The Origins of Psychology


Psychology has been around for a long time but most of us think of it as a fairly new science being only a little over 100 years old; and regarding the scientific method of psychology, this is true. However, how did psychology originate?


In the earliest days the closest resemblance to the Psychologist in ancient cultures was the Shaman. The Shaman devised remedies such as incantations, potion’s, and various other methods to help persons who were mentally ill. Mental illness was not thought of as a mental illness in those days but that a deity or demon had inhabited the person’s body and the Shaman would attempt to relieve the person of these evil spirits. In later days it would be the priests exorcising the demons from the human being.

Therefore the beginnings of psychology originated in Shamanism and religion. The first priests to practice exorcising were in Egypt and Greece. The Shaman was now a priest. Priests in those days were a curious mixture of priest, physician, psychologist, and magician. Cures were effected in magical rites. At that time the prevailing belief was demonology; and exorcism was the cure for mental illness which was not perceived as mental illness but that the demons had attacked the body. This was the beginning of practices closely related to much of modern psychology.


Free Association the hallmark of Sigmund Freud’s breakthrough in psychoanalysis was talked about in the play entitled Clouds by Aristiphanes, the Greek playwright. In his play there is a scene complete with a couch where “Socrates tries to calm and bring self-knowledge to Strepsicedes.”

Priests in the temple of the God Asclepius in ancient Greece used dream therapy to cure patients. They would have the patients sleep in the temple and the dreams they had helped the priests know what was ailing them so that a cure could be effected. The priests also used prayer, incantations, kindness, suggestions and recreational activities such as riding, walking, music, and theater. There were also some aversive measures used. These temples of healing existed during the Golden Age of Greece.

Pericles (461-429 BC), an Athenian statesman made some progress in the understanding and treatment of mental illness. However since the human body was considered sacred there was not much information regarding human anatomy or physiology.

Hippocrates (460-377 BC), who is known as the “Father of Modern Medicine” said that deities and demons did not cause disease. He considered mental disorders illnesses that should be treated like any other illness and referred to the brain as the central organ of intellectual activity and said that brain pathology caused mental disorders. He also classified mental disorders and said they consisted of the following:

  • mania
  • melancholia
  • parentis (brain fever)

He considered heredity and predisposition as factors in mental disorder; and said that sensory and motor disorders were caused by injuries to the brain. His method was clinical observation and he kept excellent records. He also believed that dreams were an indicator of a patient’s personality. He also believed that the environment played a roll in the mental health of a patient and removed people from their families when he felt it necessary. Hysteria was restricted to women and his remedy was marriage.

His prescription for melancholia was as follows:

  • regular and tranquil life
  • sobriety
  • abstinence from all excesses
  • celibacy
  • exercise
  • bleeding where indicated

Plato (429-347 BC) had thoughts on the mentally retarded and felt they should merely pay for damage and not be punished. He felt the mentally ill should be cared for by the family but not to be seen in the city. His beliefs were in tune with the “devinely caused” mental disorder. He felt that “humans were motivated by physical needs” and that ” psychological phenomena were responses of the whole organism.” He also believed in dream imagery.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) wrote on mental disorders and consciousness.

Alexandria, Egypt founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC was the center of Greek Culture and the medical arts became highly developed during this period. The temples of Saturn were highly rated sanatoriums and patients were given pleasant surroundings to live in with “parties, dances, walks in the temple gardens, rowing along the Nile, and musical concerts.” There was also “dieting, massage, hydrotherapy, gymnastics, bleeding, purging, and mechanical restraints.”

The teachings of Hippocrates were continued by the Greeks and Romans through Asclepiades, Cicero, Aretaeus, and Galen. Asclepiades (b. 124 BC) was against mechanical restraints and bleeding. He made a distinction between acute and chronic mental disorders and noted the difference between illusions, delusions, and hallucinations. He invented devices to make mentally ill people happier such as a hammock that seemed to relax mental patients.

Cicero (106-43 BC) attributed body ailments to emotional factors. Aretaeus said that mental disorders were an extension of normal psychological processes. He saw mania and melancholia as part of the same disorder. Galen’s contribution was the study of the nervous system. He began the dissection of animals. Autopsies were not yet done at this time due to the prevailing thought that the body was sacred. His causes for mental disorder were head injuries, alcohol excesses, shock, fear, adolescence, menstruation, love disappointments, and economic problems.


During the middle ages the survival of Greek thought continued only in Islamic countries. The first mental hospital was established in Baghdad in AD 792, followed by others in Damascus and Aleppo. The “prince of physicians” was Avicenna (AD 980-1037) who wrote the Canon of Medicine, a highly recognized work of medicine and also widely studied. He spoke of mania, epilepsy, hysteria and melancholia.

