulpe (1862-1916), a former student of Wundt, to set up another laboratory focusing on cognitive processes such as recognising, attending and discriminating. Kulpe suggested that these mental acts came not from the senses but from the mind as a reaction to the task involved.
The method of introspection eventually died out but the structuralism movement inspired the pioneers of psychology to use experimental methods to study elements of consciousness. The development of psychology seemed to take a revolutionary turn on the back of experimental methods being used. The inactive description of consciousness as defined by structuralism was opposed by another school of thought called functionalism. William James (1842-1910) believed that consciousness could not be split into elements because experience was personal (Thorne & Henley 2005).
James suggested that studying universal elements was reckless and that the functions of the mind were more important. The gestalt movement also opposed structuralism and built upon the work of Kulpe (1862-1916). Gestalt theory suggests elements of consciousness could not explain the function of the mind (Braisby & Gellatly 2005). The gestalt movement had recognised earlier that certain abilities such as singing a tune and whistling the same tune required different muscles therefore the notes in the tune were represented in the brain as an abstract representation.
Psychological studies at this time focused on consciousness however a major movement was developing called behaviourism. This approach suggested that consciousness was subjective so could not be measured scientifically; the behaviourists believed that the only objective feature that could be measured was behaviour. Previously Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origins of the Species’ (1859 as cited in Thorne &Henley 2005) and had paved the way for animals to be studied with regard to humans.
In addition Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) who had conducted a study on the digestive system of dogs, had found that the dog could be conditioned to salivate when presented with a stimulus. Pavlov inspired the work of John B. Watson (1878-1958) who is said to be the founding father of behaviourism. The two main theories used by the behaviourists were classical conditioning whereby a conditioned or unconditioned response is associated with a particular stimulus and operant conditioning whereby behaviour can be reinforced with either a reward or punishment.
Operant conditioning was developed by B. F Skinner who wrote about language as behaviour in his book ‘Verbal Behaviour’ (1957 as cited in Hergenhaun 2005). Skinner suggested that language occurred because of reinforcement and that we learn to speak to offer reinforcement to others. The relevance of this is that Noam Chomsky (1959) offered a cognitive approach to language. He opposed Skinner’s view by suggesting that language was too complicated to be acquired simply by behaviour alone and believed that the ability to speak involved higher mental processes. The importance of the gestalt and behaviourism is that it led the way for a new approach called cognitive psychology.
Cognition was not a new subject of concern as it can be traced back to Plato (427-347 B. C. E) with his theory about the structure of knowledge and his ideas about reasoning. At this point in history, behaviourism was considered the only way forward however it lacked an explanation regarding the functions of the brain. Chomsky brought a new perspective on language suggesting that to deal with the syntax of language people must have an internal representation in the brain; in addition he argued that children learn language too easily when compared to learning a second language.
If language was as simple as reinforcement then a second language would be just as effortless. The advancements in technology allowed people to compare the mechanisms of a computer with the brain. In 1936 Alan Turing (1912-1954) wrote a paper called ‘On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ (Turing, 1936) suggesting that a computer could represent any function using numbers. This development seemed to suggest that computers could be used to understand the mind. Turing proposed a test in his paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (Turing 1950 as cited in Thorne & Henley).
The main focus in this paper was to find out if a human could tell the difference between the answers from a computer compared with the answers from a human. This idea has led to an interest in Artificial Intelligence where people are continuing to investigate how computers can imitate human functions and behaviours. Cognitive psychology also examines areas including conceptually driven processing which means the higher levels of function in the brain and metacognition which is an active process of thinking and learning.
Learning was an interest of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) who led the way for cognitive psychologists to study the learning process. His theory of cognitive development in children (Piaget, 1972 as cited in Schaffer & Kipp) offered an explanation of cognitive ability through several stages. However today it is argued that children do not necessarily have to pass through these stages, Piaget’s theory gave an accepted account that the cognitive capabilities of a child are different to that of adults.
Another area that has developed within the realms of cognitive psychology and indeed become an area in the modern version of cognitive neuroscience is memory. George Miller (1920- ) published ‘ The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Information Processing’ (Miller, 1956), he argued that the short term memory capacity only allowed for a seven chunks of information, give or take two, to be recalled. The significance of this is that it had implications about the limited capacity of the short term memory system.
However today short term memory is called working memory. The reason for this is that many psychologist study memory and have found other types of memory. For example Tulving (1972 as cited in Hergenhaun) made the distinction between episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory is associated with events, such as the first day at school and semantic memory being a memory for such things as place names or university student number. Memory has become a huge area of study, understanding how memory works has beneficial implications for the people who have memory impairments.
Early in the 20th century Sigmund Freud had written his book ‘The interpretation of dreams’ (Freud, 1900) and went on to develop his highly influential psychoanalytic theory in which he suggested that people were motivated by sex and aggression. Freud used his experience with dealing with his clients to examine the unconscious. The humanistic approach emerged as a reaction to behaviourism because of the latter’s lack of acknowledgement of personality and free will and the disregard of subjective conscious experience ignored by the psychoanalysts.
Abraham Maslow (1908- 1970) coined the phrase ‘Third Force’ (Maslow, 1968) to describe the people who opposed the theory of Freud and the behaviourist movement at the time. His theory of human motivation (Maslow, 1943), regarding human behaviour, suggested that there are different types of needs that people strive to satisfy such as the need for satisfaction and the need for self esteem but ultimately the need for self actualisation.
Maslow (1954) expanded his theory and introduced his hierarchy of needs which is simply an idea of a triangle system where physiological needs are at the bottom and once all the needs are met then self actualisation and transcendence can occur, this being the ultimate goal. The development of the humanistic approach within the field of psychology also stemmed from the work of Carl Rogers (1902- 1987), who like Freud, used his experiences with his clients.
Rogers’s theory is based on the belief that people have an organismic self, this being the true self giving everyone their uniqueness; he suggested that this was innate. In addition he theorised that people have a self concept that is acquired through experience (Rogers, 1961). In 1963 the first newsletter from the Association of Humanistic psychology was published. The association was founded a year earlier and the newsletter, called Phoenix, discussed the reaction to psychoanalytic school and behaviourism directly.
The main criticism of Humanistic psychology is that it focuses on the subjective experience of a person in particular self actualisation. Empirical observation can be quantifiable which is the scientific method used by the cognitive psychologists. However, these methods cannot be applied to self actualisation so humanistic psychologists use counselling and psychotherapies to enhance a person’s wellbeing and growth in society and learn about human understanding. Psychology today is vast and covers several subfields including cognitive psychology and humanistic psychology.
Both these areas have developed as a result of the philosophers of the 16th 17th and 18th hundreds. The contrasting views on how to study human behaviour through either objective or subjective means allows for an understanding of both the complex functions of the brain and how a person can reach their full potential. Humanistic psychology today is interested in the individual having tools to enhance their growth through techniques such as the person centred approach. Cognitive psychology today has interest in perception, thought and memory and all the higher information processes of the brain.
The behaviourists ignore any thing that cannot be observed with the importance on stimulus and response. In contrast cognitive psychologists want to know what happens in the brain when the stimulus creates a response. The advancements in technology are particularly significant with the brain being loosely compared to a computer; this idea does not suggest we are like robots but the notion of programming a person to think differently can be seen with regard to cognitive behavioural therapy which is a term used to describe various approaches.
The development of psychology continues to grow, the different perspectives can only continue to offer an all round understanding of human nature. The scientific method is the way forward so psychologists can predict behaviour however people only have their own reality therefore subjective experience should not be ignored within the realms of human understanding.