Ideas in mind

24th March 1995 at 00:00
Hannah Steinberg on pioneers of psychology. Seven Pioneers of Psychology - Behaviour and Mind Edited by Ray Fuller, Routledge #163;8.99, 0 415 09980 3.

What makes a scientific pioneer? Here are the work stories of seven creative scientists who made an enormous impact. With their backgrounds of educated middle class, they were somehow able to follow their curiosity and hunches into enterprising new domains, without presumably having to worry too much about work programmes, quality control, or high ratings for grant application and Higher Education Funding Council inspections.

The seven chapters in roughly chronological order, start with Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), an imaginative polymath. He anticipated many concepts and methods which are now central to psychology, such as intelligence testing, unconscious processes and the investigation of mental imagery. He also had zany ideas, such as paper strips ("Pocket registrators"), which could be notched unobtrusively in one's pocket to monitor the distribution of pretty girls in different towns; or his efforts to develop a religious attitude to the figure of Punch. Professor Derek Forrest, author of the chapter and of a book on Galton, has done him proud.

William James (1842-1910), Harvard's first professor of psychology, is best known for his influential Principles of Psychology which "laid down a blueprint for psychology for years to come". He would surely be delighted that his concept of the "stream of consciousness" is, after years of neglect, back on psychology's agenda and is being tackled by brain scans, computers and especially by sophisticated psychological experiments which are authoritatively described here by Professor Jerome Singer of Yale.

More has probably been written about Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), than about all the others put together, but Dr Anthony Storr's account is fresh and engaging, with extracts from Freud's writings, some in his familiar royal "we". Dr Storr comments equivocally - it is hard to be neutral about Freud - "there seems little doubt that Freud has increased our tolerance", "Concurrently psychoanalysis has made us more sceptical". He also aligns Freud's own obsessional personality ("orderly, parsimonious, and obstinate") with characteristics of his scientific work, and regards Freud's clinical skills as a more important legacy than his theories.

There is an affectionate chapter on the two chief founders of ethology (broadly the study of animal behaviour), Konrad Lorenz (1903 - 89), popular for King Solomon's Ring, and Nickolaas "Niko" Tinbergen (1907 - 88), by Professor Robert Hinde. They greatly widened our understanding of what divers animals do and maybe feel and think, and stressed special processes like "imprinting" and "displacement activities". They were good friends but contrasting personalities, Lorenz full of bright ideas and happy generalisations, and Tinbergen the careful observer and experimenter.When they discussed how often one had to see an animal do something before one could regard the behaviour as characteristic of the species, "Five times" said Lorenz. Tinbergen laughed "Don't be silly Konrad, you know you have said it when you have only seen the behaviour once."

Fred Skinner, as he was known, (1904-1990), has like Freud and Piaget become something of a cult figure, partly through his book Walden Two (1948) about an ideal society. Professor Blackman writes about him with enthusiasm and defends him against accusations: he was not fanatic, did not believe that all behaviour could be controlled by appropriate rewards and punishments; and he did not invent the automatic Skinner box just so that experimenters could go off for cups of coffee while the hapless rat or mouse had to press buttons in ever more puzzling sequence for its pellets of refreshment. Socially, people found Skinner friendly and hospitable, but his strong belief in his own views sometimes required tact.Skinner's approach to psychology, though full of interest, remains controversial and some think that its influence may have peaked, but could revive.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) had a charming fatherly manner and devised many ingenious problems for testing children's reasoning. At what age can a child tell that a string of beads which is pulled behind a screen will re-emerge, if one goes on pulling, at the opposite edge of the screen? Piaget's ideas about chronological stages in intellectual development have had to be revised, but the credit is his for highlighting them, as Professor Peter Bryant who has worked in Piaget's Geneva department persuasively argues.

To whom should one recommend this book? To anyone who wants to know how modern psychology developed. To teachers of introductory courses of psychology, as an excellent background. But it would also appeal to those who wonder what qualities of intellect, personality and environment contribute to great achievement. Although they built on work of predecessors who were less productive, communicative or famous than they, all seven men were true pioneers - creative original explorers of behaviour and the mind. Exactly what is the stuff that makes for creative success, though long sought, is only now beginning to attract research priority.

Hannah Steinberg is Visiting Professor in Psychology, Middlesex University.

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