Early Examples of Physiological Psychology in History

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

Physiological psychology as a discipline emerged in the 1800s, but its roots date back a million years. In this lesson, we will peer back in time at how humans learned about the connections between mental and physical processes.

Early Steps in Physiological Psychology: A Journey Into Learning

Physiological psychology is the study of how behavior and thought influence each other. It's a fascinating field which was first formally addressed in the 1800s, but its roots go back much, much farther. What if we had a time machine and could see this for ourselves? Climb aboard, and let's take a little trip to see the early history of physiological psychology

Our first stop is a wide savanna where primitive humans hunt. As far back as one million BC, humans, even as undeveloped as they were at that time, recognized that the brain was vital to life. They understood that damage to the brain could cause death, and even tried crude forms of surgery to the skull in cases of head injury.

Next, we visit an Egyptian pyramid where we can marvel at ancient papyrus texts. Five thousand years before our time, physicians here were documenting cases of brain injury, most notably in a famous document known as the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. It even gives surprisingly detailed descriptions of structures of the brain, and instructs physicians how to determine if an injury is treatable or not.

From here, we land in ancient Greece. There, we can observe the legendary doctor Hippocrates treating injured gladiators and formulating theories about the effects of brain damage on emotion, intelligence, and the senses. A brief hop later, we can listen to Plato argue his theory of the brain as the seat of the mind.

A thousand years later, Muslim physicians are making strides in understanding the role of the brain. Let's stop here and listen as the great Ibn-Sina teaches his students that reason and sensation interact in the brain.

A Philosophical Approach

Now, we leap forward several hundred years and arrive in Europe during the late Middle Ages. Here, we're going to meet Rene Descartes, one of the fathers of modern philosophy, who also wrote groundbreaking treatises on everything from medicine to mathematics.

His concept of mind-body dualism stated that mind and body are qualitatively different. Most relevant to our purposes, however, is the fact that he began to develop the basis of the contemporary concept that the mind is seated in the brain.

His other theories included the idea that the brain causes the body to move through a sort of fluid hydraulics. He was a little off course there, but at least he did realize there was a connection.

Science, Medicine, and Behavior

The acknowledgement that brain affected body emerged and grew through the next few hundred years. Let's stop in the early 19th century and watch Italian scientist Luigi Galvani make a frog leg twitch through application of electricity. He found that the brain generates current and by putting the two discoveries together, he disproved Descartes' theory of fluids.

In that same time period, we can visit with German researcher Johannes Muller. Listen as he expounds on his theory of specific nerve energies, explaining that though all nerves carried electrical impulses. Since the brain perceives each impulse differently, this implies that it must be organized into areas of function. This was a mighty jump forward in scientific understanding of the brain.

With our next time-jump, we land in France in the middle of the 19th century and meet surgeon Paul Broca. His observations of stroke patients and study of their brains led him to discover the specific area of the brain that produces speech. This area and the aphasia (impairment of speech) that results from injury to it are both named for him.

From there, it's only a short distance and a few decades to late 1800s Germany. There, physician Karl Wernicke was making the same types of discoveries as Broca, but in another region of the brain-- the one responsible for understanding of speech. Also like his French contemporary, the area Wernicke discovered and the aphasia caused by damage to it now bear his name.

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