Author Archives: Ryan

Edward B. Titchener

Edward B. Titchener
Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927)

Edward Bradford Titchener was a British psychologist who founded the Structuralism school of psychology. Titchener was a professor at Cornell University, and during his tenure, he oversaw the creation of the largest doctoral program in the United States. In addition, he was a charter member of the American Psychiatric Association and is responsible for the term ‘empathy.’


Wundt’s Influence

While at college, Edward Titchener became aware of the writings of Wilhelm Wundt. Translating some of Wundt’s work into English, he became intrigued with the ideas he read. Following his graduation, he moved to Leipzig to study directly under the man. Wundt’s focus on the scientific study of the mind inspired Titchener’s own concepts on how the brain works. This new model came to be known as Structuralism.



The basic idea behind Edward Titchener’s new school of psychology was that the mind was better understood when broken down into its component parts. This would be the same as trying to learn more about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by separating each instrument, then breaking it down further by analyzing each musical note. With this in mind, Titchener broke down the mind into three components, sensations, images, and affectations. Each of these, in turn, was broken down even further.


A majority of Edward Titchener’s research took place using introspection, but this was not a simple write-down-what-I’m-thinking type of exercise. He was a stickler for detail, and his experiments took place using a very strict set of protocols. Each test required two people, both of whom had to follow Titchener’s instructions to such a close degree, that even the slightest error would result in a botched test. To Titchener, this was the only valid way to study the mind.



Sadly, very little of Edward Titchener’s work in psychology is in use today. Structuralism began its decline shortly after his death. Some credit this to the exacting nature of Titchener’s testing protocols. Others argue that criticism from the Behavioralists was partially responsible. Whatever the case, Titchener was a pivotal figure the burgeoning field of psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832-1920)

The man with the awesome beard and glasses over there is none other than Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt, a German philosopher/physician from the 1800’s. A prominent figure in the history of psychology, Wundt is often referred to as the “Father of Experimental Psychology”. He set up the first psychology laboratory. In addition, he pretty much got the ball rolling when it came to psychology being an actual field of study.


Though Wilhelm Wundt is considered a founder of the field of psychology, it is important to note that psychological study existed before he began his work, albeit in a different form. For centuries, philosophers had contended with questions of the mind. From Decartes’ ‘I think therefore I am,” to Locke’s theory of Tabula Rasa,” and beyond, philosophers had come up with many theories on the mind’s inner workings. Unfortunately, philosophy did not have all the answers. Furthermore, some philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, did not believe that scientific study of the mind was impossible.

Enter Gustav Fechner and Ernst Weber, a physics professor and a physician, respectively. Both worked at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where they studied, among other things, the properties of human senses. This was the first real foray of science into the realm of the mind.

Wilhelm Wundt Arrives

Wilhelm Wundt comes along, and, inspired by Weber and Fechner, begins his own work in the field of psychology. Now, it has been suggested that Wundt never wanted to form his own field of study, but rather to simply subject philosophy to the same rigorous scientific standards as other disciplines. Whether or not this is the case, Wundt’s interest in psychology led him to open the first formal laboratory dedicated to its study in 1879.

Psychology Wundt Style

Much of Wilhelm Wundt’s research focused on human perception, specifically sensations and reaction times. However, his work is much broader in scope than he is usually credited for. In addition to his own work, Wundt’s laboratory also opened up a place for his students to perform research as well. The lab became a great draw for the university, pulling in students from around the world and legitimizing the study of psychology. Also, he had an awesome beard!

Understanding Autism Through Parody

As a means of bringing controversial or overlooked ideas into the public eye, comedy is one method that is usually not extremely threatening to listeners. People usually do not feel uneasy when presented with a joke, offensive jokes aside. Heavy topics such as race relations or politics, which can often lead to tense discussions, can be presented easily and effectively with humor. The same applies to developmental disabilities. With that said, try not to be offended when viewing the video below. While some may think it demeaning, I feel that it presents a good overview of autistic characteristics in a format that is entertaining. Understanding autism through parody is not necessarily a bad thing.

