wilhelm wundt introspection

Wilhelm Wundt: Unlock the Superpower of Introspection

Wilhelm Wundt [1832-1920] is considered the “Father of Psychology,”. Though, forms of his ideas have been around for millennia, Wundt was able to bring his ideas into the spotlight of science. Wilhelm Wundt is remembered for his efforts in separating psychology from philosophy, and forging a path forward for psychology into experimental science. In 1862, Wilhelm Wundt offered the first course ever that taught scientific psychology based on methods borrowed from the natural sciences (scientific method).

It is experiment, then, that has been the source of the decided advance in natural science, and brought about such revolutions in our scientific views. Let us now apply experiment to the science of mind.

Wilhelm Wundt

In this article, we will explore Wilhelm Wundt’s concept of Introspection, his findings and how you can utilize this knowledge to promote the health and well-being of your mind. Most quotations in this article are pulled from Wilhelm Wundt’s Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt’s Introspection

Wilhelm Wundt was attempting to quantify the effects of external stimuli on the mind, and had the idea that psychoses (dis-eases of the mind), were evoked primarily by external stimuli and the mind’s reactions to those stimuli. Wundt believed that this is also the case for positive mental reactions.

In order to test his theories, Wilhelm Wundt would train his students to “introspect,” or self-analyze so that, “when presented with external stimuli, they could explain their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and sensations as accurately as possible” (Reaction-time experiments in Wundt’s institute and beyond). For example, Wundt might place you in a white room where a red apple is on a table, and ask you to describe all of your sensations when viewing that apple. This sort of data could be collected, and then cross-referenced with other subjects to discover correlations and differences amidst experiences.

Wilhelm Wundt summarizes the process of introspection in two rules:

1. “first: so long as we confine ourselves to introspection, without calling in any assistance from outside, mental processes may not be observed directly while they are taking place. We must limit ourselves to analyzing them, so far as possible, from the effects which they leave behind in our memory.” (Lectures on human and Animal Psychology)
2. “Secondly, wherever it is possible, we must endeavor so to control our mental processes by means of objective stimulation of the external organs (particularly of the sense-organs, with the physiological functioning of which definite psychoses are regularly connected) that the disturbing influence which the condition of observation tends to exercise upon them is counteracted.” (Lectures on human and Animal Psychology)

Wilhelm Wundt’s Findings

Wilhelm Wundt arrived at the conclusion that the mind is composed of two elements: sensations and feelings.

One of Wilhelm Wundt’s experiments was based on the idea that he could “measure the speed of thought.” Wundt would expose subjects to the sound of a metronome and have them press a button every time they perceived the “tick” sound of the metronome. Along similar lines, and through many other experiments, Wundt concluded that participants generally felt the following from external stimuli:

  • Pleasure and Pain
  • Strain and Relaxation
  • Excitation and No Reaction

Wundt supported the idea that those three emotions predominately constitute our affective state. He also believed that all knowledge and communication could be boiled down to these sensations. “Feeling passes over into impulse, impulse into voluntary action, and voluntary action has reference to objects which are given to us as ideas (Lectures on human and Animal Psychology).

We have seen that ideas are derived from sensations in the regular course of development, and that both alike have a single end — knowledge of the external world.

Wilhelm Wundt
wilhelm wundt introspection
Wilhelm Wundt with colleagues and his famous grandfather clock.

The Benefits of Introspection

Although the majority of Wilhelm Wundt’s fame is credited towards his founding of experimental psychology, an indirect fruit of his work was the cultivation of the skill of introspection. Wundt’s experiments were highly structured, and he trained his “observers” to take very careful and precise notes of the subjects, who were trained in introspection. Although this method of research was criticized later on for being too subjective, the practice of introspection remains very relevant today.

Introspection is a valuable tool in clinical psychology, self-improvement, relationships and even in business. One’s ability to introspect to such a degree as Wilhelm Wundt’s subjects, can lead to accurate assessments of different mental reactions and emotions.

For counselors, training clients to develop a stronger ability to introspect and describe their feelings, can bring about far richer and more revealing conversations, thus more accurate diagnosis and solutions. In business, the study of individual’s reactions to a product or branding can also be very telling, and could lead to more effective marketing.

There are endless uses for introspection, and the assessment of such. Though perhaps the largest benefit of introspection is for the individual. To better understand one’s own mind, and why it reacts the way it does, so perhaps to assist it in finding more pleasure and satisfaction in life. A simple stepping stone into this practice could be asking yourself, “why do I feel the way I feel?”

How to Cultivate your Ability for Introspection

There are reports that Wilhelm Wundt was often caught staring at a grandfather clock for hours on end. Although this behavior may seem peculiar, it is actually a great picture of introspection. He would observe his thoughts and sensations as the clock operated and carefully document his findings.

Introspection does not need to be complicated, it simply consists of the practice of observing your mind in the present, and noting your feelings and sensations. It does not need to be done in a sterile setting like Wilhelm Wundt may have used. You can do this anywhere at anytime. Here are a few ideas on how to get started with your practice of introspection:

  1. Meditation. Meditation is an ancient practice that allows one to exercise their ability to control the mind. If you are interested in learning how to meditate, you can read this instructional guide.
  2. Wilhelm Wundt style observation. Simply observe an item and write down your thoughts and feelings and anything that comes up while observing that item. An example could be listening to a tone, or looking at a rock.
  3. Journaling. Journaling is a great form of introspection, because it forces your to observe your experiences and translate them to paper. Journaling offers a wide variety of benefits, and is a surefire way to optimize your ability to introspect.
  4. Dream Journaling. Similar to #3, dream journaling is a very potent way of digging into the depths of your own mind and discovering different patterns. Although Wilhelm Wundt’s methods primarily address the conscious mind, dream journaling is an excellent way to analyze your own subconscious mind. See dreamwork interview with psychologist here.
  5. Capturing Feelings. If a feeling arises, simply pause, and try to dig into why this feeling surfaced. Whether it be a temporary feeling such as sudden joy, or a lingering feelings such as depression, you may be able to hone your introspection ability enough to effectively “psychoanalyze” yourself to find the root cause of this feeling. Once you find the root cause of the feeling, you can either modify it to feel more of it, or modify it to eliminate its detrimental effects.

Conclusion

Wilhelm Wundt’s legacy lives on as the “father of psychology,” primarily due to his work’s strong emphasis on introspection and played a key role in providing the foundation for the birth of modern psychology. Although his research did not produce any earth-shattering results, his work led the movement of structuralism, which was later debated and provided a springboard for functionalism to take the reins in psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt was able to forge a path forward for psychology, and gave it a place in the natural sciences. Due to his ingenious experimental methods in testing the mind, psychology came into the spotlight as a valuable study. In studying more about the development of psychology, it is easy to see how Wundt’s ideas and legacy still live on today.


To read Wilhelm Wundt’s full lectures, you can find this book on Amazon by clicking on the image below!

Robinson, David K.. 2001. “Reaction-time experiments in Wundt’s institute and beyond.” In Wilhelm Wundt in History: The Making of a Scientific Psychology, edited by Robert W. Rieber and David K. Robinson (p. 161-204). Springer Science & Business Media.

Wundt, W. M., Creighton, J. E., & Titchener, E. B. (2015). Lectures on human and Animal Psychology. Routledge.

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