The middle ages in Europe went backwards into demonology, exorcism by priests, witchcraft, and events such as mass madness.


Noted physicians of Europe, as it became more scientific were Agrippa (1486), Paracelsus (1490-1541), and Johann Weyer (1515-1588). Weyer specialized in mental disorders and wrote a book entitled The Possession of Demons where he discussed the mental illness of
people as opposed to the demonology attitude.


The modern era of science and psychology was partly ushered in by the philosophers. They were Descartes (1596-1650), Auguste Comte , John Locke (1632-1704), George Berkely (1685-1753), David Hume (1711-1776), David Hartley (1705-1757), James Mill (1773-1836), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Descartes most important contribution to psychology was the Mind-Body problem. According to previous thought the mind and body worked separately but Descartes said that the mind and body are connected and that the mind influences the body; and the body influences the mind. His theory took attention away from what was termed the soul, to the mind. His most important ideas for the theory of psychology were “mechanistic concept of the body,” reflex action, mind-body interaction, the mind’s function localized in the brain, and his doctrine of innate ideas.


Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) studied memory and sensation and with his colleagues helped set standards of experimental methods. He founded the first experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Leipsig. Wundt’s clinical methods and strategies were followed closely by students studying abnormal behavior.

Wundt’s focus for psychology was consciousness. 19th century empiricism and associationism were partly influential in Wundt devising his system of psychology. However his only real connection with their ideas was about the description of the elements, but he maintained that these elements of consciousness were not static but that consciousness was active in organizing the elements and his theory was more like that of John Stuart Mill. His method of study was introspection, which was a method, derived from physics, which had been used to study light and sound. His method of introspection was carried on in his laboratory at Leipzig under exacting experimental conditions. His work was quantitative and objective as opposed to qualitative and subjective.

As a student and professor at Heidelberg where he received his doctorate, he began the thoughts of starting a new science of psychology and wrote Contributions to the Theory of Sensory Perception. He also subsequently wrote Lectures on the Minds of Men and Animals and Principle of Physiological Psychology.

The book, Physiological Psychology established psychology as a science. Wilhelm Wundt was the founder of modern psychology.

Hermann Ebbinhaus (1850-1909) expanded the theories of Wundt with being the first psychologist to experiment with learning and memory. Georg Elias Muller(1850-1934) who was both a physiologist and philosopher continued along the line of the works of Ebbinhaus and expanded his theories. He added more introspection to the objective method of Ebbinhaus.

Subsequent psychologists followed up on the forgoing studies: They were Franz Brentano (1838-1917), Carl Stumpf (1948-1936), and Oscar Kulpe (1862-1915).

Structural Psychology was ushered into prominence by Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927). He wrote a textbook for psychology called A Text-Book of Psychology (1909). In it he describes structuralism and the methodology for the new Science of Psychology. He is also concerned with consciousness.

Charles Darwin had an impact on psychology with his theories of evolution thus making a connection between man and the lower animal. Psychology started moving into an area of functionalism with considering the functions that consciousness might serve. With the ideas of evolution came ideas on heredity and these ideas were brought out by Francis Galton (1822-1911). Galton had a very high IQ estimated at 200. His first psychology book was Hereditary Genius. Galton was interested in measurement and statistics and mental tests. Galton is called the first practitioner of psychology.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a philosopher, furthered the works of Charles Darwin and coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” His philosophy was Social Darwinism. “Spencer saw the sequence of differentiation followed by integration, in which all things proceed from homogeneity to heterogeneity, as evolutionary. The implication of this idea for psychology is that as the nervous system evolves in ever more complex species, there is a corresponding increase in the richness and variety of experience to which the organism is exposed, and thus there are ever higher levels of functioning.”

Psychology has been around in many different forms and ever since man has walked the earth. Although it had it’s beginnings in Shamanism and the early priests, it evolved into a real science founded by Wilhelm Wundt and then worked on by other philosophers and psychologists who continued to increase the volume of psychological knowledge until we have a very exact modern day psychology. And yet new and different theories, methods, and strategies may come into being in the field of psychology.

Coleman, James C., Butcher, James N., Carson, Robert C., Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, Scot Foresman and Company, Clearview, Illinois, 1984.
Rickman, Richard M., Theories of Personality, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove, CA, 1989.
Schultz, Duane P., Schultz, Sydney Ellen, A History of Modern Psychology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., NY, 1992.