Methodology in the Study of Psychology

Scientific Methods in Psychology

Psychology has its roots with Newtonian scientists and physiologists, with the term psychology being popularized in the 18th century by mathematician Christian Wolff (1679-1754). Attempts at developing the study of psychology as natural science began with Johan Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841), who theorized that psychological processes could be rendered mathematically. He even developed mathematical equations to illustrate factors governing the threshold of consciousness. His theories were not followed up with empirical evaluations, and were thus not followed through. However, his theories was fodder enough for later psychologists after him, like Freud, who picked up on his idea of repression of ideas and cognitive equilibrium.

Psychology took shape in Germany as an academic discipline at the end of the 19th century with the establishment of an experimental laboratory at the University of Leipzig in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt. This new discipline was characterized as physiological psychology. While acknowledging the presence of physiological and neuroanatomical processes, Wundt denied that these could reductively explain psychological principles. Wundt’s experiments had a lot to do with studies of sensation and perception, and few studies containing introspective reports. Many of Wundt’s experimental work are precursors of contemporary cognitive psychology. His principle of physical relations, in which he says, “Every single psychical content receives its significance from the relations in which it stands to other psychical contents” (Wundt, 1897/1902, p. 323) became the foundational principle of the Berlin School of Gestalt psychology of Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887- 1967) and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941) (Greenwood, 2015).


Freud, a doctor, had a background in neurology, which is very much inclusive of the discipline of psychology. While psychology is consumed with the study of human psychical structures and processes, Freud’s work was not entirely about that: his legacy lay in the process of understanding the psyche and not about explaining what psyche is itself.

Psychoanalysis is very much connected to the discovery of the unconscious (Ellenberger 2008), from the work of Mesmer and Puységur, and further back to traditional and religious spiritual healers, which in many parts of the world, is still the choice of patients seeking answers to their psychological problems. In my country, multicultural, and modern city of Singapore, for example, more than 35% of patients who sought psychiatric help, had first sought therapy from traditional healers (Lim and Poon, 2015).

The aim and methodology of research in both fields also tend to be dissimilar: psychological studies tend to be nomothetic in approach while psychotherapy as a science and more interested in the outliers adopt the ideographic approach towards research.

The Natural Sciences, Scientists and Philosophy

Research is important for the survival of any discipline. While there is no question of efficacy of practice of psychotherapy, and there are clients who experience healing with psychotherapy, these experiences need to empirical proof to be politically accepted. This is a phenomenon of human thinking today, where the distrust in the human experience of reality is overcome by reliance on algorithms of proofs.

Having studied biochemistry and physiology, I do appreciate the process of scientific endeavor. Having a great interest in philosophy as well, I have meanwhile come to understand the sentiments of Kuhn (2012: 1962), that normal science is “an uneventful, presupposed set or unquestioned assumptions, which form the framework that governs how research are hypothesized, interpreted”—and I will take the liberty to add— funded. Natural science is part of humanity’s way of understanding “reality”, however, as Husserl (2012: 1931) points out, there is a natural human tendency to pool what we perceive of “the world about me” in order to find a “general thesis” or to form “common consent”.  Bearing philosophy in mind, we can see the progress of science with different attitudes. Empirical science is not an end, but a means from which humanity learns to understand its own nature, but hopefully.

Cognitive Neuroscience: Linking the Mind with Biology

Neuroscience can never be a standalone study: it requires engineering, the various fields of medicine and psychoanalysis in order to create and make sense of images derived from neuro-imaging. Their limitation is not unlike astronomers looking at the galaxy from satellite images. Looking at the brain in order to see the mind is like looking at one’s reflection in the mirror while trying to “see” the thoughts going on in one’s own head. Neuroscience may never really grasp the mind because the mind is bound by the first person observational perspective, and thus cannot be observed by multiple observers as matter can (Solms & Turnbull 2002). What neuroscience has done was to try to create maps of brain function on the brain; even this is limited because of what we understand to be the phenomenon of brain plasticity.


It is shown that the integrity of the structures above the brainstem, the extended reticular and thalamic activating system (ERTAS) – discovered in the 1950s by Moruzzi and Magoun— is responsible for presence of the global conscious state of an individual. Damasio (1999) interpreted this as an argument for seeing the mind and body as an inseparable whole. This is a monist approach, which is a rejection of dualism envisaged by Rene Descartes in the 17th century. Since the ERTAS nuclei centrally receive information from, and communicated with, the viscera, consciousness can be considered an embodied phenomena (Solms & Turnbull 2002). This is a perspective taken by philosopher, Merleau-Ponty, in his 1945 publication, Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty and Smith 2012). For Merleau-Ponty, the relationship of the individual to the world is one of perception. It is through the body that one gets the perception. Perception is conscious and unconscious phenomena, because one can perceive something without being conscious of the perception, as with Weiskrantz’s (1986) Blindsight.


