Friday, March 20, 2020


Wilhelm Wundt and Sigmund Freud are two very different figures in the history of psychology, as far as their contributions in psychology are concerned. Wundt is considered to be the founder of modern psychology, and Freud is regarded as the father of psychoanalysis. Even though both of their approaches were based on pure science, Wundt was influenced by physics whereas Freud based his ideas on biology.
The primary concern and the subject matter studied by Wundt and Freud is completely
Wilhelm Wundt
different and can also be considered to be quite the opposite. Wundt was interested in studying the immediate conscious experience. He was a proponent of elementism. He believed that consciousness can be understood by breaking it down into smaller elements. In doing so, Wundt was studying sensation and perception.
Freud, on the other hand, was more interested in studying the unconscious and how it shaped an individual’s personality. In his early days as a neurologist, Freud discovered that many of his patients had physical symptoms without any underlying biological cause. He was convinced that their physical symptoms are caused by emotional conflicts due to traumatic childhood experiences. According to him, these emotional conflicts are in the unconscious and need to be brought into the conscious mind, enabling them to overcome their traumatic experiences.
Sigmund Freud
Their subject matter being completely different, the method of investigation used by Wundt was very different from that of Freud. Wundt used the method of introspection in an experimental setup for his studies. Freud, however, followed the medical model and used the clinical approach of case studies and the clinical interview.
Despite these wide and highly contrasting differences between Wundt and Freud, there are commonalities between the two. Their ideas can be traced back to common origins. Even though making completely different, unrelated contributions, they have been found to be inspired and influenced by the same sources.
One of such common origin can be traced back to Hermann von Helmholtz. Helmholtz was a physicist and physician, and is regarded as a major precursor to the beginning of experimental psychology, and establishing psychology as an independent, academic, scientific discipline.
Helmholtz gave significant contributions in nerve induction, color vision, and visual and auditory perception. His contribution to the understanding of the senses helped strengthening the experimental approach to human issues. Through his work, Helmholtz brought physics, chemistry, physiology, and psychology closer together. This paved the way for the emergence of experimental psychology, which is considered to be an inevitable step after his work.
From 1857 to 1864, at the University of Heidelberg, Wundt was appointed as the laboratory assistant of Helmholtz. Helmholtz had a huge influence on Wundt. Wundt had a great admiration and respect for Helmholtz. It was while working with him in his experiments in physiology, Wundt began to conceive the idea of psychology being an independent, experimental, and scientific discipline.
It was during his time with Helmholtz, that Wundt outlined his ideas in his book Contributions to the Theory of Sensory Perception, the first section published in 1858 and the second section published in 1862. Wundt described his original experiments in this book, and it was in this book that the term experimental psychology was mentioned for the first time. Based on this book, in 1862, Wundt began his first course in psychology called Psychology as a Natural Science. His lectures in this course, a year later, in 1863, led to Wundt publish his book, Lectures on the Mind of Men and Animals. These works of Wundt built the foundation of him establishing the first ever experimental psychology laboratory, in 1879, and thus, establishing psychology as an independent, scientific discipline.
It was working with Helmholtz that had inspired Wundt to develop his ideas about
Hermann von Helmholtz
experimental psychology. While conducting his own research, he had adopted many of the methods used by Helmholtz. For instance, Helmholtz used the method of reaction time, which was later used by Wundt extensively. Wundt also adopted Helmholtz’s idea of volition – the mind being active, and not a passive entity. Helmholtz, therefore, played a significant role in Wundt developing his ideas, leading to the establishment of his scientific psychology.
Apart from influencing Wundt, Helmholtz also played a significant role in Sigmund Freud to develop his ideas. Freud was initially influenced by the medical model of Helmholtz. Further, Freud was highly influenced by Helmholtz’s concept of conservation of energy. According to this principle, which had been applied to physical phenomena, energy is neither created or lost in a system; it is just transformed from one form to another. Helmholtz demonstrated that an organism is like energy system that can be explained on the basis physical principles. According to Helmholtz, no energy is lost, but it is changed to different forms.
Freud took this idea to explain the human mind and psychic energy. He suggested that there can be only a specific limit of psychic energy available at a particular time, which finds an outlet in different forms. This in many ways determines thought and behavior. In regard to this, Freud suggested that undesirable id impulses may be represented in different ways. For instance, aggressive impulses may be represented in the form of fast, rash driving, or being involved in adventure sports. Similarly, sexual impulses may be represented in the form of art such as making erotic paintings.
