Category Archives: History

Profile of a Psychologis: Hermann Ebbinghaus

herrmannBorn in Bramen, Germany in 1850, Ebbinghaus was the first psychologist to study learning and memory by conducting experiments on himself. At age seventeen, he commenced his study of philosophy at Bonn University on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War. After completing his studies, he travelled to France and England, conducting research on the “power of memory.” In 1885, he published Memory “detailing the nonsense syllable” research. The nonsense syllable, logatome or pseudoword is a string of syllables that resembles a real word is in fact “nonsense.” In the psychology of learning nonsense syllables are used as a way to examine speech recognition. After becoming professor at Berlin University, he established two psychological laboratories there. Finally, he moved to Berslau University, founded another laboratory, teaching there until his death in 1909.

Inspired by philosophers by the likes of John Locke and David Hume, Ebbinghaus argued that “remembering involves association,” linking things or ideas by similarities such as “time, place, cause or effect.” The goal of his research was to test how association can improve memory. To verify the accuracy of his findings, he recorded the results mathematically to see if “memory follows verifiable patterns.” This would become known as the Forgetting Curve.

To start his memory experiments, Ebbinghaus began by memorising lists of words to test his recall abilities. He then created 2,3000 nonsense syllables, three letters each with the same pattern consonant-vowel-consonant, to prevent association. He then grouped these nonsense syllables into lists, looked over the list for a few seconds, waited fifteen seconds to then try a second time. He then repeated his process until he could correctly recite the series. Alternating the list lengths and learning intervals, Ebbinghaus also tested how these variables effected the speed of learning and forgetting.

herrmann1Ebbinghaus discovered that material  he found meaningful, such as a poem, was up to ten times more easily remembered than the nonsense syllables. He also found that more time he spent memorising the list, the easier it was and the less time it took to reproduce the list from memory. In addition, he found that the information remembered after the first repetitions, were the most effectively remembered after time had passed. Finally, Ebbinghaus also found that typically, a very rapid loss of recall occurs in the first hour, followed by lowered rate of recall loss. To clarify, after nine hours sixty percent is forgotten and after twenty four hours, two-thirds of recall is lost. Plotted on a mathematical graph, Ebbinghaus’s findings shows a clear “forgetting curve” starting with a “sharp drop, followed by a shallow slope.”

Ebbinghaus’ findings still remain the basis of the psychology of learning and memory.


Collin, Catherine. The Psychology Book. New York: DK Pub., 2012. Print.

Profile of a Psychologist: Paul Ekman

ekmanSome of you may have seen the crime-procedural drama “Lie to Me.” It ran on FOX between 2009-2011 until it got cancelled. The show stared  Tim Roth as Cal Lightman, who along with his colleagues of the Lightman Group were consultants for the police and FBI. The Lightman Group specialised in applied psychology, specifically interpreting mirco-expressions and body language. What many people may not know; however, is that the techniques utilised by the Lightman Group in “Lie to Me” are based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman.

Ekman was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1934 but after the outbreak of World War II, moved across the country. At a mere fifteen, Ekman joined the University of Chicago where he became interested in “Freud and psychotherapy.” This inspired him to apply to Adelphi University where he earned his doctorate in clinical psychology. After a stunt working for the US Army, he went on to join the University of San Francisco where he began research into “nonverbal behaviour and facial expressions.” This work lead to further studies on the “concealment of emotions in facial expressions.” Being appointed to professor of psychology at UCSF in 1972, Ekman stayed there until his retirement in 2004.

Emotions play a huge role in emotional disorders and psychotherapy; however, when Ekman began his studies in the 70s, the subfield was practically unexplored. In the early days of psychotherapy emotions were seen as symptoms rather than “something to examined in their own right.” Ekman was one the first psychologists to realise that emotions are as much a vital part in psychotherapy as processes, drives and behaviour. He came to realise the importance of emotions through his work with nonverbal behaviour and facial expressions.

ekman2Before Ekman’s experiments it was believed that physical expression of emotions were learnt according to a set of social conventions, implying that how we express ourselves differes from culture to culture. However, through his travels across the globe, photographing people – ranging from developed countries to untouched tribes in the Amazon – he found that even the tribespeople, untouched by media and the outside world, could interpret emotions through facial expressions as well as people in developed countries. This suggests that physical expression of emotions are universal and a product of evolution not social conventions. A post in the Immersion Blog makes a great point regarding Ekman’s credibility, which has been disputed by critics claiming that facial expressions are for communications purposes only and not subconsciously reflecting our internal life. Robbie Cooper, the blogger, refutes this claim arguing that

                “We only think about expression when we want to use our body for communication on a conscious level. And a lot of the time we aren’t very good at faking internal states. If someone is playing a role in a social situation, it’s often expected of them, but much of the time we aren’t fooled by the performance. Which I think is one of the reasons why great actors are fascinating.” 

