Psychology: Origin, History, Different Branches

Updated December 20, 2017

Psychology is the study of human behaviour. It covers everything that a person thinks or feels. Since it is all-encompassing, you will find psychologists in every field of study under the sun.  The history of psychology originated in the antiquities. Yet, it only became a recognized field on its own in the mid-1800's and for this reason, it is known as a fairly new discipline of study. The origins of psychology germinated in the fields of medicine and philosophy. We can thank the ancient Greeks for this.

From the field of science, Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, was one of the greatest influences on modern-day psychology.  Similarly, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the great ancient Greeks philosophers, were among the greatest influences on modern-day psychology from the philosophical perspective.  As a result of the tremendous influence of both these fields on psychology, there once was an ongoing debate as to whether psychology is a science or an art.

Basically, I believe that psychology is a mixture of both science and philosophy. I believe that one discipline without the other would not do justice to the field of psychology at all.

Psychology is not a hard science like chemistry or physics. It is known as a soft science because it does not postulate scientific laws governing nature.  Human nature is so complex; people don't always react in the same way, thus making it extremely difficult to establish "laws".  For a science to be called a pure science or "hard" science, you must have laws that you can prove over and over again. For example, gravity is a law of nature. If you let go of a pencil in midair it will always fall--according to a law of physics.

Conversely, to use depression as an example from the realm of psychology, many people may have symptoms of depression but these people will not experience it in quite the same way. It is for this reason that the hard-nosed scientists laugh at psychology.  In defense of my field, psychology does use the scientific method.

Psychologists test their theories using scientific methods of research. They will create experiments and measure the results. For example, if a psychologist deems that a person has depression, it is not because he/she felt like it, pulled it of his/her bag as a possible diagnosis or thought it sounded good. The diagnosis is based on scientific study and years of research in the field.

However, since humans are different from the elements, you cannot treat them as such. Just as I said before, a pencil will always fall if dropped in midair. However, a person has a thinking process that affects every decision that he or she makes in life, and these mental processes will affect the outcome of depression and affect their mood. Because of the additional influences of human thinking in reaction to various physical symptoms such as depression, the truisms found in philosophy must factor into the psychological evaluation as well.

The field of psychology became a recognized discipline in Europe in the mid-1800s. The first psychologists were German. They scientifically studied the physical reactions of the body when experiencing pain and formulated theories about reaching pain thresholds, etc. They did this by scientific means. They chose to study physical changes in the body by measuring sweat, heart rhythms, etc. They attempted to establish scientific data to explain and back up the body's reaction to pain.

They also studied how people learn with regards to their thinking processes, again by using the scientific method and measuring the subjects' responses in memory tests.  Later, people like Dr. Sigmund Freud, who was a medical doctor, proposed theories about human nature with regard to how humans think and feel which he combined that with the scientific (medical) knowledge of the day.

As a result, the division in psychology became apparent way back then. You had the scientists (the learning people), who were strictly concerned with physical aspects; and the clinicians, such as Freud, who studied the philosophical aspect and combined it with scientific study.

Today in universities you can choose to go into scientific psychology, which is pure research work, or clinical psychology where you will have patients and treat their various concerns. Since I love people and understanding how we tick, I decided to go into clinical psychology.

In our university, the psychology students were very competitive and there was a rivalry going on between the students who elected research (scientific) and the students such as myself who preferred the clinical aspect of psychology.  I nicknamed the scientific psychology students and their professors the "rat people."

These "rat people" are the people who experiment with rats and are responsible for helping to find cures for cancer, AIDS, etc. They work in conjunction with the medical field; chemistry, biology, etc., to finds cures for human ailments, including drug addiction and alcoholism. You name it and there will be research about it. These psychologists and students of psychology almost never see people. They don't have clients, they conduct experiments in the laboratory and they work with animals, studying their behavior to various stimuli. In using animals as test subjects they create models that can be applied to human nature. They not only help find cures for human diseases that way, they formulate theories about how humans learn by reacting to their environment and they aid in the research of veterinary sciences.

Incidentally, the research done by the "rat people" brings in big government research grants for American and Canadian universities; they are the big moneymakers. American and Canadian universities are world leaders in the area of scientific psychology research. Our governments pour millions of dollars into this type of research.

