I’ve recently been contemplating the birth and evolution of psychology; the fascinating science that delves into the behaviour and inner processes of the mind of humans – and animals.. Yes, animals. Think Pavlov and Seligman for example. Pavlov, the Russian physiologist from the mid 1800s who’s experiments on the digestive process in dogs unexpectedly took a turn, leading to new and highly relevant conclusions about the conditioned response. His findings were monumental in helping us to understand how to deal with and control unhealthy human behaviour. And Seligman, the American psychologist who’s experimentation with dogs led to the groundbreaking and utterly fascinating notion of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is huge in psychology. Many of the obstacles we seem to think will prevent us from doing what we want to do are simply false perceptions, gleaned – from a psychological perspective – from repetitive negative stimuli from which there appears to be no escape. Seligman’s dogs showed that when there is a “perception” of hopelessness in a situation, some of us, (dogs and humans alike), decide it’s not worth trying. So we give up. Learned helplessness.
Like all sciences, psychology has evolved in leaps and bounds since its humble beginnings when philosophers like René Descartes, Plato and Socrates spent their lives trying to figure out what spirit and soul were all about. They struggled to reconcile the physical brain with the concept of soul and spirit – what we now refer to as the conscious mind. Their dualistic approach with respect to the physical brain and the spirit/soul remained a thorn in the side of those who sought to study and understand man’s thoughts. This dualism remained a controversial discrepancy for centuries.
When psychology finally took a scientific turn, thanks to German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, and the many others who followed, the study of the soul and spirit became the study of the mind. Then later, the notion of “mind” was dropped and it became the study of internal processes. But that wasn’t enough. The behaviourists argued that there was more to man’s actions then simply what went on inside his head – and the study of behaviour was born. In fact, some of the Behaviourists believed that you could only study what you could see, ie: behaviour.
Nowadays, psychology is known as the study of behaviour and internal processes. We now investigate both the overt behaviour of humans, and the inner processes of thought.
For example, Sigmund Freud posited that there was an entire component of the psyche that was hidden and inaccessible to us in any conscious way. Through his Psychoanalytical Model, he delved into men’s deep unconscious thoughts and categorized these into separate entities; the id, ego and superego. These parts of our unconscious minds, he said, ruled our thoughts and behaviours, behind our very backs.
Many psychological theories have evolved since the days of Freud. The Cognitive Model of the likes of Albert Ellis showed us that what we think has a huge impact on our behaviour. In fact, if we can learn to lead our thoughts towards the positive spectrum, we will in turn be rewarded with a more positive outlook. Positive, rational thinking according to Ellis, leads to a sunnier and more importantly, healthier disposition.
The Humanists theorized that we all have an intrinsic drive towards self-actualization. We have it in us to pursue the best in ourselves. We are built for it. And through proper emotional nourishment, ie: unconditional positive regard, we can and will reach our highest potentials. Thank you Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. And there are so many others who have made invaluabe contributions towards the understanding of the human psyche.
More recently, with the onset of advanced technology in the field of neuroscience, we are able to see and to map the inner workings of the human brain. Yet, the discrepancy between mind and body persists.
Are we simply human machines whose thoughts, behaviours and actions are created and orchestrated by neural connections taking place in the deep recesses of the cerebral cortex? Is the subconscious mind simply a deeper, hidden layer of neural synapses, not openly accessible to the everyday conscious activity of our brains? Do our nightly dreams simply represent a resetting and disposal of extraneous and useless neural activity?
Are complex neural patterns in our brains responsible for all that we are and all that we do?
My brain says most definately yes, but my heart begs to differ. As much as I am intrigued and unspeakably impressed by the physiological makings of our thinking brains, I remain desperately attached to the concept of human volition and individual uniqueness. I will hold fast to that belief until I no longer have a choice in the matter.