Ekman put forth six basic emotions – surprise, anger, happiness, fear, sadness and disgust – and decided because of their ubiquitous nature, these six basic emotions must be quintessential to our psychological make-up. He noted that specific facial expressions relate to each one of these six basic emotions and must in turn be involuntary emotional responses. Furthermore, these responses occur before the mind has time to register the cause and can thus be read to reveal our internal state. Ekman’s research became the basis of his F.A.C.E. training programme aimed to familiarise people, specifically officers of the law and security professionals dealing with deception on a daily basis, with “microexpressions.” Microexpression is term coined by Ekman as the involuntary emotional response, reflected in our facial expression before our brain has time to process the cause.

In Ekman’s 2003 book, Emotions Revealed, he states that emotions can be far more powerful than any of the drives listed by Freud such as sex, hunger and the will for life. These revelations are revolutionary as they completely altered the way in which emotions were seen to play a role in psychological disorders. For example, unhappiness can override the will to live and fear and shame, a biproduct of trauma, can override sexual drive.



Cooper, Robbie. “Ekman Emotion Recognition Test.” Web log post. Immersion Blog. N.p., 29 June 2009. Web. 21 Aug. 2012. <;.

Myers, David G. Psychology . 6. Worth Publishers, 2001. Print.Myers, David G. Psychology . 6. Worth Publishers,2001. Print.

Profile of a Psychologist: Carl Jung

JungBorn in a small village in Switzerland in 1875, Carl Gustav Jung grew up in a rather eccentric family. He became an excellent linguist at an early age and in 1903 married Emma Rausenbach, an intelligent young woman from a wealthy Swiss-German family. Emma later became a prominent psychoanalyst herself known as Emma Jung. Although originally educated as a psychiatrist, Jung’s meeting with Sigmund Freud in 1907, pushed him towards psychoanalysis setting him on the path towards becoming Freud’s protege. However, the pair became estranged as their theories diverged causing a permanent rift. Following World War I, Jung travelled across the globe studying native people, taking part in “anthropological and archaeological expeditions.” In 1935, Jung became professor at the University of Zurich before deciding to concentrate strictly on research.


Freud first introduced the idea that humans are guided by forces within ourselves, specifically our unconscious. He claimed that our experience of the world is directly affected by “primal drives contained in the unconscious.” Jung expanded on this basic philosophy inquiring into the basic elements that “make up the unconscious and its workings.” He was most intrigued by striking similarities between societies around the world despite completely differing cultures. In particular, the similarities found in myths and symbols ranging across cultures. Jung believed this could be explained by “something larger than the individual experience of man.”


To Jung it appeared that the existing commonality between these myths and symbols proved the existence of a “collective memory” passed down by generations as part of our heredity. He believed that this collective memory was housed in a part of the psyche and contained ideas “held in a timeless structure.” Finally, he proposed a notion that a distinct part of the unconscious is completely void of individual experiences, coining the term “collective unconscious.” Together with the ego, our conscious mind; the personal unconscious, our individual suppressed memories, the collective unconscious forms the three components of the psyche. We then inherit these collective memories found in the collective unconscious, allowing them to emerge within our own psyche creating symbols known as archetypes. Differing cultures, allow for layers and variations of these archetypes to exist simultaneously and just like with the evolution of all species on this planet, the layers of these archetypes reveal traces of the entire human experience.


Finally, our inherited archetypes, etched deep within our unconscious, serve as templates used by our psyche to “organise and understand our own experience.” Basically, archetypes serve as a guidebook programmed within our minds to help us make sense of the world as well as to survive it. Archetypes serve as the foundational structure on which our experience builds. They can be seen as emotions or behavioural patterns; regardless, they help us determine “a particular set of…expressions as a unified pattern that has meaning” seemingly instinctually.

