When we talk about psychology “ “science” is not among the first words that comes to mind; we end up thinking more likely of a psychotherapy session bed. This association is due to the impact, on the collective imagination, of Sigmund Freud, who had the merit of lighting a beacon on some mechanisms of the human mind, proposing theories that have greatly influenced the whole Twentieth Century. Freud, however, is more commonly counted among philosophers than among scientists because, despite being a doctor, his observations on psychic processes are not considered falsifiable.
According to the definition of Karl Popper – among the first philosophers of science to look for cardinal principles to define a hypothesis as scientific or not – a hypothesis that cannot be disproved through new evidence cannot be considered scientific. In other words, if it is not possible to prove that Es, Io and superego (the three intrapsychic instances that Freud places at the basis of the functioning of the human mind) do not exist, their existence cannot be considered a scientific hypothesis.
How does psychology connect with psychic abilities
Psychology is, however, a vast discipline, which today goes from psychoanalysis to cognitive neuroscience – passing through the psychology of development, work, clinical. Studies in the psychological field include both the observation of how a child interacts spontaneously with his peers (developmental psychology, for example, makes much use of observation as a research method), as well as the measurement of precise neuro-physiological activation patterns recorded through special electrodes placed on the scalp or other parts of the body (typically found in cognitive Neuroscience).
Like many other knowledge, psychology has its roots in field observations, therefore, devoid of any experimental artificiality, and then brings into the laboratory the hypotheses arising from those observations to put them to the test of the scientific method. But is it possible to say exactly what kind of science is psychology?
How many Sciences about psychology
When it comes to science, the images that come to mind are those of a lab full of test tubes and people wearing white coats; or drugs, complex machinery and cutting-edge technology. And yet, these are only the products of science, not science per se. Even when a doctor reads the report of an X-ray to be able to make a diagnosis, in fact, he is not following a scientific process: he is using the tools and knowledge obtained thanks to science to be able to improve the understanding of the problem. Evidence-based medicine, for example, refers to the fact that the analysis of symptoms and the choice of treatments proposed by the doctor are based on scientific evidence obtained in the laboratory – under controlled conditions and on a large number of people who refer to the individual patient – rather than on the idea that the diagnostic process that takes place in the average study is scientific in itself.
Psychology has its roots in field observations, devoid of any experimental artificiality, and then brings to the laboratory the hypotheses arising from those observations to put them to the test of the scientific method. But is it possible to say exactly what kind of science is psychology?
Although at very different levels of complexity, in a medical clinic as much as in an electronics store or at the hairdresser, making a diagnosis, making an electronic device or dyeing hair are activities made possible by a process of scientific research that took place well before we could collect the fruits; a process of knowledge that, at any latitude and longitude, without discrimination of identity, color or religion, allows us to understand how a phenomenon works and, therefore, to be able to intervene to modify it: the scientific method.
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Commonly, however, when we talk about science we refer to both the method that the sciences use to generate new knowledge and the body of knowledge that comes from its application. The sciences are then often distinguished into various types: the formal sciences, which include logic and mathematics; the Natural Sciences, which include the biological and life sciences (i.e. those sciences that study living organisms) and the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy); the Social Sciences, which include all those sciences that deal with studying people and society, such as sociology or anthropology; finally, we speak of Applied Sciences referring to those disciplines that use scientific knowledge to create new tools or treatments, as in the case of Engineering – which is based a lot on the physical sciences – or agriculture and medicine – which make, instead, more reference to the Natural Sciences.
Sciences that adopt the scientific method can be defined as experimental sciences, that is, they are those that resort to laboratory or field experiments to produce new knowledge. Not all of the sciences listed here necessarily use the scientific method directly. Mathematics and engineering, for example, typically do not use the experimental method, but either underlie (like mathematics) or rely (like engineering) on experimental evidence produced by the other sciences.
Within the continuum between the natural and Social Sciences, today’s Experimental Psychology ranks closer to the former than to the latter.
Rather than talking about more or less scientific disciplines, according to Karin Knorr Cetina (in his Epistemic Cultures: Ho Ho the Sciences Make kno Knledge, Harvard Universit Press Press, 1999), it would be more correct to talk about different epistemic cultures that characterize the various sciences. Studying the way different sciences (in particular, physics and biology) behave inside and outside the laboratory, the Austrian anthropologist explains how each scientific discipline is characterized by different standards that regulate what is considered evidence and what is not, how these evidences are used, when they are considered strong enough to support a theory, how the technological and statistical tools at their disposal are used and how their results are communicated to the scientific community.
Within the continuum between the natural and Social Sciences, today’s Experimental Psychology ranks closer to the former than to the latter, being based on quantitative methods and techniques very similar to those of biology or physics, such as recourse to mathematical representation and the scientific method in the strict sense.
Moderna sperimentale psychology was founded some years before Freud, around 1879, in the city of Leipzig, by a physiologist and psychologist called W At that time the distinction between psychology and natural sciences such as physics was clear: while the first was qualitative, that is, centered on the description of the subjective experience of what we call Mind, The Natural Sciences aimed to describe the reality that surrounds us through numbers.
Around the middle of the same century, however, Ernsteb Eber and Gustav Fechner were among the first to think that the methods used in physics could also be used to quantify mental processes: thus psychophysics was born which, in its first expressions, was concerned with studying the quantitative relationship between the objective intensity of a physical stimulus and the perceived sensation that corresponds subjectively. The weight of a pack of pasta, for example, has both an objective component, how many kilos?, that a subjective component, how much do I find it heavy to carry?. The idea of F Eber and Fechner was to understand how our subjective experience of weight depended on objective weight, and whether it was to find a mathematical formula that could describe this relationship.
Starting from these insights into the theoretical initial, Weber and Fechner themselves, together with other scholars, such as Steven and Poulton, they realized how this principle could be applied to different types of sensory stimuli – the sound, the distance, the brightness. They brought these insights into the laboratory to scientifically test the different hypotheses formulated. In some of these experiments, for example, participants were asked to evaluate differences in weight variations (for example, 100 grams) in very light (1 kg) or very heavy (10 kg) objects. It was thus discovered that the minimum perceptible difference was proportional to the intensity of the stimulus (in this example, to its weight). Put simply, a weight difference of 100 grams we do not notice in a 10 kg pack of pasta as we would notice in a 1 kg one.
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Ernst W Eber and Gustav Fechner were among the first to think that the methods used in physics could also be used to quantify mental processes: thus psychophysics was born.
Inspired by these early attempts, Wundt extended the method typical of psychophysics to other areas of psychology, founding a real modus operandi of experimental psychology: the principle according to which it is possible to measure mental processes, with a certain degree of accuracy, starting from the expressions of that process that can be measured objectively. From an initial attempt at measurement, therefore, a chain reaction has led hundreds of psychologists to continue to develop and refine, through the use of the scientific method and experimentation, the measurement of our sensations, emotions and decision-making processes, to always understand a little more how our mind works.