A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter IX
The new science of experimental psychology
The work of the nerve physiologists had thus an important bearing on questions of the mind. But there was another company of workers of this period who made an even more direct assault upon the "citadel of thought." A remarkable school of workers had been developed in Germany, the leaders being men who, having more or less of innate metaphysical bias as a national birthright, had also the instincts of the empirical scientist, and whose educational equipment included a profound knowledge not alone of physiology and psychology, but of physics and mathematics as well. These men undertook the novel task of interrogating the relations of body and mind from the standpoint of physics. They sought to apply the vernier and the balance, as far as might be, to the intangible processes of mind.

The movement had its precursory stages in the early part of the century, notably in the mathematical psychology of Herbart, but its first definite output to attract general attention came from the master-hand of Hermann Helmholtz in 1851. It consisted of the accurate measurement of the speed of transit of a nervous impulse along a nerve tract. To make such measurement had been regarded as impossible, it being supposed that the flight of the nervous impulse was practically instantaneous. But Helmholtz readily demonstrated the contrary, showing that the nerve cord is a relatively sluggish message-bearer. According to his experiments, first performed upon the frog, the nervous "current" travels less than one hundred feet per second. Other experiments performed soon afterwards by Helmholtz himself, and by various followers, chief among whom was Du Bois-Reymond, modified somewhat the exact figures at first obtained, but did not change the general bearings of the early results. Thus the nervous impulse was shown to be something far different, as regards speed of transit, at any rate, from the electric current to which it had been so often likened. An electric current would flash halfway round the globe while a nervous impulse could travel the length of the human body - from a man's foot to his brain.

The tendency to bridge the gulf that hitherto had separated the physical from the psychical world was further evidenced in the following decade by Helmholtz's remarkable but highly technical study of the sensations of sound and of color in connection with their physical causes, in the course of which he revived the doctrine of color vision which that other great physiologist and physicist, Thomas Young, had advanced half a century before. The same tendency was further evidenced by the appearance, in 1852, of Dr. Hermann Lotze's famous Medizinische Psychologie, oder Physiologie der Seele, with its challenge of the old myth of a "vital force." But the most definite expression of the new movement was signalized in 1860, when Gustav Fechner published his classical work called Psychophysik. That title introduced a new word into the vocabulary of science. Fechner explained it by saying, "I mean by psychophysics an exact theory of the relation between spirit and body, and, in a general way, between the physical and the psychic worlds." The title became famous and the brunt of many a controversy. So also did another phrase which Fechner introduced in the course of his book - the phrase "physiological psychology." In making that happy collocation of words Fechner virtually christened a new science.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.