Autistic Reporter: Train Thankfully Unharmed In Crash That Killed One Man

Watching the video, there is a clear difference between the normal behavior expected of a reporter and the actual behaviors of the autistic reporter. These inconsistencies create humor and highlight some of the characteristics of autism. There were a couple aspects of the video that stick out when trying to understand autism.

First, is the reporter’s preoccupation with the train. Under these circumstances, most people would react to the death. But our reporter, Falk, is focused on nothing but the train. Getting stuck on a single topic is not all uncommon for people with autism. In working with autistic children, I have witnessed this first hand when one of the children I was working with spent an entire afternoon looking for a TV remote that had not been put in its normal place.

Second, the reporter lacks empathy for the people involved in the accident. A lack of empathy in people with autism is not uncommon. A vast majority of those with autism are said to suffer from Alexithymia, a condition in which they are unable to identify emotional states in others, or even themselves. From a behavioral standpoint, the emotions we see in others trigger learned, socially acceptable responses. Not having the ability to identify the triggering emotional state leaves an autistic individual without the ability to respond properly, much like a runner who cannot hear the starter pistol.

Overall, the video does a good job helping further an understanding of autism. While some may find the content offensive, it is important to remember that beneficial aspect is that it gets people talking about the disorder. When more people discuss it, we understand it better, and maybe garner some more acceptance for those that have to deal with autism every day.

If you would like to learn more about autism, check out the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s page on autism, here.

There’s also a second Onion News video featuring the autistic reporter, Michael Falk, here.

Into the Silent Land – Book Review

Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology
Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology by Paul Broks

The brain is simply a mechanical storyteller. That is the underlying idea of Paul Broks’ Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology. The book is an amazing foray into the self and its purpose, ultimately questioning its very existence. There are some very interesting thoughts put forward here. The idea that the self, as we generally accept it, is nonexistent is hard to swallow because it goes against the very nature of human experience. However, the author presents his case quite clearly and quite convincingly.


Seemingly aware of the controversial nature his idea, Broks, an English neuropsychologist, eases the reader into it carefully. He first presents a few stories of experiences he has had with patients. Some of the experiences he describes, such as his initial sense of fear when dealing with his first severely mentally ill person, struck a chord with me, as I had experienced similar feelings when placed in the same situation. Broks uses this fear, and its subsequent alleviation after time, to illustrate an important concept that he echoes throughout the book; one miniscule change to our brain could make us a completely different person.


The remainder of Into the Silent Land deals with this thought within the context of the self. As such, he suggests that the brain is little more than a mechanical device. With neurons firing away like a well-oiled engine, the product of our brain is its ability to tell stories. In turn, these stories create the person we see ourselves to be, our self. Indeed, Broks suggests that we are all simply a collection of atoms arranged in a particular sequence that produces the self we see in the mirror, replete with memories and all.


One of the more poignant chapters, and one which illustrates this concept, involves a man taking a trip in the near future when a machine is capable of transporting one instantly from Earth to Mars. ‘Transport’ is hardly the best term as the person making the incredible journey has every molecule of their body scanned on Earth and their body is replicated at their destination exactly as it was before. The person on Earth is simultaneously disintegrated, so there are never two copies alive at the same time. The problem comes when the machine performing this task malfunctions, leaving the original traveler alive and well on Earth while his duplicate goes about his business with no knowledge of the other’s existence. The question then becomes whether the two men are the same person; a somewhat heady inquiry, but one which inevitably gets you thinking.


From a scientific standpoint, what Broks says sounds not only plausible, but also completely true. The brain, as we understand it today, is simply an organ like any other. However, this goes against how we perceive the world, which inherently leads us to one of two conclusions; either our brains are simply story-telling machines that are lying to us or there is something more going on in the brain than we are currently able to discover through science. Into the Silent Land doesn’t give us the answer, however. Broks is content to let the question bounce around in our heads and then state that he doesn’t think the answer will ever be found. I tend to agree with his assessment.


To read this excellent, thought-provoking book, buy it here.