Therefore, both Wundt and Freud were influenced by Helmholtz in their ideas and approach. Wundt got inspiration for his idea of experimental psychology during his time with Helmholtz, and even adopted many of his methods. Freud used Helmholtz’s conservation of energy to explain how undesirable id impulses may be expressed.
Helmholtz, however, is not the only common origin of Wundtian psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis. Another common origin of the two can be traced back to Gustav Theodor Fechner. Fechner was initially a physicist, but later became interested in philosophy, which got him into studying sensation and perception. He did extensive work on the quantitative relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they produce. He had conducted a number of experiments, in this regard. He thus, came to be known as the pioneer of psychophysics, which is the scientific study of the relation between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions that they evoke.
Fechner published his insights on psychophysics in two short papers in 1858 and 1859. Then, in 1860, Fechner published his landmark book Elements in Psychophysics. It was this work in psychophysics, especially the book Elements of Psychophysics, that worked as a strong impetus for Wilhelm Wundt to conduct experiments to study consciousness, and eventually establish the first ever experimental psychology laboratory.
The whole idea of using experiments as a method to study sensation and perception, and thus, consciousness led to the beginning of what came to be known as the new science of psychology or scientific psychology, making psychology a separate, independent discipline.
Gustav Theodor Fechner
In his laboratory experiments on consciousness, Wundt had used the Weber-Fechner law. The law states that the change in a stimulus that will be just noticeable is a constant ratio of the original stimulus. The law was first developed by Weber, and later adopted by Fechner, a student of Weber, naming it the Weber-Fechner law. This is regarded as the first ever quantitative law in psychology. It was from this law that Fechner had derived psychophysics. Wundt also used many methods of psychophysics and adopted the concepts of absolute threshold (lowest intensity of a stimulus to make it detectable) and difference threshold (the least amount by which two stimuli can differ making them to be perceived as different), which were used by Fechner in his studies on psychophysics.
Wundt was influenced by Fechner in many of his other works. Fechner’s interest in aesthetics, and socio-cultural factors are reflected in Wundt’s book Lectures on the Minds of Men and Animals, published in 1862. It can also be found associated with Wundt’s ten volume work called Volkerpsychologie (Cultural Psychology), published from 1900 to 1920. In these volumes, Wundt wrote about social and cultural factors that he believed could not be studied in a laboratory setup, using the experimental method.
In this way, Fechner played an influential role in Wundt’s studies of consciousness and also his later works on social and cultural factors. A number of historians of psychology, including the renowned Edwin Boring, suggest that it was Fechner who paved the way for Wundt’s experimental psychology and scientific psychology. Wundt himself had suggested that it was Fechner who had fired the first shots of experimental psychology. His student and founder of the school of structuralism, Edward Titchener, called Fechner to be the father of experimental psychology.
Apart from providing an added impetus to Wundt in establishing scientific psychology, Fechner played a role in making Sigmund Freud develop his ideas. In his understanding of the human mind, Freud applied the research done by Fechner, on sensory thresholds. Based on his early clinical experiences, Freud came to the conclusion that most of the part of the mind lies below the threshold of conscious experience.
According to Freud, above this threshold is the conscious mind, which is about thoughts, feelings, memories, and experiences that an individual is currently aware of. Below the conscious mind is the preconscious mind, which consists of memories that a person may not be currently aware of, but after some effort they become readily available. And finally, below the preconscious mind is the unconscious mind, which consists of memories, desires, impulses, feelings, experiences that are beyond awareness. Freud suggested that it is the unconscious mind that determines behavior. These are usually undesirable and painful memories and experiences, which are repressed, but are represented in forms of anxiety and other psychological problems.
Freud’s idea of the mind clearly reflects Fechner’s idea of the absolute threshold. Fechner suggested that the lowest intensity at which a stimulus can be detected is called the absolute threshold. The intensity of a stimulus at this threshold or above it is consciously detected. If the intensity of the stimulus is below this threshold, it will still lead to reactions, but those reactions will be unconscious.
Therefore, Wundt and Freud both were influenced by Fechner’s work in psychophysics. Even though both had very different contributions to psychology, Fechner’s work can be viewed as the common origin of the two.
Wundtian psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis have nothing in common. The former is about understanding conscious experience, and completely disregards the unconscious. The latter gives greater emphasis to the unconscious in determining behavior, as compared to conscious experience. Keeping this in view, it seems quite fascinating that they had common origins. Both Wundt and Freud, despite making completely different contributions in psychology, were inspired and influenced by Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Theodor Fechner.

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