Foundations of Psychology from Philosophy to Neurobiology
“Psychology is the scientific investigation of mental processes (thinking, remembering, feeling, etc.) and behavior” (Kowalski & Western, 2009, p. 4). The foundations of psychology are very diverse. Across the years, many different schools of thought have come and gone. According to Dreikurs (1987) people that adhere to each school of thought wish for the ability to validate their school’s assumptions experimentally (p. 266). Until that happens, the schools of thought will remain split, and each will have their own disciples.
Psychology has its roots in philosophy. Wilhelm Wundt brought psychology into the into its own as a science by founding the first psychological laboratory in the late 1800s. Two of the earliest schools of thought for this fledgling science were structuralism and functionalism. Structuralism used introspection, and its goal was to determine the parts of the consciousness and how these pieces worked together to form ideas. Functionalism was quite the opposite. It focused on the function that psychological processes served a person in adapting to their environment (Kowalski, 2009).
The next major school of thought was psychodynamics. This perspective, originated by Freud, assumes that people’s actions are caused by their, often unconscious, thoughts. The majority of psychologists subscribing to this perspective use case studies for research. However, experimentation is being used more often in this school as time goes on (Kowalski, 2009).
The behaviorist method uses experimentation to understand the behaviors of humans and animals and how these behaviors are controlled by their surroundings. The most predominant school of thought for 40 years (starting in the 1920’s), the best known adherents to this school of thought are Pavlov and Skinner (Kowalski, 2009).
My favorite school of thought is the cognitive perspective. This perspective focuses on thoughts and how they are processed, perceived and retrieved. Often, people in this school liken the brain to a computer, in order to promote understanding of its processes. This science is largely experimental, and studies everything from memorization, to the processing of abstract ideas (Kowalski, 2009).
Evolutionary psychology has a basis in the work of Darwin and his theories of natural selection and adaptive traits. The main tenant of this perspective is that the psychological traits that get passed down are those that help an organism survive and reproduce. An organism cannot pass on traits to its offspring if it does not survive long enough to reproduce. Also, the more offspring an organism produces, the more likely its genetic traits are to survive in the population as a whole. While one may not be able to prove that evolution was the cause of life on this planet, one can prove that populations today evolve to adapt to their environment. The story of the moths population that changed from primarily white to primarily black is but one example of this (Kowalski, 2009).
In many of the above theories, biology has been linked to psychology. I had a neuroscience class a few years back, and it brought home the point that everything we do can either be a function of, or has an effect on our biological system. The primary ways that one sees the effect of biology on human behavior is through neurotransmitters and hormones. While there are hundreds of neurotransmitters, just the few mentioned in the book had multiple effects on behavior. For instance, an imbalance in serotonin can cause anything from depression, to anxiety to lack of sleep and aggressive behavior. Different hormones can also greatly affect behavior. For instance, oxytocin makes someone feel more nurturing, and adrenaline can invoke the fight or flight response (Kowalski, 2009).
It would seem to be very difficult to diagnose imbalances with neurotransmitters and hormones. The symptoms caused by imbalance each of these can be similar to the symptoms caused by imbalances in others (Kowalski, 2009). The symptoms can also mimic other biological and mental problems. For instance, some people having anxiety attacks believe that they are having a heart attack due to similar symptoms. (Kowalski, 2009)
Psychology has made great strides in research and knowledge since it separated itself from philosophy. However, I think the psychologist of today has even more to learn and study than his peers of the past. With each new answer, come new questions. With each new experimental technique, we find something else that we can study. I look forward to seeing the advances in the science during my lifetime.
Kowalski, R., & Western, D. (2009). Psychology (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Dreikurs, R. (1987, September). Are psychological schools of thought outdated?. Individual Psychology: The Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice, 43(3), 265-272.