Experimental Study

It was the German psychologist Wilhelm Max Wundt (1832-1920) who began the experimental study of consciousness in 1879 when he established his research laboratory. Wundt saw the task of psychology as the study of the structure of consciousness, which extended well beyond sensations and included feelings, images, memory, attention, duration, and movement. By the 1920's, however, behavioral psychology had become the major force in psychology. John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) was the leader of this revolution. He wrote in 1913, "I believe that we can write a psychology and never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind . . . imagery and the like." Between 1920 and 1950, consciousness was either neglected in psychology or treated as a historical curiosity. Behaviorist psychology led the way in rejecting mental states as appropriate objects for psychological study. The inconsistency of introspection as method made this rejection inevitable. Neuro-physiologists also rejected consciousness as a mental state but allowed for the study of the biological underpinnings of consciousness. Thus, brain functioning became part of their study. The neural mechanisms of consciousness that allow an understanding between states of consciousness and the functions of the brain became an integral part of the scientific approach to consciousness. Brain waves—patterns of electrical activity—correlate with different levels of consciousness. These waves measure different levels of alertness. The electroencephalograph provides an objective means for measuring these phenomena.

Beginning in the late 1950's, however, interest in the subject of consciousness returned, specifically in those subjects and techniques relating to altered states of consciousness: sleep and dreams, meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, and drug-induced states. When a physiological indicator for the dream state was found, a surge in sleep and dream research followed. The discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) helped to generate a renaissance in consciousness research. Thus, during the 1960's there was an increased search for "higher levels" of consciousness through meditation, resulting in a growing interest in the practices of Zen Buddhism and yoga from Eastern cultures.

This movement yielded such programs as transcendental meditation, and these self-directed procedures of physical relaxation and focused attention led to biofeedback techniques designed to bring body systems involving factors such as blood pressure or temperature under voluntary control. Researchers discovered that people could control their brain-wave patterns to some extent, especially the alpha rhythms generally associated with a relaxed, meditative state. Those people interested in consciousness and meditation established a number of "alpha training" programs.

Hypnosis and psychoactive drugs also received great attention in the 1960's. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was the most prominent of these substances, along with mescaline. These drugs have a long association with religious ceremonies in non-Western cultures. Fascination with the altered states of consciousness they induce led to an increased interest in research on consciousness. As the twentieth century progressed, the concept of consciousness began to come back into psychology. Developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and the influence of cognitive philosophy each played a role in influencing the reintroduction of the concept, more sharply etched, into the mainstream of psychology.

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