Other psychologists in the scientific stream research the behaviour of people rather than animals. For example, they may study the effects of the element of surprise introduced into a group setting, or test babies (developmental psychology) to see if they are responding to different stimuli the way they should at each stage of development. These psychologists, who are scientists, are not necessarily oriented toward individual clients. Their focus is to study groups and formulate theories about what is normal behaviour for that group.

Earlier, we talked about the division between science and philosophy that launched the great debate on whether or not psychology is a science or an art. The debate stemmed from the fact that psychology borrows from the sciences as well as from the great philosophical minds of all time.

We have talked about the scientific contributions to psychology and now we will turn our focus to clinicians, the people who deal with clients and listen to their emotional and cognitive needs. Clinical psychology has its roots in philosophy rather than medicine. Clinical psychologists are primarily interested in the client. They take the theories that the research psychologists formulate and apply them on an individual level (Applied Psychology).

As I have said before, if a psychologist diagnoses someone with depression, he/she just did not pull the diagnosis out of a hat. The counselor or psychologist uses scientific research as a basis for the diagnosis, but then takes the theories one step further. The counselor uses his/her knowledge of research to help the client ameliorate his/her situation.


Using the depression example, the clinician would know from the research that clinically depressed people (the most severe depression cases) don't really want to do anything; they are totally unmotivated, apathetic, and lethargic. Therefore, getting them to start doing things helps alleviate the depression can be challenging. Knowing this, a clinician will sit down with the client and talk about different things that the client would like to do as part of therapy. For one client it might be swimming, for another it might be using the Internet, etc.

In summary, there are two main divisions of psychology: scientific and clinical. Under each division, there are hundreds of fields of studies. The particular division of psychology that I studied at the Masters' level was clinical; the sub-division was counseling psychology.

For the most part, the clinical psychologist deals with severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, major depression, Dissociative Identity Disorder--basically the same clientele as for psychiatrists.

Now, by introducing the subject of psychiatrists, it immediately begs the question, what is the difference between the psychologists and psychiatrists. Simply stated, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has taken special training in the workings of the mind and he/she understands that human mental disorders originate from a biological malfunction. Furthermore, he/she is also authorized to prescribe drugs to correct or ameliorate these disorders.  On the other hand, the clinical psychologist is not a medical doctor. He/she has studied the workings of the mind but only has a psychology degree, not a medical degree. Without a medical degree, the psychologist is not authorized to prescribe drugs.

The counselor or counseling psychologist's focus is not on abnormal human behaviour as in the heavy-duty mental disorders, but their focus is concerned with normal behaviour. Therefore, counselors and counseling psychologists work with people who have everyday issues or concerns.

The first counselors were guidance counselors in schools and universities who dealt with issues that students face. The discipline has now extended to clinical psychology.  You will find counselors in schools, clinics, community centers, hospitals, businesses-just about anywhere. Counselors deal with a wide variety of issues, such as problems in school, marital and family relationships, grief counseling, career counseling, depression, self-esteem issues; the list goes on and on.

I completed my internship in a psychiatric hospital where I counseled clients who had symptoms of schizophrenia. I have a Master's in Counseling Psychology, so I am a counselor and not a counseling psychologist. To earn the title psychologist you must have a PhD. (I could obtain a PhD under what is known as the grandfather clause by taking an extra year of study. Before NAFTA I would have been a psychologist already.)

Each of these professionals provides therapy; for the psychiatrist, therapy would include drug therapy. However, for psychologists and counselors alike, therapy is basically applying the scientific theories of psychology to everyday life and coming up with a plan to help your client, such as the example previously given for depression.

To date, there are over 350 different therapies out there. Of course, no one individual therapist was ever trained in all of them. But they are out there--good, bad or otherwise.  Some of these therapies work better than others, making it difficult for a person seeking help to really know who to go to. When you have cancer you go to a cancer specialist, but when you need to see a psychologist or counselor it is not easy to find the right one.

Consequently, it is required by law that when seeking a psychologist or counselor, the professional must tell you his/her particular brand of psychology and what he/she plans to accomplish with you through the use of it. At that point, a prospective client can decide if this is the type of therapy that he/she feels will help; or the client can begin therapy and choose afterwards based on results.