A Brief History of Psychology

| , , | March 4, 2024

The history of psychology is a fascinating journey that spans thousands of years, exploring the development of our understanding of the human mind and behavior.

Today, psychology has become a common field of study. Academic professionals and curious amateurs now regularly ponder the inner workings of the mind, searching for answers and explanations.

What is the Brief History of Psychology?

You could argue that the history of psychology starts with ancient medicine and philosophy, as the great thinkers wondered where our ideas came from, and why we all make different decisions.

The Ebers Papyrus, a medical textbook from 1500 BC Egypt, contained a chapter called “The Book of Hearts,” which describes several mental conditions, including the description of a patient whose “mind is dark (melancholic?), and he tastes his heart.”

READ MORE: Ancient Egypt Timeline: Predynastic Period Until the Persian Conquest

Aristotle’s De Anima, or “On The Soul,” explores the concept of thinking as separate from sensation, and the mind as separate from the soul. From Lao Tsu to the Vedic Texts, religious works from around the world influenced psychology by challenging ideas about human nature and decision-making.

The first leap forward in treating the mind as a focus of scientific study came during the Enlightenment period of the 17th Century. Famous philosophers such as Kant, Leibniz, and Wolff were particularly obsessed with understanding the concept of the mind, with Kant specifically establishing psychology as a subset of anthropology.

The Importance of Experimental Psychology

By the middle of the 19th century, philosophy and medicine were moving further and further apart. Within that gap was found psychology.

However, it was not until Gustav Fechner began to experiment in 1830 with the concept of sensation that academics began to devise experiments to test their theories. This crucial step into experimentation is what cements psychology as a science, rather than simply a genre of philosophy.

European universities, especially those in Germany, were excited to develop further experiments and more medical schools offered lectures in “psychology,” “psychophysics,” and “psychophysiology.”

Who is the Main Founder of Psychology?

The person best considered the founder of psychology was Dr. Wilhelm Wundt. While other doctors and philosophers had already been exploring the topics that would come to be known as psychology, Wundt’s formation of the first experimental psychology laboratory earns him the title “the father of psychology.”

Wundt was a medical doctor who graduated from the famed University of Heidelberg in 1856, before immediately moving into academics. As an associate professor of anthropology and “medical psychology,” he wrote Contributions to the Theory of Sense Perception, Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, and Principles of Physiological Psychology (considered the first-ever textbook of psychology).

In 1879, Wundt opened the first lab dedicated to psychology experiments. Set up at the University of Leipzig, Wundt would dedicate his free time to creating and performing experiments outside of the classes he was teaching.

Who Were the Early Psychologists?

While Wundt is considered the founder of psychology, it is his students that properly cemented the science as distinct from psychiatry, and important enough to treat on its own. Edward B. Titchener, G. Stanley Hall, and Hugo Münsterberg all took Wundt’s findings and set up schools to continue the experiments in Europe and America.

Edward B. Titchener took Wundt’s studies to produce a formal school of thought sometimes known as “structuralism.” With the goal being to quantify thoughts the same way we can objectively measure compounds or movement, Titchener believed all thoughts and feelings contained four distinct properties: intensity, quality, duration, and extent.

G. Stanley Hall returned to the US and became the first president of the American Psychological Association. Hall was most fascinated with child and evolutionary psychology, and how people learned.

While many of his theories are no longer considered sound, the role he played as the promoter of science in America, and bringing both Freud and Jung to lecture in the country, has helped him hear the title of “the father of American psychology.”

Hugo Münsterberg took psychology into the realm of practical application and often butted heads with Wundt as to how science should be used. The first psychologist to consider the application of psychological principles to business management and law enforcement, Münsterberg was also informally interested in the overlap between psychology and entertainment. His book, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, is considered to be one of the first books on film theory ever written.

The Etymology of the Term “Psychology”

The term “psychology” comes from combining the Greek words “psyche” (meaning breath, life, or the soul) and “logos” (meaning “reason”). The first time the word was used in English was in 1654, in “New Method of Physik,” a science book.

In it, the authors write “Psychologie is the knowledge of the Soul.” Before the 19th century, little difference was given between “the mind” and “the soul,” and early uses of the term appeared in contexts that might today use other terms like “philosophy,” “medicine,” or “spirituality.”

READ MORE: History’s Most Famous Philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and More!

What is Psychology?

Psychology is the scientific discipline of the mind and its relationship to its environment developed through observing and experimenting with how we behave and react to others.

While most definitions of “psychology” speak specifically to mental perception, this is not always the case. “Psychology” studies not just rational thought, but also emotions, sensation, and communication. By “environment,” psychologists mean both the physical world the person is in, but also the physical health of their body and their relationships with other people.

