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

Book 4, chapter IX
The new science of experimental psychology
Physiological psychology
Hardly had the alarm been sounded, however, before a new movement was made. While Fechner's book was fresh from the press, steps were being taken to extend the methods of the physicist in yet another way to the intimate processes of the mind. As Helmholtz had shown the rate of nervous impulsion along the nerve tract to be measurable, it was now sought to measure also the time required for the central nervous mechanism to perform its work of receiving a message and sending out a response. This was coming down to the very threshold of mind. The attempt was first made by Professor Donders in 1861, but definitive results were only obtained after many years of experiment on the part of a host of observers. The chief of these, and the man who has stood in the forefront of the new movement and has been its recognized leader throughout the remainder of the century, is Dr. Wilhelm Wundt, of Leipzig.

The task was not easy, but, in the long run, it was accomplished. Not alone was it shown that the nerve centre requires a measurable time for its operations, but much was learned as to conditions that modify this time. Thus it was found that different persons vary in the rate of their central nervous activity - which explained the "personal equation" that the astronomer Bessel had noted a half-century before. It was found, too, that the rate of activity varies also for the same person under different conditions, becoming retarded, for example, under influence of fatigue, or in case of certain diseases of the brain. All details aside, the essential fact emerges, as an experimental demonstration, that the intellectual processes - sensation, apperception, volition - are linked irrevocably with the activities of the central nervous tissues, and that these activities, like all other physical processes, have a time element. To that old school of psychologists, who scarcely cared more for the human head than for the heels - being interested only in the mind - such a linking of mind and body as was thus demonstrated was naturally disquieting. But whatever the inferences, there was no escaping the facts.

Of course this new movement has not been confined to Germany. Indeed, it had long had exponents elsewhere. Thus in England, a full century earlier, Dr. Hartley had championed the theory of the close and indissoluble dependence of the mind upon the brain, and formulated a famous vibration theory of association that still merits careful consideration. Then, too, in France, at the beginning of the century, there was Dr. Cabanis with his tangible, if crudely phrased, doctrine that the brain digests impressions and secretes thought as the stomach digests food and the liver secretes bile. Moreover, Herbert Spencer's Principles of Psychology, with its avowed co-ordination of mind and body and its vitalizing theory of evolution, appeared in 1855, half a decade before the work of Fechner. But these influences, though of vast educational value, were theoretical rather than demonstrative, and the fact remains that the experimental work which first attempted to gauge mental operations by physical principles was mainly done in Germany. Wundt's Physiological Psychology, with its full preliminary descriptions of the anatomy of the nervous system, gave tangible expression to the growth of the new movement in 1874; and four years later, with the opening of his laboratory of physiological psychology at the University of Leipzig, the new psychology may be said to have gained a permanent foothold and to have forced itself into official recognition. From then on its conquest of the world was but a matter of time.

It should be noted, however, that there is one other method of strictly experimental examination of the mental field, latterly much in vogue, which had a different origin. This is the scientific investigation of the phenomena of hypnotism. This subject was rescued from the hands of charlatans, rechristened, and subjected to accurate investigation by Dr. James Braid, of Manchester, as early as 1841. But his results, after attracting momentary attention, fell from view, and, despite desultory efforts, the subject was not again accorded a general hearing from the scientific world until 1878, when Dr. Charcot took it up at the Salpetriere, in Paris, followed soon afterwards by Dr. Rudolf Heidenhain, of Breslau, and a host of other experimenters. The value of the method in the study of mental states was soon apparent. Most of Braid's experiments were repeated, and in the main his results were confirmed. His explanation of hypnotism, or artificial somnambulism, as a self-induced state, independent of any occult or supersensible influence, soon gained general credence. His belief that the initial stages are due to fatigue of nervous centres, usually from excessive stimulation, has not been supplanted, though supplemented by notions growing out of the new knowledge as to subconscious mentality in general, and the inhibitory influence of one centre over another in the central nervous mechanism.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.