Thursday, November 10, 2011

Early Psychology: Structuralism, Functionalism, and Gestalt psychology



Structuralism
One of the Wundt’s students was Edward Titchener (1867-1927), an Englishman who eventually took Wundt’s ideas to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Titchener expanded on Wundt’s original ideas, and called his new viewpoint structuralism, because the focus of study was the structure of the mind. He believed that every experience could be broken down into its individual emotions and sensations. Although Titchener agreed with Wundt that consciousness, the state of being aware of external events, could be broken down into its basic elements, Titchener also belived that the introspection method could be used on thoughts just as it was on physical sensations. For example, Titchener might have asked his students to introspect about things that are blue rather than actually giving them a blue object and asking for reactions to it. Such an exercise might have led to something like the following: “What is blue? There are blue things, like the sky or a bird’s feathers. Blue is cool and restful, blue is calm……”: and so on.
              In 1894, one of Titchener’s students at Cornell University became famous for becoming the first woman to receive a PhD in Psychology. Her name was Margaret F Washburn, and was Titchener’s only graduate student for that year. In 1908, she published a book on animal behavior that considered an important work in that era of psychology, The Animal Mind.
                                                        Margaret F Washburn
                                            Structuralism was a dominant force in the early days of psychology, but it eventually died out in the early 1900s, as the structuralists were busily fighting among themselves over just which key elements of experience were the most important. A competing view arose not long after Wundt’s Laboratory was established, shortly before structuralism came to America.

Functionalism

Harvard University was the first school in America to offer classes in psychology in the late 1870s. One of Harvard’s most illustrious instructors William James (1842-1910) taught these classes. James began teaching anatomy and physiology, but as his interest in psychology developed, he began to teaching psychology, almost exclusively. His comprehensive textbook on the subject, Principles of Psychology, is so brilliantly written that copies are still in print.
                                                         William James 
   Unlike Wundt and Tichener, James believed that trying to study consciousness was like trying to study the wind. Conscious ideas are constantly flowing in an ever-changing stream, and once you start thinking about what you get the picture, anyway. Instead, James focused on how the mind allows people to function in the real world-How people work, play, and adapt to their surroundings, a viewpoint he called functionalism. If physical traits could aid in survival, why couldn’t behavioral traits do the same? Animals and people whose behavior helped them to survive would pass those traits on to their offspring, perhaps by teaching or even by some mechanism of heredity. (Remember that this was early in the days of trying to understand how heredity worked.)
                                                   Mary Whiton Calkins-in group
                                It is interesting to note that one of James’s early student Mary Whiton Calkins, who completed every course and requirement for earning a PhD but was denied that degree by Harvard University because she was a woman. She was allowed to take those classes as a guest only. Calkins eventually established a psychological laboratory at Wellesley College. Her work was some of the earliest research in the area of human memory and the psychology of the self. In 1905, she became the first female president of the American Psychological Society. Unlike Washburn, Calkins never earned the elusive PhD despite a successful career as a professor and researcher.

Gestalt psychology

In Germany, Max Wertheimer, like James, objected to the structuralism point of view but for different reasons. Wertheimer felt that psychological events such as perceiving (becoming aware of something through the senses) and sensing (seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, or smelling something) could not be broken down into any smaller elements and still be properly understood.
                                                         Max Wertheimer
                                                              Wertheimer and other psychologists, devoted their efforts to studying sensation and perception in this new perspective, Gestalt psychology. Gestalt is a German word meaning “good form” or “good figure”, which fit well with the focus on studying whole patterns rather than small pieces of them. Today, Gestalt ideas are part of the study of cognitive psychology, a field focusing not only on perception but also on learning, memory, thought process, and problem solving; the basic Gestalt principles of perception are still taught within this newer field. The Gestalt approach has also been influential in psychological therapy, becoming the basis for a major therapeutic technique called Gestalt therapy. 

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