For Titchener, psychology was the study of consciousness. Whereas physics was said to be concerned with assessing environmental events from an objective, external standard, psychology was concerned with examining how humans experience such events subjectively. For example, an hour spent listening to a boring speech and an hour spent playing an enjoyable game last exactly the same length of time—3,600 seconds—but, psychologically, the second event goes by more quickly.

In structuralism, consciousness is defined as the sum total of experiences at any given moment, and the mind is defined as the sum of experiences over the course of a lifetime. In order to understand consciousness and thus the mind, psychology, according to structuralism, must be concerned with three primary questions: First, what are the most basic elements of consciousness? Just as chemists break down physical substances into their elemental components, psychologists should identify the basic components of consciousness. Second, how are the elements associated with one another? That is, in what ways do they combine to produce complex experiences? Third, according to Titchener, what underlying physiological conditions are associated with the elements? Most of Titchener's work was devoted to the first goal of identifying the basic elements of consciousness. The primary methodology used toward this end was systematic experimental introspection.

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