Research: Crying Not So Helpful

“Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Cry babyI’d venture a guess that quite a few people have heard that little gem. I know that my father told me that many times. Suffice it to say crying is a fact of life growing up. It is a natural response to many of life’s difficulties, from losing your binky to falling off the swing. Regardless of the reasons for the crying, it’s assumed that crying will make you feel better. At least that’s what we’ve always thought.


New research out of the University of South Florida seems to suggest that my father was right all along. Researchers had a group of women log any crying episodes they had for three months. Upon compiling the results, they found that a majority of the women, around 70%, experienced no improvement in mood after crying or actually felt worse. It appears that crying really isn’t as beneficial as once believed.


That said, some of the comments in this article seem opposed to the results of this study. Many of the commenters suggest that this study’s conclusion flies in the face of our own personal human experiences, some even becoming slightly hostile. To a degree, these dissenters are correct, as their opinions are based on their observations. Obviously, after you cry you aren’t crying any more, hence you feel better. However, one problem with this is that people are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to comparing their own emotions between two different events. That’s not something that we, as human beings do well.


That and self-reflection is not usually a scientifically sound method of empirical research. Then again, this is an article being featured in Time magazine, so I don’t expect it to contain all of the actual data. It would be interesting to see more of the data and actually read more about their findings.


In the meantime, you can check out the article HERE.

WAR!!!! – Part 1

I am at war!

It is roughly 4 o’clock in the morning and I have spent the last few hours on my knees. My face is a mere 6 inches from the ground, and I have a strong florescent desk lamp in one hand and while I brace myself with the other. Systematically, I scan the beige colored carpet for tiny, slightly darker colored ants.


This all started a few days ago, when one of the little buggers decided to bite me while I was lying in bed. I quickly dispatched of the tiny creature, a speck no more than a millimeter long. My experience with ants has taught me that if you see one, there are usually others not far behind. A cursory glance around the room did not reveal the source of the ant, but I did find an old candy wrapper that had fallen behind the nightstand. Thinking this was what they may have been looking for; I disposed of the wrapper and went back to bed.


I would like to say this was where the story ended, but that is obviously not the case. The next night, around the same time, another of the ants bit me. The first one was a nuisance; this one indicated that there was something else afoot. At this point, I had not realized that the ants were at war with me. However, my brain began churning over some details about ants that I remembered from grade school.


Ants follow scent trails. The scouts search for food, and leave behind a scented path for the others to follow. What if the first ant had been searching for food and when I squashed him, I accidently marked myself as a tasty treat. From a behavioral standpoint, the ants are just following the behavior patterns they have for eons.


In light of this new data, some worry began to creep into the back of my mind. Somewhere in my subconscious, images of fire ants consuming my body were beginning to form. Every article on killer ants I had ever read was being recalled and placed on the ready, waiting for an opportune moment to release itself upon my conscious mind. However, I managed to calm myself down. Or so I thought.


The mind is an amazing thing. Just the thought of the ants was enough to unnerve me. Not long after I had settled back down, I found myself dealing with a strange new sensation. My skin felt as if thousands of ants were crawling about its surface, each one preparing to strike at a moment’s notice. I checked every itch, every creeping sensation, but found nothing. The feelings were purely psychosomatic. Being a psychology buff, this effect intrigued me. However, my brain did not give me a moments rest. I decided to check my bed, and discovered an ant crawling up the side of it. After disposing of it, I decided that I had to find out where these ants were coming from, for the last time.


Enter the light.


As I said, earlier these ants are only about a millimeter long, and their coloration makes them difficult to spot on the carpet. My grade school knowledge of ants told me that all I had to do was find their trail, then trace it back to where they were getting into the house. Plug the opening with some sort of ant repellent and my problems would be solved. It seemed simple enough, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t locate a trail of ants.


The ants, apparently well versed in military tactics, had abandoned the age-old strategy of lining up nicely and walking in single file. Obviously, these ants had sent their special forces to attack me, knowing that a few well-trained soldiers acting in stealth could be just as effective as a full platoon. So, no matter how hard I searched, I could only find about three or four ants at any given time. To make matters worse, no two ants ever seemed to travel the same direction. So, there was no way to tell where they were going or where they came from.