Breaking it down, the science of psychology involves:

  • Studying behavior and finding ways to record it objectively.
  • Developing theories about the universal influences of behavior.
  • Finding ways in which behavior is controlled by biology, learning, and the environment.
  • Developing ways in which to change behaviors.

What is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

There is a lot of overlap between psychiatry and psychology, so it may be difficult to fully appreciate the differences. Psychiatrists are medical doctors and are primarily interested in biological psychology. They are often interested in how our physical health affects our thinking and prescribe medication.

Psychologists (especially psychotherapists) are more interested in how we can change behavior without physically changing our bodies through drugs or medical procedures. They cannot prescribe medication.

All the founding fathers of psychology were doctors first, and it was not until the mid-20th century that one could study or practice psychology without a medical degree. Most of today’s psychiatrists are also trained to some degree in psychology, while many clinical psychologists take courses in biological psychology. For this reason, the sciences remain overlapped to the benefit of everyone.

What are the Seven Main Schools of Psychology?

As humanity entered the 20th Century, psychology began breaking off into many schools. While the psychologists of today have a superficial understanding of all schools, they often develop an interest in one or two in particular. To properly understand the modern history of psychology, one should know the seven main schools and the people who influenced their current forms.

The Seven Schools of Psychology are:

  • Biological psychology
  • Behaviorist psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Psychoanalytic psychology
  • Humanistic psychology
  • Existential psychology

What is Biological Psychology?

Biological psychology, sometimes referred to as “behavioral neuroscience” or “cognitive science,” studies how thoughts and behaviors interact with biological and physiological processes.

Said to have originated with the works of Broca and Wernicke, early practitioners relied on a detailed examination of people with behavioral issues and the later autopsy of their bodies.

Today’s neuropsychologists use imaging such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (or MRI) to map how the brain acts while someone is thinking about something specific, or undertaking tasks.

READ MORE: Who Invented MRI? The Pioneers Behind Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Behavioral psychologists rely on animal studies as well as human trials. Today, neuropsychologists are an important part of teams working in the cutting-edge area of neural-linking technology, such as Elon Musk’s “Neuralink,” and as part of researching the effects of stroke and brain cancer.

Who Were Broca and Wernicke?

Pierre Paul Broca was a 19th-century French anatomist and anthropologist who studied the brains of patients who had language processing difficulties when alive.

Specifically, these patients had no trouble understanding words but could not say them. Discovering that they all had trauma in a similar area, he realized that a very specific section of the brain (the lower left of the frontal lobe) controlled our ability to turn mental processes into words we could say out loud. Today this is known as “Broca’s Area.”

Only a few years later, based on the research of Broca, German physician Carl Wernicke was able to discover the area of the brain that translated words into thoughts. This area is now known as “The Wernicke area,” while patients that suffer from the two forms of language processing issues are said to have “Broca’s Aphasia” or “Wernicke’s Aphasia” as appropriate.

What is Race Psychology?

An unfortunate byproduct of biological psychology has been the rise of “Race Psychology,” a pseudoscience closely connected with the Eugenics movement.

Carl von Linnaeus, the famous “father of taxonomy” believed that different races had biological differences that caused them to be smarter, lazier, or more ritualistic. As greater experimentation and more robust use of the scientific method has been used, the works of “race psychologists” have been completely debunked.

What is Behaviorist Psychology?

Behaviorist psychology is built on the tenet that most, if not all, behavior is learned rather than biologically induced. Early researchers in this field believed in “classical conditioning,” and therapy known as “behavioral modification.” 

The father of classical conditioning was Ivan Pavlov (the man with the famous dogs), whose 1901 experiments earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology.

Later behaviorists developed the early ideas into a field known as “operant conditioning.” The works of B.F. Skinner, a pioneer in this area and famous for his work in educational psychology, are still used in the classrooms of today.

Who Were Pavlov’s Dogs?

Pavlov used over 40 dogs in his experiments. Despite this, the psychologist became attached to one specific collie called Druzhok. Druzhok retired from experiments to become his pet.

The famous “Pavlov’s dogs” experiment is a well-known tale with a darker one following it.

Pavlov noticed that, when introduced to food, dogs would salivate more. He even went so far as to operate on live dogs and measure how much saliva their glands would secrete.

Through his experiments, Pavlov was able to note that dogs would salivate more when expecting food (say, by hearing the dinner bell), even if no food was introduced. This indicated evidence that the environment (the bell warning of food) was enough to teach a physical response (salivation).

