Wilhelm Wundt began his life on August 16, 1832 in Neckarau, Germany, the son of a Lutheran minister. By the time of his death in 1920, Wundt had become known as “the father of experimental psychology”. Wilhelm is linked to many “firsts” in the world of psychology. He was the first person to be given the title of “psychologist”, the first to separate psychology from philosophy, the first Physiological Psychology instructor at Heidelberg University, the first to introduce scientific study of the mind, and the first to create an experimental psychology lab.
Wundt began his education at the knee of Friedrich Müller, a vicar who assisted his father. Wilhelm began his university studies at the University of Tübingen, and a year later transferred to the University of Heidelberg majoring in medicine, but changed his focus to physiology after his third year. Wilhelm went on to earn his doctorate at Heidelberg University, and accepted a position as lecturer there in 1857.
During his time at Heidelberg working as an assistant to physiologist Wilhelm von Helmholtz, Wundt began work on several publications introducing his theories on psychology and sense perceptions, and in 1862 became the first person to teach a course in Physiological Psychology. Wundt’s lectures focused on the use of the natural science methods of experimentation for the analysis of psychology, and were published in 1863 as Vorlesungen über die Menschen und Thierseele, (“Lectures on the Minds of Humans and Animals”) Wundt continued his career at Heidelberg, and after being passed over as Helmholtz’ replacement in 1871 he began writing Principles of Physiological Psychology (1874) which explained his theories of conscious perception and the investigation of consciousness. That publication is now considered to be one of the most important to the history of psychology.
In 1875, Wilhelm accepted a position teaching philosophy at the University of Leipzig, which secured his place in history. In 1879, what began as a storage room for his equipment became the first experimental psychology laboratory in the world, and two years later he published the first journal of psychology. The Leipzig laboratory allowed him to introduce his theories that mental events were organic responses that could be stated in terms of objective and measurable stimuli. Wundt categorized the mind not as a substance, but an activity he called ‘apperception’.
Wundt believed it was possible to analyze recorded thoughts and sensations in an effort to break them down into their most basic elements, which is now known as the structuralism school of thought. Wundt’s work introduced psychology as a separate branch of science composed of three subdivisions, each with its own set of methods and questions.
The first division concentrated on mental processes and the ability to study those processes using experimental science.The second division focused on pairing social sciences with psychology in order to study more complex processes such as religion and societal practices that could not be controlled when viewed in a laboratory setting.The final division was designated as scientific metaphysics, which focused on incorporating the information gained from experiments in the lab with other scientific findings.
Wilhelm believed these thoughts and findings were best studied using his form of introspection, which relied on personal experience and individual interpretation. Although his ideas were highly contested at that time, Wundt’s study of feelings, thoughts, and images paved the way for what is known today as cognitive psychology.
Wundt used his experiments to measure sensitivity to various levels of stimuli to determine the strength and ability of the senses to distinguish between different types of stimuli. These experiments and their results would later become the theories and methodology of psychophysics. Wundt’s measures of quantitative relationships between the physical stimuli and sensations would later be the basis of the Binet intelligence scale used to determine mental ages.
Wilhelm also contributed to the understanding of psychology through his written works, which are estimated to consist of more than 53,000 pages. Many of Wundt’s ideas changed throughout his long career, and each shift in his theories were updated along the way. Even though many of Wundt’s theories were rejected during his lifetime, his numerous contributions, and his dedication to proving his theories of physiological psychology created the foundation for the study and development of psychology as it is today.