I smooshed a couple of them that wondered out onto the metal air vent, the one place where they showed up clearly. However, sensing that my sleep would be disturbed if I continued my hunt, I got out the vacuum and made short work of the ants. I did not sleep easy that night. Nevertheless, I figured that the vacuum would be enough to scatter them, forcing them to regroup overnight, rather than mount their attack.


The stunning conclusion to follow later…

A Few Interesting Research Questions

In the pursuit of my degree, I came across numerous studies covering a wide spectrum of topics. Most of these were presented as support for the topics we discussed in class; X is caused by Y, and here’s a study that proves it. Some of these studies, such as Pavlov’s work with his dogs, have moved beyond the field itself into the realm of popular culture. As a student, I discovered that research questions are found rather than created. The idea behind this is that new studies are based on the questions left unanswered by prior research. That being said, here are a few interesting research questions that left me wondering where the researchers found them.


1. How easy is it to cut in line?

Turns out, it’s surprisingly easier than we think. Stanley Milgrim, an American social psychologist, is better known for an earlier study, the infamous Milgram Experiment. However, in the 80’s he studied the effect of line cutting. Having his experimenters cut into naturally forming lines, they noted the reactions of people in the line. When all was said and done, the results showed that you could get away with it, without objection from the other people in the line, roughly half the time. Not bad odds if you are needing to get through a line faster.


2. Does semen have antidepressant qualities?

This one is a bit newer and originates with Gordon Gallup Jr., a psychologist working at the University at Albany. A lot of Gallup’s work seems to focus on animal psychology, his claim to fame being a test that measures the amount of self-awareness an animal has. So, this study seems to come out of left field. Surveying a group of 239 college-aged women who were sexually active, Gallup found that those who had sex without a condom and, in theory, had direct contact with semen scored lower for depression than those who used condoms regularly. An interesting result, but probably a poor excuse not to wear a condom.


3. Can pigeon’s fly bombs?

B.F. Skinner, a man whose research into behavior is prolific, asked this simple question. In his defense, it was during the middle of World War II and the US military was looking for anything to give them an advantage in the war. Skinner’s concept was relatively simple:


A pigeon trained to peck at an image of a ship on a piece of glass for food is placed inside a bomb. The image on the glass was removed so that the pigeon pecks on the actual target. Next thing you know, you have a pigeon guided bomb.


The whole question proved to be a moot point, as a skeptical National Defense Research committee canceled the project in 1944. It was revisited again after the war but nothing came from this experiment. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History currently has one of the prototype nosecones on display, which I was lucky enough to visit this summer. As for Skinner, he was given $25k for his research and went on to become a professor at Harvard. Not too shabby.




For more information on these studies, see the links below:

Cutting in Line

Semen acts as an anti-depressant

Project Pigeon


Improve Yourself Using Feedback Loops

Wired has this amazing article about harnessing feedback loops to make yourself better. The concept of feedback loops is discussed in the article, but basically it involves a change in behavior based on information generated by a previous behavior which in turn generates more information, and so on and so on. Circular definition, I know. The article uses the example of new signs near school zones that show your speed next to the posted speed limit. I’ve seen a few of these crop up in town lately, and it’s particularly interesting to see the reasoning behind them, let alone learning about the positive impact they have.


Inattentional Blindness

So, I was perusing the web, following a chain of links while doing some research and I stumbled across an amazing article on inattentional blindness. I suggest you go check out the link before you read any further.


. . . Done. Okay!


Cool, huh?!  As you probably gathered (having read the article on the other side of the link), inattentional blindness is basically being unable to see things that are plainly in front of your face. Many people in my life have suffered from this problem, and I’m sure most of you have noticed this on occasion, as well. I’ve had friends fail to see my car when I come to pick them up, despite being parked less than 10 feet away and waving my arms furiously. Complete strangers have failed to see me walking down the sidewalk and have plowed into me, even though my size makes me  rather hard to miss. Now I understand why.