Sadly, however, the experiments did not end there. Pavlov’s student, Nikolay Krasnogorsky, took the next step – using orphan children. Drilling into their salivary gland to obtain exact measurements, children would have their hand-squeezed as they were given a cookie. Later, they would have their hand-squeezed and, like the dogs before them, salivate even without the food being present. Through this horrifying process, Krasnogorsky was able to prove that the canine physiological response was also present in humans.

While Pavlov’s experiments still have some validity today, they are often considered in conjunction with biological psychology. Pavlov continued to experiment until his death, which he insisted a student record notes for.

No one knows the fate of the orphans.

What is Cognitive Psychology?

Perhaps the most popular school of psychology today, cognitive psychology studies how mental processes work as separate from the underlying causes. Cognitivists are less concerned about whether behavior comes from the environment or biology, and more about how thought processes lead to choices. Those who were concerned, like Albert Bandura, believed that students could learn simply through exposure to processes, rather than through the reinforcement the behaviorists believed was required.

The most important development from this school was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT). Now one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy, it was developed by psychologist Albert Ellis and psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s.

At first, psychologists were wary of using a treatment that did not involve the high levels of introspection others did, and notable luminaries of the profession were unconvinced. However, after repeated experiments with impressive results, more therapists were convinced.

What is Social Psychology?

Social psychology, which has close ties to social anthropology, sociology, and cognitive psychology, is concerned specifically with how a person’s social environment (and relationship with others) affects their behavior. Psychologists who observe and experiment with peer pressure, stereotyping, and leadership strategies are all part of the school.

Social psychology evolved primarily from the work of those psychologists who worked on the use of propaganda during the World Wars and later the Cold War between the USA and the USSR.

However, by the 1970s, the works of people such as Solomon Asch and the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment brought lessons into the civilian sphere.

What Was the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Designed and run by professor Philip Zimbardo, the 1971 experiment held at Stanford University was to replicate the experience of inmates and guards in a two-week simulation.

Volunteers (who were paid) were randomly selected to be either an inmate or guards and told to act accordingly.

Over five days, the guards were said to have become “increasingly brutal” before the experiment was canceled on the sixth. Zimbardo concluded that, based on the feedback of volunteers and observation of students, the personality of the individual does not govern behavior as much as the social circumstances they are placed in.

That is, if you are told to be a guard, you will naturally act out as an authoritarian.

While the story has been adapted many times by the media, and the myth carries itself as a cautionary tale about the cruelty of humanity, the reality was far less convincing. The experiment and its conclusions were never able to be reproduced. It was later noted that guards were encouraged by supervisors early in the experiment to treat inmates poorly, and some participants claimed that they were refused the ability to withdraw from the experiment early.

Psychologists have long rejected the usefulness of the experiment, despite believing that it is worthwhile to continue experimentation and fully explore the conformity theories that Zimbardo was attempting to prove.

What is Psychoanalytic Psychology?

Psychodynamics and psychoanalysis concern themselves with the concept of conscious and unconscious motivation, philosophic concepts such as the Id and Ego, and the power of introspection. The psychoanalytic theory focuses on sexuality, repression, and dream analysis. For a long time, it was synonymous with “psychology.”

If you imagine psychotherapy as laying back on a leather futon and talking about your dreams while an old man smoking a pipe takes notes, you are thinking about the stereotype that grew from early psychoanalysis. 

Popularized in the late 19th century by Sigmund Freud, and then expanded upon by Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, psychodynamics later fell out of favor for its lack of scientific rigor.

Despite this, the works of Freud and Jung are some of the most-examined papers in the history of psychology, and modern experts such as Oliver Sacks have argued that we should reconsider some of the ideas as a form of neuro-psychoanalysis (introspection while under objective imaging observation).

What is the Difference Between Freudian Psychology and Jungian Psychology?

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was an Austrian doctor and neuroscientist who opened a psychological clinic only four years into his medical career. There he developed his interest in “neurotic disorders” while diving into all available texts on the theory of perception, pedagogy, and philosophy. He was especially intrigued by the works of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.

Studying hypnosis under Charcot, Freud returned to work more concerned than ever with diving into the “hidden depths” of the mind. However, he believed that “free association” (the voluntary offering of whatever came to the mind) was more effective than hypnosis, and the analysis of dreams could offer far more about the internal motivations of his patients.

In Freud’s “psychoanalysis” method of therapy, dreams represented repressed sexual desire, often stemming from early childhood experiences. All mental disorders were a result of not coming to terms with sexual history and it was the ability to understand unconscious versus conscious motivations that would help a patient find peace.

Among Freud’s more famous concepts were “The Oedipus Complex,” and “The Ego and The Id.” 