Furthermore, Jung also is renowned in the world of psychology for his exploration of word association and his concepts of introversion and extroversion. His concepts inspired many well-known personality tests used today such as Myer-Briggs Type Indicator.

If you are interested in Jung you should consider checking out the movie A Dangerous Method. Also click here to see photos of my recent trip to the Jung Institute in Zurich.



Collin, Catherine. The Psychology Book. New York: DK Pub., 2012. Print.


The Four Humours


Claudius Galenus was a Greek philosopher and physician who practiced medicine among the Romans circa AD 160. Galen brought the approach known as Humourism to the mainstream. Humourism is a philosophical theory originating from he Greek philosopher Empedocles who implied that all things are combinations of the four basic elements: earth, water, fire and air.

Earth: cold and dry

Air: warm and wet

Fire: warm and dry

Water: cold and wet

However, Galen like the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, believed that these basic elements were mirrored in corpus. Hippocrates stated that the qualities of the four elements are reflected in our bodily fluids namely blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. They both set about classifying illnesses in terms of excess of these fluids (Mukherjee, 2010).

Excess blood: prompted inflammation: red, warm, painful.

Excess phlegm: prompted “tubercles, pustules, catarrh and nodules of the lymph” (ibid): cold, white, soggy, heavy.

Excess yellow bile: prompted jaundice: yellow.

Excess black: prompted depression (or melancholy, literally black (melass) bile (khole) and cancer: oily, viscous, dark.

Cancer was believed to be the static form of black accumulating into a solid mass (ibid), whereas depression was viewed as the excess of fluid black bile circulating through the system.

Galen explored this the approach of Humourism further, expanding into a theory of personality. Galen saw a direct relationship between the levels of the humours in the body and the emotional and behavioral inclinations known as temperaments. He described these temperaments as sanguine (blood), phlegmatic (phlegm), choleric (yellow bile) and melancholic (black bile). Imbalances in the humours determined personality as well as susceptibility to certain illnesses. Unfortunately, this interesting yet erroneous belief about illness continued beyond Galen’s death in AD 199. Medicine focused all curative and therapeutic efforts in Galen method. Surgery was thought pointless as the humour would only flow back.
Galen’s falsely held beliefs about anatomy stood uncorrected until Andreas Vesalius’s attempts to confirm his heroes hypothesis disconfirmed it. Due to Vesalius discontent with the state of anatomical training at the University of Paris, he began to his own exploratory autopsies (ibid). These exploratory autopsies on the bodies left at the city gallows and in poorly covered graces, revealed to Vesalius that the possibility of Galen’s theories were non-existent. Blood, yellow bile and phlegm were found aplenty but black bile (the corner stone to Galen’s theory) was no where to be found (ibid). Vesalius’s discoveries and intricate anatomical drawings soon shattered the idea of humourism, opening up the doors to effective treatment.

The theory of Humourism, did not however completely disappear. In fact, in psychology a major theory of personality still owes its root to the Greek physicians.

If one of the humours developed uncontrollably, becoming obviously dominant to the other three humours, the corresponding personality type would also become dominant. As a paradigm, a sanguine person has too much blood and as a result shows characteristics such as cheerfulness and optimism but can be selfish and overconfident. A phlegmatic person suffers from too much phlegm and would be rational and consistent but often slow and quiet. A choleric person suffers from too much bile and would be passionate and energetic but could also be tempered. Finally, a melancholic person suffers from excess bile and would be characterised as the artists, poetic and artistic but often depressed and fearful.

During Galen’s time, the Medieval Ages and up until the Renaissance it was considered accurate that certain people were born predisposed to one of the four temperaments and imbalances could be cured by changes in diet, exercise or the extremes of purging and blood-letting. By the 1500s, hundreds of errors were found in Galen’s work but he would later come to influence Hans Eysenck that concluded that temperaments are in fact biologically based but not through humours. Eysenck identified two personality traits he called neuroticism and extraversion, a nod to Galen.


Collin, Catherine. The Psychology Book. New York: DK Pub., 2012. Print.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. New York: Scribner., 2010. Print.