Mind Self and Society

Section 4 Rise of Parallelism in Psychology

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The psychology which stresses parallelism has to be distinguished from the psychology which regards certain states of consciousness as existing in the mind of the individual, and succeeding each other in accordance with their own laws of association. The whole doctrine of the psychology which follows Hume was predominantly associationistic. Given certain states of consciousness they were supposed to be held together by other similar elements. Among these elements were those of pleasure and pain. Connected with this atomism of associated conscious states was a psychology of action grounded on the association of pleasure and pain with certain other sensations and experiences. The doctrine of association was the dominant psychological doctrine; it dealt with static rather than dynamic experience.

The pushing of the psychological side further and further into the central nervous system revealed that there were whole series of experiences which might be called sensations and yet were very different from those which could be regarded as static, such as sound, odor, taste, and color. Association belonged to this static world. It was increasingly recognized that there was a large part of our experience which was dynamic.[1] The form of actual doing was present in some of the sensations which

(19) answered to the innervation of sensory nerves. There was also the study of those tracts which went down to the viscera, and these certainly were aligned with the emotional experiences. The whole process of the circulation of the blood had been opened up, and the action which involved the sudden change of the circulation of the blood. Fear, hostility, anger, which called for sudden movement, or terror, which deprived the individual of the ability to move, reflected themselves in the visceral conditions; and also had their sensory aspects connected with the central nervous system. There was, then, a type of experience which did not fall into place in a static world. Wilhelm Wundt approached his problem from the standpoint of this sort of physiology which offered a clew by means of which one could follow out these various dynamic experiences into the mechanism of the organism itself.

The treatment which had been given to the central nervous system and its motor and sensory nerves had been that of bringing a nerve current to a central nervous system which was then in turn responsible for a sensation that happened in "consciousness." To get a complete statement of what we call the act one had to follow up the sensory side and then follow out the motor results that took place because of what happened in Consciousness. The physiology to which I have referred in a certain sense separated itself from the field of consciousness. It was difficult to carry over such a mechanism as this into the lower animals. That, at least, took the psychologist out of the field of animal experience. Darwin regarded the animal as that out of which human conduct evolves, as well as the human form, and if this is true then it must be that in some sense consciousness evolves.

The resulting approach is from the point of view of conduct itself, and here the principle of parallelism is brought in. What takes place in consciousness runs parallel with what takes place in the central nervous system. It is necessary to study the content of the form as physiological and also as psychological. The center of consciousness, within which is registered that which

(20) affects the sensory nerves and out of which springs the conduct due to sensation and memory images, is to be taken out of the physiological mechanism; and yet one must find a parallel in what takes place in the nervous system for what the physiologist had placed in consciousness as such. What I have referred to in the matter of the emotions seemed to present a physiological counterpart for what takes place in consciousness, a field that seemed to belong peculiarly to the mental side of life. Hate, love, anger-these are seemingly states of mind. How could they be stated in physiological terms? The study of the acts themselves from an evolutionary standpoint, and also the study of the changes that take place in the organism itself when it is under the influence of what we call an emotion, present analogues to these emotional states. One could find something there that definitely answered to the emotions.

The further development of this lead occurred in James's theory of the emotions. Because we run away when we are afraid, and strike when we are angry, we can find something in the physiological organism that answers to fear and to anger. It is an attitude in the organism which answers to these emotional states, especially these visceral conditions to which I have referred, and the sudden changes in the circulation which are found associated with emotions. It becomes possible to relate the psychical conditions with physiological ones. The result was that one could make a much more complete statement of the conduct of the individual in physiological terms, could find a parallel for that which is stated in terms of consciousness in the mechanism of the body and in the operation of that mechanism. Such a psychology was called, naturally enough, a physiological psychology. It was a statement in terms of what went on in the organism of the content with which the psychologist had been dealing. What is there in the act of the animal which answers to these different so-called psychological categories? What is there that answers to the sensations, to the motor responses? When these questions were answered physiologically, they, of course, involved mechanisms located inside of

(21) the act, for all that takes place in the body is action. It may be delayed action, but there is nothing there that is itself simply a state, a physiological state that could be compared with a static state. We come then to the sensations and undertake to state them in terms of complete reflex action. We deal with the sensation from the standpoint of the stimulus, and when we come to deal with the various emotional states we deal with them in terms of the preparation for action and the act itself as it is going on.[2] That is, it becomes now essential to relate a set of psychical states with the different phases of the act. Parallelism, then, is an attempt to find analogues between action and experienced contents.

The inevitable result of this analysis was to carry psychology from a static to a dynamic form. It was not simply a question of relating what was found in introspection with what is found in the organism; it became a question of relating together those things which were found in introspection in the dynamic way in which the physiological elements were related to the life of the organism. Psychology became in turn associational, motor, functional, and finally behavioristic.