Carl Jung was possibly the most famous student of Freud. Starting their relationship in 1906, they spent many years corresponding with, studying with, and generally challenging, each other. Jung was a fan of Freud’s early works and was determined to expand on them.

Unlike Freud, however, Jung did not believe that all dreams and motivations stemmed from sexual desire. Instead, he believed that learned symbols and imagery within dreams held the answers to motivation. Jung also believed that inside every man was a psychological “image” of their feminine self and vice versa. He was the primary influence of the popular lay notion of “introversion and extroversion,” as well as a supporter of art therapy.

Freudian and Jungian “psychologists” today still hold onto the belief that our dreams offer insight into our motivations and carefully pour over thousands of symbols to make their analysis.

What is Humanistic Psychology?

Humanistic, or Existential Psychology, is a relatively new school, developed in response to psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Focusing on the concept of “self-actualization” (the meeting of all needs) and free will, humanists believe that mental health and happiness can be reached simply by having a core set of needs fulfilled.

The primary founder of this school of human behavior was Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who proposed the idea that there were certain levels of needs and that to find fulfillment in complex needs we must ensure first that more basic needs have been met.

What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

The concept of meeting core requirements before finding actualization was written out in Abraham Maslow’s 1943 work A Theory of Human Motivation, and was known as “the hierarchy of needs.” 

Despite a distinct lack of scientific rigor, Maslow’s theories have been taken up by education departments, business organizations, and therapists quite willingly due to their simplicity. While there stands criticism that needs could not be “ranked so easily,” and that certain needs were not addressed, Maslow pre-empted this in his original work by recommending his “pyramid” not be taken too strictly. “We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order, but it is not nearly so rigid as we may have implied.” 

What is Existential Psychotherapy?

A subset of humanism, the applied psychology of existentialism draws further influence from the European philosophy of the mid-20th century. The primary founder of such psychotherapy was the renounced doctor and holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl. His “logotherapy,” developed after being ejected from the psychoanalytic school developed by Alfred Adler, was further refined at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz concentration camps, where he saw the rest of his family murdered.

Frankl believed that happiness was derived from having meaning in your life and that once you found a meaning to pursue, life became easier. This appealed greatly to a 1960s youth feeling “directionless,” and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” was a best-seller. Despite this, very few practitioners of logotherapy exist today.

The Hidden Eighth School: Gestalt Psychology

While the seven main schools of psychology are studied and treated by examining behavior, there is an eighth school entirely devoted to the theory of perception. Gestalt psychology was developed early in the history of psychology, responding directly to the works and writings of Wundt and Titchener. Psychological research was scientifically rigorous, and its findings went on to be used in modern clinical psychology as well as neuroscience and cognitive science.

The scientific psychology of the Gestaltists emphasized the ability of a human being to perceive patterns and how the perception of patterns governs thought more than the perception of individual elements. Founded by the Austro-Hungarian psychologist, Max Wertheimer, Gestalt psychology developed parallel to those schools more interested in therapy and relied more heavily on physical and biological sciences.

Gestalt Psychology, while still rarely used to inform therapy, is one of the cornerstones of the computer science behind “Machine Learning.” Some of the core problems faced by those studying machine learning, or “Artificial Intelligence” are the same ones studied by Wertheimer and his followers. These problems include the ability for humans to recognize an object regardless of rotation (invariance), the ability to see shapes in the “spaces left behind” by other shapes (reification) and to see both a duck and rabbit in the same picture (multistability).

Modern psychology has only developed in recent centuries but the history of psychology goes back millennia. By recording observable behavior and confirming theories through experimentation, we have been able to turn philosophical musings about the mind into psychological theories, and then an academic discipline.

The history of psychology is too large to fully explore in anything less than a textbook. From the first dips into experimental psychology to the mental health professionals of today, it is on the foundational works of many doctors that we are left with psychological science.

The Future of Psychology

Many of the psychological theories were developed in the early stages of the journey of psychology, but that doesn’t mean new theories aren’t being developed.

Recent psychological theories such as Self-Determination Theory and Unified Theory of Human Psychology are attempting to solve some of the bigger challenges we face as a society, with more theories being developed every day.

Where psychology will be in 15-20 years is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear that there are millions of people around the world dedicated to solving these challenges.

How to Cite this Article

There are three different ways you can cite this article.

1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:

Thomas Gregory, "A Brief History of Psychology", History Cooperative, May 19, 2022, https://historycooperative.org/history-of-psychology/. Accessed May 21, 2024

2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL:


3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:

<a href="https://historycooperative.org/history-of-psychology/">A Brief History of Psychology</a>

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Psychology”

Leave a Comment