THE PSYCHOLOGY BOOK: BIG IDEAS SIMPLY EXPLAINED
Introduction – THE PSYCHOLOGY BOOK: BIG IDEAS SIMPLY EXPLAINED
Among all the sciences, psychology is perhaps the most mysterious to the general public, and the most prone to misconceptions. Even though its language and ideas have infiltrated everyday culture, most people have only a hazy idea of what the subject is about, and what psychologists actually do.
For some, psychology conjures up images of people in white coats, either staffing an institution for mental disorders or conducting laboratory experiments on rats. Others may imagine a man with a Middle-European accent psychoanalyzing a patient on a couch or, if film scripts are to be believed, plotting to exercise some form of mind control. Although these stereotypes are an exaggeration, some truth lies beneath them.
It is perhaps the huge range of subjects that fall under the umbrella of psychology (and the bewildering array of terms beginning with the prefix “psych-”) that creates confusion over what psychology entails; psychologists themselves are unlikely to agree on a single definition of the word. “Psychology” comes from the ancient Greek psyche, meaning “soul” or “mind,” and logia, a “study” or “account,” which seems to sum up the broad scope of the subject, but today the word most accurately describes “the science of mind and behavior.”
The new science
Psychology can also be seen as a bridge between philosophy and physiology. Where physiology describes and explains the physical make-up of the brain and nervous system, psychology examines the mental processes that take place within them and how these are manifested in our thoughts, speech, and behavior. Where philosophy is concerned with thoughts and ideas, psychology studies how we come to have them and what they tell us about the workings of our minds.
All the sciences evolved from philosophy, by applying scientific methods to philosophical questions, but the intangible nature of subjects such as consciousness, perception, and memory meant that psychology was slow in making the transition from philosophical speculation to scientific practice. In some universities, particularly in the US, psychology departments started out as branches of the philosophy department, while in others, notably those in Germany, they were established in the science faculties.
But it was not until the late 19th century that psychology became established as a scientific discipline in its own right. The founding of the world’s first laboratory of experimental psychology by Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig in 1879 marked the recognition of psychology as a truly scientific subject, and as one that was breaking new ground in previously unexplored areas of research.
In the course of the 20th century, psychology blossomed; all of its major branches and movements evolved. As with all sciences, its history is built upon the theories and discoveries of successive generations, with many of the older theories remaining relevant to contemporary psychologists.
Some areas of research have been the subject of study from psychology’s earliest days, undergoing different interpretations by the various schools of thought, while others have fallen in and out of favor, but each time they have exerted a significant influence on subsequent thinking, and have occasionally spawned completely new fields for exploration.
The simplest way to approach the vast subject of psychology for the first time is to take a look at some of its main movements, as we do in this book. These occurred in roughly chronological order, from its roots in philosophy, through behaviorism, psychotherapy, and the study of cognitive, social, and developmental psychology, to the psychology of difference.
Two approaches – THE PSYCHOLOGY BOOK: BIG IDEAS SIMPLY EXPLAINED
Even in its earliest days, psychology meant different things to different people. In the US, its roots lay in philosophy, so the approach taken was speculative and theoretical, dealing with concepts such as consciousness and the self.
In Europe, the study was rooted in the sciences, so the emphasis was on examining mental processes such as sensory perception and memory under controlled laboratory conditions. However, even the research of these more scientifically oriented psychologists was limited by the introspective nature of their methods: pioneers such as Hermann Ebbinghaus became the subject of their own investigations, effectively restricting the range of topics to those that could be observed in themselves.
Although they used scientific methods and their theories laid the foundations for the new science, many in the next generation of psychologists found their processes too subjective, and began to look for a more objective methodology. In the 1890s, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov conducted experiments that were to prove critical to the development of psychology in both Europe and the US. He proved that animals could be conditioned to produce a response, an idea that developed into a new movement known as behaviorism.
The behaviorists felt that it was impossible to study mental processes objectively, but found it relatively easy to observe and measure behavior: a manifestation of those processes. They began to design experiments that could be conducted under controlled conditions, at first on animals, to gain an insight into human psychology, and later on humans.
THE PSYCHOLOGY BOOK: BIG IDEAS SIMPLY EXPLAINED
The behaviorists’ studies concentrated almost exclusively on how behavior is shaped by interaction with the environment; this “stimulus–response” theory became well known through the work of John Watson. New learning theories began to spring up in Europe and the US, and attracted the interest of the general public.
However, at much the same time as behaviorism began to emerge in the US, a young neurologist in Vienna started to develop a theory of mind that was to overturn contemporary thinking and inspire a very different approach. Based on observation of patients and case histories rather than laboratory experiments, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory marked a return to the study of subjective experience.
He was interested in memories, childhood development, and interpersonal relationships, and emphasized the importance of the unconscious in determining behavior. Although his ideas were revolutionary at the time, they were quickly and widely adopted, and the notion of a “talking cure” continues within the various forms of psychotherapy today.
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