History of Psychology

Welcome to our Psychology History Page

Learning and teaching history is now one of my favorite topics.  It was the missing element from every part of education (k-PhD) of so it is very good to start filling in the blanks.  Just about everything makes much more sense now.

For my students, I want to present history as a route to becoming more sophisticated about everything.

A historical view based on source documents and the work of high quality historians gives us the clearest formulations of ideas and ideologies so that we can have a better framework for understanding everything.

Where do we start?  My view is that we should start with the largest context of space and time and then work our way down the list to our topics of interest.  I now start history classes by asking everybody to draw out a timeline of the whole of existence.  When does existence start, and what are some of the major events that you think have happened from the dawn of earliest time until this moment?  People find this a little daunting, but we go ahead anyway.  I want everybody to achieve at least a few benefits from this exercise including the items below:

  1. Realize that we can ask questions about the origins of the universe and of anything else.
  2. Check our collective understanding of all time.
  3. See what events people believe are either memorable or fundamental.
  4. Get people warmed up to asking fundamental questions.
  5. Begin creating our total conception of time and begin establishing some mental time frames so that we can narrow or expand our thinking on any event.
  6. Begin sparking our curiosity and shame by showing our gross ignorance of most things.  Where did anything come from and when did those events happen?  This information is buried in our culture so we should dig it out.
  7. Start searching for information after we exhaust our prior knowledge and logic.
    1. The principle here is ESTIMATE FIRST, verify second.  Why?  Because the BRAIN responds more strongly when there is an ERROR between expectations and outcomes.  Without getting this error signal, learning is either not present or much attenuated.  Surprise yourself and be wrong a lot in order to lock in the learning when you do eventually find the truth.

After asking everybody to examine their personal conception of All Time, we compare answers and create a 20 foot timeline or a timeline that is long as whatever whiteboard we have on the wall.  At this point, we are usually fully embarrassed that nobody knows the approximate start date of many incredibly important events.  When did modern humans appear on Earth?  When did they start speaking?  When did they stop speaking and start texting instead?

Moving from All Time to All Space, Large and Small

After discussing whatever comes up with our first attempt to bookend the time span of the entire universe and put a few notable events in context, it is time to consider what All Space might be.  To do this, I scroll through and narrate the following website that lists objects from the smallest to the largest known:  http://scaleofuniverse.com/

I start with the largest elements in the universe (the extent of the known universe) and narrate a few of the elements until we get to objects people have heard of.  We pay attention to the scale bars showing distances on each frame of the website.  I then slow the presentation when we start getting to distances that have relevance to human civilization and human psychology.  From here we keep drilling down until we get to atoms and a few sub-atomic particles.  Most people know about atoms, protons, electrons, and neutrons, but knowledge of smaller things usually stops there.  So we keep going until we find the smallest “thing”, the Planck length.  This bookends All Space from the extent of the known universe down to the Planck length with a discussion of human sized and human relevant psychological phenomena.  I usually spend some time talking about global psychology as well as how microbes affect animal cognition and behavior.

This ends the introduction to our first class and then I begin asking students to write out their personal and professional goals so we can all stay focused on making personal and professional gains, every day.  This also gives us additional reasons to pay attention and learn something because people who can explain origins usually generate interest from others and perhaps help other people understand why some situations exist.

I also tell students, over and over, that I want them to create and be able to speak a personal narrative about the history of psychology, starting with Greek philosophy and ending with today’s newest scientific results.  We practice this in class but why? My first goal is to help people become aware of major trends, people, and events, but story telling also helps everybody remember those facts.  I want students to be able to speak what they know and I’m of the belief that “if you can’t say it, you don’t know it”.  After awareness and memory, I want students to be able to use and update this general mental framework to help them research, understand and explain the origins of anything.  There are more goals, but this is enough for now.

Evolution of my understanding and teaching of history:

I decided to take a teaching assignment for my first history class for a few main reasons, to expand my capacity, to learn new ideas that were overdue for me to learn, to do this with other people instead of alone (bringing value to people other than just myself), and to receive compensation for my efforts.

My first job was to find out the rudiments of historical knowledge and viewpoints and to figure out how to get other people to navigate these same challenges. I spent the first few classes trying to figure out what happened, who did it, how/why, when, and what the consequences were/are.  I looked up famous experiments, economic and political contexts, and more. This was good for me, but how would it be good for others?

To answer that question, I asked myself, what can people remember?  They can remember stories, not lists of disembodied “factoids”.  To help each person create their own storytelling frame, I decided that we needed to encapsulate the history of psychology as a 2500 year long story.  To make the story memorable and tellable, I suggested that we segment the historical record into about 7 periods in line with major cultural time periods such as the Renaissance, Enlightenment, etc., but also with consideration of the typical limits of human working memory (7 plus or minus two items) as popularized by George Miller in the 1950’s.  This segmentation should allow people to leverage the natural organization seen in human history (evolution of society, population growth, industrialization, etc) and match this to typical memory limitations.

