Law of Specific Nerve Energies: Definition & Impact

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education with a focus in counseling.

Johannes Muller's law of specific nerve energies asserts that individuals experience life through their nerves and senses, as opposed to their minds. Explore the definition and impact of Muller's theory, and discover how he separates the mind from the physical structure of the brain. Updated: 03/21/2022

Specific Nerve Energy Definition

Have you ever plucked a rose off of its stem? Your objective may have been to smell it, pull out the petals, use the resulting rose hip to make tea, enjoy the many colors within the rose, or you may have had some other purpose. The reason you plucked the rose from its stem doesn't really matter though. What is important is that you experienced the touch, smell, possible taste, sight, and likely the pain of the rose.

How is it that all of these senses can be excited by one object? Are the pathways to these sensations the same (meaning do touch, smell, sight, etc. occur along the same nerve bundles)? Or, do you really experience the rose directly at all? Is it possibly a trick of the nerves themselves that allows you to have a sense (or senses) of the rose? Johannes Muller's law of specific nerve energies is one possible explanation of how the mind senses a rose.

The object of psychological study is the mind. This is not a physical structure; it is the output of a physical structure (the brain). The mind is connected with thought, perception, personality, memory, and many other features that are produced by the brain. So how does tangible input, such as physical interaction with a rose, come to be sensed by an intangible output (the characteristics of the mind)?

While some would say that the brain is the physical organ of the body that connects the outer world with the inner mental processes, Johannes Muller believed that there was no direct connection. The law of specific nerve energies states that an individual's mind cannot access objects in the natural environment except through the nerves. But what does that mean?

There is a belief within philosophy carried over to psychology, that people do not perceive the real world. In essence, all humans are blind to the real world and can only experience it indirectly. The difference in experience between the senses is due to the different areas of the brain that those nerves excite. This is the reason why the eye can experience flashes of light whether there are actual light flashes or an individual is poked in the eye. The separate sensations travel along the same pathway (the optic nerve bundle) to the same location in the brain.

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