The historical transformation of psychology was a process which took place gradually. Consciousness was something which could not be simply dispensed with. In early psychology there was a crude attempt to account for consciousness as a certain secretion in the brain, but this was only a ridiculous phase of the transformation. Consciousness was something that was there, but it was something that could be brought into closer and closer relationship with what went on in the body. What went on there had a certain definite order. Everything that took place in the body was part of an act. The earlier conception of the central nervous system assumed that one could locate certain faculties of the mind in certain parts of the brain, but a study of the central nervous system did not reveal any such correlation. It became evident that there were nothing but

(22) paths in the central nervous system.[3] The cells of the brain were seen to be parts of the nervous paths provided with material for carrying on the system, but nothing was found there to carry on the preservation of an idea as such. There was nothing in the central nervous system which would enable one to locate a tract given over to abstractions. There was a time when the frontal lobe was regarded as the locus of thought-processes -but the frontal lobe also represents nothing but paths. The paths make very complicated conduct possible, they complicate the act enormously through the mechanism of the brain; but they do not set up any structure which functionally answers to ideas. So the study of consciousness from the standpoint of the organism inevitably led men to look at consciousness itself from the point of view of action.

What, for example, is our experience that answers to clenching of the fist? Physiological psychology followed the action out through the nerves that came from the muscles of the arm and hand. The experience of the act would then be the sensation of what was going on; in consciousness as such there is an awareness of what the organ was doing; there is a parallelism between what goes on in the organ and what takes place in consciousness. This parallelism is, of course, not a complete parallelism. There seems to be consciousness corresponding only to the sensory nerves.[4] We are conscious of some things and not conscious of others, and attention seems to play a very great part in determining which is the case. The parallelism which we carry over does not seem to be complete, but one which occurs only at various points. The thing that is interesting here is that it is the organism that now provides the clew for the analysis. Only portions of the response appear in con-

(23) -sciousness as such. The organism has assumed the primary place. Experimental psychology started off from what it could get hold of in the physiological system, and then undertook to find out what in consciousness seemed to answer to it. The scientist felt that he had the same assurance that the physiologist had in identifying these facts in the nervous system, and given those facts he could look into consciousness. It was simpler to start off with the neurosis and then register what was found in the psychosis. Thus, the acceptance of some sort of a parallelism between the contents of consciousness and the physiological processes of the central nervous system led to a conception of those contents dynamically, in terms of acts, instead of statically, in terms of states. In this way the contents of consciousness were approached from below (that is, naturalistically) rather than from above (that is, transcendentally), by a study of the physiological processes of the central nervous system to determine what in the mind answers to the activities of the physiological organism.

There was a question as to the directive centers for unified action. We are apt to think of the central nervous system from the point of view of the telephone board, with calls coming in and responses going out. Certain centers come to be conceived as principal centers. If you go back to the base of the brain, to that portion which is the essence of the central nervous system of lower forms, you do find an organization there which controls in its activity other activities; but when you come to conduct in the human form, you fail to find any such system in which there is a single directive center or group of centers. One can see that the various processes which are involved in running away from danger can be processes which are so interrelated with other activities that the control comes in the organization. One sees the tree as a possible place of escape if a bull is after him; and in general, one sees things which will enable the ongoing activity to be carried out. A varying group of centers may be the determining factor in the whole activity of the individual. That is the concept which has also been carried over

(24) into the field of growth. Certain parts of the embryo start growing, and control the action of growth until some other process comes into control. In the cortex, that organ which in some sense answers to human intelligence, we fail to find any exclusive and unvarying control, that is, any evidence of it in the structure of the form itself. In some way we can assume that the cortex acts as a whole, but we cannot come back to certain centers and say that this is where the mind is lodged in thinking and in action. There are an indefinite number of cells connected with each other, and their innervation in some sense leads to a unitary action, but what that unity is in terms of the central nervous system it is almost impossible to state. All the different parts of the cortex seem to be involved in everything that happens. All the stimuli that reach the brain are reflected into all parts of the brain, and yet we do get a unitary action. There remains, then, a problem which is by no means definitely solved: the unity of the action of the central nervous system. Wundt undertook to find certain centers which would be responsible for this sort of unity, but there is nothing in the structure of the brain itself which isolated any parts of the brain as those which direct conduct as a whole. The unity is a unity of integration, though just how this integration takes place in detail we cannot say.