Job #2, Adding information to the scaffold:  While establishing this scaffold, which requires repetition in every class, I then tell students to find a few major and intriguing facts/people/events from each time period so they can use the scaffold to organize and remember content that calls to each student.  This is “chunking”, a memory method that lets people remember far more items than they could with simple brute force list-style memory for disconnected facts.  If we connect ideas and information, we can remember a monstrous amount and can have a much better chance of retrieving that information when telling this story to others.

Job#3, Building and Leveraging Personal Interest:  All activities fall flat or fail if people are not emotionally invested.  As people engage with learning the basic information and practice telling it to others in the form of stories, the next steps are to increase personal interest and motivation.  I like to do this by asking uncommon and challenging questions, by inquiring into the reasons for situations we either take for granted or don’t even see, and most importantly, by constantly asking people what they are interested in.

With these ideas and questions coming up for discussion in every class, students and I work to ask and answer more questions, challenge assumptions, do more research, revise our stories, and this leads to more interest, continual knowledge improvement and improved storytelling ability.  This is highly entertaining when done well and to discuss the fruits of our labors, I often mention that some of the most famous people are famous for their storytelling abilities (See: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3044688/infographic-of-the-day/from-homer-to-jk-rowling-the-worlds-greatest-storytellers-visualized  for starters).

A note on utility: **If we can keep our stories short enough and entertaining enough, they can be used as answers to interview questions and in other situations where it is beneficial to be seen as an interesting, passionate person.**  I believe students will experience many benefits from building historical knowledge and being able to talk about it in a free flowing manner.   It takes time and practice to build up to this so it is best to learn a few small stories that you can tell.  As we learn short stories about isolated events, we can return to our scaffold and put those events in their historical context.  As students continue to add events into a story that spans 2500 years using about 7 general time frames, each person increases their take-home memory for course concepts and increases their ability to discuss it or use the concepts when analyzing, arguing, or reasoning about any current event.

Practice, a daily ingredient to successful learning and application:  One of the final steps is also a daily activity.  If we want to learn anything well, regular practice and reinforcement is necessary because human memory requires physical synaptic change.  I reinforce these message in every course meeting by remind students that they need to be able to create and tell a story about the ideas if they are to have any hope of remembering the information.  We spend so much time trying to imprint in our brains with useful or required knowledge, so why lose it all due to the ravages of time and the brain’s efficient mechanisms for active forgetting.  Our brains are good at purging useless information and useless information is that which is not used.  Use it or lose it applies to the brain in general, even when everybody can remember a host of useless trivia.  As an aside, our memory for trivia is very interesting as its own phenomena.  Why would the brain keep such apparently random information?  The answers have to do with conditioning, emotion, social significance, childhood experience and more, but when we compare the information we do remember to the information we don’t remember, I’m sure it is easy to see the need to have good systems for remembering more of the information we either need or are expected to learn.

Now that I’ve gotten these first steps well enough in hand, my new goals are to help students do this while they also find, read, and interpret source material.  Most of my classes are shorter than 15 weeks (8 weeks, 6 weeks, 4 weeks), so we have limited time to analyze primary sources as a class.  Therefore, everybody picks one main topic of interest and writes out the 2500 year (or more) history of that topic.  This lets people find and use primary sources (original writings by famous authors) but also have time to keep pace with our general textbook.  I still use a general textbook just for the ease it provides in finding historical information and an initial world view or historical context.  I tell students not to believe these accounts, but to instead just take them as data which is subject to future verification.

This is about where I end our day 1 discussion, we take a break for dinner, and then return to start introducing some of the earliest Greek philosophical ideas and systems such as Atomism.  Just what you want after dinner right?

This is the end of the current version of this essay but I am revising it as time permits. To see the resources we use in support of the class, please take some time to browse the collections below.

Click the Large Text Title in the window below to activate the Pearltrees Navigator


A second viewable and open-edit information sheet is found here:



I am experimenting with the creation of an example timeline of psychological history using Google Docs as the back-end for this visible timeline. However, this is slower than using the Google Docs Spreadsheet to the project isn’t in motion.

“https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0ArO83Ne_JSk-dFIyTVNzLVlITlRkTWhaQXR2NXNaZXc&output=html” “https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0ArO83Ne_JSk-dGtMaDNVaGdYVTAyWTJCNGsyUE1YTGc&output=html”

Paul Greenberg