Benjamin Libet with his Nobel Prize winning findings leading to the idea of his Neuroscience of Free Will, demonstrated that there exists unconscious mental activity that decides the will to make a momentary action. This is shown by an experiment involving the physical movement (of a hand or part of the body), even before the individual is even aware of this decision.  In his experiment, subjects were wired up with EEG and asked to report the time in which they were aware of the urge to move their hands. The experiment indicated that the awareness of the urge existed milliseconds after initiation of brain activity that reflected this urge. Libet concluded that “the brain ‘decides’ to initiate, or, at least decides to initiate (certain actions) before there is any reportable subjective awareness, before such a decision has taken place” (Libet, 1985 p. 536).  He goes on to generalize that “if the ‘act now’ process is initiated unconsciously then conscious free will is not doing it” (Libet, 2001 p. 62).

Gazzaniga and Sperry’s split-brain subjects of the 1960s demonstrated the organized structure of the brain. In subjects where the left and right hemispheres of the brain were disconnected through severing of the corpus callosum, subjects showed almost normal functioning. These individuals, however, exhibited differences in behavior and abilities, which depended on which side of the brain got stimulated individually from the other and without the awareness of the other. Each hemisphere exhibited it’s own personality and its own way of cognitive operation.  This observation adds to the argument that the mind is linked to biology, and defeats the dualistic implication that there is a “spirit” somewhere operating biological machinery. Visual information that was no longer communicated from one side of the brain to another was perceived differently by different hemisphere, and the movement of muscles on one side of the body was initiated independent of the influence of the non-connected side of the brain.  This research provided for an interesting insight into the brain hemisphere function: it found the left hemisphere to be a dominant force in speech for language ability and the right hemisphere to be essential for visio-spatial tasks (among other interesting differences). These differences have extended consequence to the understanding of how human beings perceive the world, think and communicate.  The right hemisphere tends to perceive things as whole and has a sense for completing gestalts. It also tends to see things for “what it is”, at the present, and cannot interpret the ideas into language. The left-brain, however, takes the literal, static meaning of perceptions, and tries to analyze what it doesn’t fully understand into language. The latter phenomenon is also interpreted as “finding false memory” (Gazzaniga, 1998).


McGilchrist (2012), in his book, The Master and His Emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world, weaves this idea of how the neurophysiology of the human brain shapes the way society thinks and how this leads, and has led, to the evolution of the human brain structure itself. McGilchrist, in my opinion, created a clever use of the two hemispheres of the human brain, and it’s structural asymmetry, as metaphor for humankind’s intellectual conflict with regards to the philosophy of science.

Clinico-anatomical methods of brain study developed in 1861 by Pierre Paul Broca, who studied the brains of patients suffering from aphasia. This method is still relevant today for studying brain function. For studying aspects of the mind and consciousness, only humans make reliable subjects. In the era of imaging, however, the researcher does not need to “wait” for subjects to die in order to find out the location of lesions in the brain that caused the symptom.

While we are still in the dark about what makes brain matter consciousness, there is much progress made in the study of perception, memory, emotions and processes like dreams. A field of study that I have recently found to be very interesting is work on psychedelic chemicals on the brain. This branch of research had suffered three decades of governmental ban. The effect of psychedelic drugs is now being studied with brain imaging technology, fMRI. A notable study was done by Carhart-Harris et al. (2011) on psilocybin—a hallucinogen found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. The studies demonstrated the effect of the substance on the blood flow to the region of the brain associated with the Default Mode Network or DMN, a highly connected part of the brain.

Carhart-Harris et al. (2010) in a paper entitled, The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas, explored the notion of Freudian constructs regarding the ego and id, as having “neurobiological substrates”, and demonstrated the theory that Freud’s descriptions of primary process are consistent with the neurophysiological changes in the DMN during hallucinogenic drug states.  The DMN has also been implicated in processes involving self-judgments, recall of autobiographical memories, mental simulations, mind wandering, and daydreaming.  (Bruckner et al. 2008 & Northoff, 2006). To further demonstrate the link between the DMN and ego function, Ino et al. (2011) found brain activation at the DMN during activity of autobiographical memory retrieval.

Neuro-imaging techniques have given scientists tools to observe changes in brain activity dynamically. The development in the understanding of brain activity has grown exponentially with improvement in imaging technology. Technology, however, still requires psychoanalytical concepts to make sense of what is being recorded by technology. Whether neuroscience proves or disproves a psychoanalytic concept, it still uses psychoanalysis as a template from which to base its understanding of the images.


Bruckner, R, Andrews-Hanna, J & Schacter, D. (2008). The brains default network: Anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1124, pp.1-38.

Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Friston, K. J. (2010). The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas. Brain, awq010.

Carhart-Harris, R. L., et al. (2011). Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Vol 109 no. 6. 2138-2143.

Ellenberger, H. F. (2008). The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. Basic Books.

Greenwood, J. D. (2015). A Conceptual History of Psychology: Exploring the Tangled Web. Cambridge University Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2012). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. Yale University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M., & Smith, C. (2012). Phenomenology of perception. D. A. Landes (Trans.) NY:Routledge.

Northoff, G., Heinzel, A., Greck, M., Bennoihl, F., Dobrowolny, H. & Panksepp, J. (2006). Self referential processing in our brain: A meta-analysis of imaging studies on the self.  Neuroimage, 31(1), 440-457.

Weiskrantz, L. (1986). Blindsight: A case study and implications.

Wundt, W. (1902). Outlines of Psychology. (C.H, Judd, Trans.). Leipzig: Engelmann. (First Published in 1897).

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