What I wanted to bring out is that the approach to psychological theory from the standpoint of the organism must inevitably be through an emphasis upon conduct, upon the dynamic rather than the static. It is, of course, possible to work in the other direction, that is, to look at experience from the point of view of the psychologist and to draw conclusions as to what must go on in the central nervous system. It is possible to recognize, for example, that we are not simply at the mercy of the different stimuli that play in the central nervous system-the natural view of the physiologist. We can see these organs adjust themselves to different types of stimuli. When air waves come in they affect the particular organs of the ear; when tastes and odors come in the stimuli get to tracts in the proper

(25) organs that respond. There may seem to be merely a response of the organism to the stimuli. This position is taken over into the psychology of Spencer, who accepted the Darwinian principle of evolution. The influence of environment is exercised over the form, and the adaptation of the form results from the influences of the environment on it. Spencer conceived of the central nervous system as being continually played upon by stimuli which set up certain paths, so that it was the environment which was fashioning the form.

The phenomena of attention, however, give a different picture of conduct. The human animal is an attentive animal, and his attention may be given to stimuli that are relatively faint. One can pick out sounds at a distance. Our whole intelligent process seems to lie in the attention which is selective of certain types of stimuli.[5] Other stimuli which are bombarding the system are in some fashion shunted off. We give our attention to one particular thing. Not only do we open the door to certain stimuli and close it to others, but our attention is an organizing process as well as a selective process. When giving attention to what we are going to do we are picking out the whole group of stimuli which represent successive activity. Our attention enables us to organize the field in which we are going to act. Here we have the organism as acting and determining its environment. It is not simply a set of passive senses played upon by the stimuli that come from without. The organism goes out and determines what it is going to respond to, and organizes that world. One organism picks out one thing and another picks out a different one, since it is going to act in a different way. Such is an approach to what goes on in the central nervous system which comes to the physiologist from the psychologist.

The physiology of attention is a field which is still. a dark continent. The organism itself fits itself to certain types of conduct, and this is of considerable importance in determining what the animal will do. There also lie back in the organism

(26) responses, such as those of escape from danger, that represent a peculiar sensitivity. A sound in some other direction would not have the same effect. The eye is very sensitive to motions that lie outside of the field of central vision, even though this area of the retina of the eye is not so sensitive to form and distinctions of color. You look for a book in a library and you carry a sort of mental image of the back of the book; you render yourself sensitive to a certain image of a friend you are going to meet. We can sensitize ourselves to certain types of stimuli and we can build up the sort of action we are going to take. In a chain set of responses the form carries out one instinctive response and then finds itself in the presence of another stimulus, and so forth; but as intelligent beings we build up such organized reactions ourselves. The field of attention is one in which there must be a mechanism in which we can organize the different stimuli with reference to others so that certain responses can take place. The description of this is something we can reach through a study of our own conduct, and at present that is the most that we can say.

Parallelism in psychology was very largely under the control of the study of the central nervous system, and that led on inevitably to functional, motor, voluntaristic, and finally behavioristic psychology. The more one could state of the processes of the individual in terms of the central nervous system, the more one would use the pattern which one found in the central nervous system to interpret conduct. What I am insisting upon is that the patterns which one finds in the central nervous system are patterns of action-not of contemplation, not of appreciation as such, but patterns of action. On the other hand I want to point out that one is able to approach the central nervous system from the psychologist's point of view and set certain problems to the physiologist. How is the physiologist to explain attention? When the physiologist attempts that he is bound to do so in terms of the various paths. If he is going to explain why one path is selected rather than another he must go back to these terms of paths and actions. You cannot set up

(27) in the central nervous system a selective principle which can be generally applied throughout; you cannot say there is a specific something in the central nervous system that is related to attention; you cannot say that there is a general power of attention. You have to state it specifically, so that even when you are directing your study of the central nervous system from the point of view of psychology, the type of explanation that you are going to get will have to be in terms of paths which represent action.

Such, in brief, is the history of the appearance of physiological psychology in its parallelistic form, a psychology which had moved to the next stage beyond that of associationalism. Attention is ordinarily stressed in tracing this transition, but the emphasis on attention is one which is derived largely from the study of the organism as such, and it accordingly should be seen in the larger context we have presented.


  1. The lines of association follow the lines of the act (1924).
  2. Thus John Dewey added to James's doctrine the necessity of conflict in action in order for emotions to arise.
  3. [Among philosophers, Henri Bergson especially stressed this point. See his Matiere et Memoire.]
  4. We are conscious always of what we have done, never of doing it. We are always conscious directly only of sensory processes, never of motor processes; hence we are conscious of motor processes only through sensory processes, which are their resultants. The contents of consciousness have, therefore, to be correlated with or fitted into a physiological system in dynamic terms, as processes going on.
  5. [See Sections 13 and 14.]

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