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Physis Riv Int Stor Sci. 1999;36(2):407-29.

Neuroscience in its context. Neuroscience and psychology in the work of Wilhelm Wundt.

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  • 1Institut fur Geschichte der Medizin, Naturwissenschaft und Technik Ernst-Haeckel-Haus - Friedrich-Schiller-Universitat Jena.


Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), the first to establish an Institute devoted exclusively to psychological research in Germany, started his career as a (neuro)physiologist. He gradually turned into a psychologist in the 1860's and 1870's, at a time when neuroscience had to deal with the problem of giving an adequate physiological interpretation of the data accumulated by neuroanatomy. Neither the functional interpretation of brain morphology, nor the options provided by the reflex model seemed acceptable to Wundt. In his Physiological Psychology, first published in 1874, Wundt adds another aspect to this discussion by showing that psychology may help, and indeed is required, to clarify some of the most controversial problems in brain research. He thus became a key figure in neuroscience's struggle to locate itself within the various research traditions. The following theses will be argued for: 1. Wundt's turn to psychology resulted from his view that the methodological basis of physiological brain research of the time was unsatisfactory. 2. Psychology, in its attempt to solve these problems, implied a new conception of an interaction between experimental and theoretical brain research. 3. Wundt tried to demonstrate the necessity of psychological considerations for experimental brain research. These points are discussed with reference to Wundt's treatment of the localization of functions in the brain. According to Wundt, psychology can show, by analyzing the complex structure of intellect and will, that mental phenomena can be realized in the brain only in the form of complex interations of the elements of the brain. The results of the psychological considerations imply that a strict localizations cannot be correct; but they are also turned against the conception of a complete functional equivalence of the various parts of the cortext. For Wundt, a reconstruction of brain processes cannot start with neurones, but only with patterns of a functional organization of brain activity. Wundt accordingly proposes a functional interpretation on the level of the physiology of nervous tissue as well as for the over-all organization of the brain.

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