Why Psychology Is Such a Young Science

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An Illustration from Thomas Willis’s Cerebri Anatome. Photo: Wellcome Library, London/Welcome Images

If you want to understand how something works, cut it open. This, evidently, was the view of one Thomas Willis, a figuratively path-breaking, literally skull-splitting Oxford professor of the 17th century. “I addicted my self to the opening of Heads especially, and of every kind,” he is quoted as writing in George Makari’s Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind. Today, Willis is remembered as the founder of clinical neuroscience. He published The Anatomy of the Brain in 1664, helping establish what he would later call “neurology,” and, as Makari notes, he wanted to do more: Maybe the soul would reveal itself under study, if one were to develop a “psychologie.”

He had to wait a while. Psychology didn’t get formalized as an academic discipline until recently: William James published his Principles of Psychology in 1890; Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams dropped in 1899. Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of experimental psychology, didn’t set up his lab at the University of Leipzig until 1876. If Westerners have been curious about their inner lives since at least the pre-Socratic philosophers — then why is the study of that terrain so new?

Around the time that The Anatomy of the Brain was published, Willis became a member of the Royal Society, the British league of “natural scientists” who spurred the scientific revolution. Unlike his peers ferreting out the foundation of chemistry or tracking the transits of Venus, Willis was interested in the gooey stuff in between your ears. This, Makari notes, put him in an odd place: “For many Royal Society scientists, natural philosophy should steer clear of religion. However, for the students of the brain, this injunction was not easy: they would often land between the two worlds, a wild, unmapped place where brain and soul, spirit and flesh, and Nature and God seemed to touch.”

Makari, who also wrote Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis and holds a day job as a practicing psychiatrist, explained that it wasn’t until secularization got its first footholds in Europe that consciousness began to be seen as a part of nature. This was epitomized in the fitful birth of his medical speciality.

“Psychiatry, as a field of both the somatic and psychic realm, was hindered for many years because the psychic realm was of the soul, and you went to the physicians of the soul for that,” he tells Science of Us. While seeing a human’s psychological state as a part of nature is new, trying to understand inner life is very old. “One of the greatest psychologists of the Western tradition is probably Dante, he is exceedingly acute about pride and gratitude, but frames it all as the inner life of the soul, theology, Christian humanism,” he says. “There’s no notion of mental health or illness if we’re talking about the soul, and that only emerges when the mind becomes a natural object.” Rather than the confessional, it’s the couch.

Why Psychology Is Such a Young Science