Wundt's first psychology experiment

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Chapter 12 endnote 45, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

That is what scientists do: we measure stuff, and then we transform the pattern of numbers into something meaningful by making an inference. [...] This began with the first psychology experiment, which was conducted by Wilhelm Wundt in the late 1800s.

Wilhelm Wundt founded the first psychology laboratory in 1879 at the University of Leipzig.[1][2] He practiced what might be called empirical or experimental philosophy in his attempts to study the mind by measuring the body.

Wundt is credited with conducting the first formal experiment in psychology, where he tried to assess the speed of thought by measuring how long it took test subjects to make a judgment. He measured the discrepancy between the actual and perceived position of a pendulum swing and inferred that these numbers represented the speed of thought. This might not sound impressive now, but at the time it was a pretty creative idea.

In psychology and neuroscience, it is standard practice to carefully measure physical changes in the body and the brain to make inferences about the mental. This is an example of reverse inference.


Notes on the Notes

  1. 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.
  2. Haupt, Edward. 2001. "Laboratories for Experimental Psychology: Gottingen's Ascendancy over Leipzig in the 1890s." In Wilhelm Wundt in History: The Making of a Scientific Psychology, edited by Robert W. Rieber and David K. Robinson (205-250). Springer.