A brief history of how people sought guidance, healing and how psychology came to be the profession that it is.

Before a word even existed for this relatively contemporary tradition – what did people do when they needed help or guidance. For curiosity’s sake, this article explores some of the ways that individuals sought support or intervention prior to modern psychology/therapy. Perhaps it may offer some helpful insight to recognising the core or fundamental needs that humans have and how we have adapted to meet these needs over years of social, cultural and technological evolution.

“The Love of Wisdom” is the etymological origins for the word “philosophy” otherwise considered the systematic study of life and a pursuit of the fundamental truths it contains. Prominent philosophers such as Socrates who informs modern conversational method of “Socratic Questioning” – offering a timeless “how” in any enquiry whether it be in academic realm, or journalistic or within therapeutic environments. Socrates’ influence across western philosophies extended to other namely figures such as:

  • Aristotle – known to write on the “soul” and coined the term “tabula rasa” for the mind meaning “blank slate”.
  • Plato – Suggested that the brain as being a seat of mental process and is thus distinct from the body.
  • Epicurus – Known to contemplate the pleasures in life, particularly those afforded by the mind i.e. eliminating fears associated with death
  • Zeno – Founder of Stoicism a school of philosophy curated by the superiority of knowledge and reason. Later influencing philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius and more recently, the developer of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – Aaron T. Beck.

What’s important to note is that the focus being on Western Philosophy and Philosopher’s also highlights that the development of modern psychology has western origins. Moving through history to points where the first hospitals were built in Baghdad with dedicated wards for the mentally ill – though during this period mental illness was in partial reference to “the soul” or spiritual health. Whilst references towards the mind increased over time, there largely remained ambiguity in how people understood “the mind” – western religious institutions have served and continue to serve (albeit in far lesser extent) in appealing to some fundamental needs – in his book “Religion for Atheists” Alain de Botton offers a reflection on the role of “religion” in society – summarised to inspire “the most mature and reasonable part of us” through:

  • Guidance and framework for how to live.
  • Kindness and broadly speaking… on how to behave.
  • Learning both through text and application
  • Perspectives on suffering with a particular focus on a promise of a blissful afterlife, in part alleviating any death related anxiety
  • The in-built institution serving as a healing community

Paired with the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, the intellectual and artistic “Romanticism” movement pervaded a time where objectivity, restrain and order were disproportionately represented in society. This observable reaction toward scientific and technological advances can in part be viewed as precursors to humanistic “person-centred” perspectives in modern psychology. During this period we remain reliant on such movements along with notable philosophers of the time such as Søren Keirkegaard to continue thought explorations of the human mind and naming concepts such as anxiety. 

“Psykhē” – breath, spirit, soul + “Logia” – the study of

The first remnants of the study of the human mind, mental illness or behavioural sciences start to show through the late 19th century. Psychiatric model of mental illness through biology, genetics and/or psychopharmacology by Emil Kraepelin; Experimental or behavioural psychology by Ivan Pavlov and later B.F. Skinner; the origin of ‘talk therapy’ and exploration of unconscious motives or ‘psychoanalysis’ by Sigmund Freud. Each of these three ‘streams’ continued to develop into more mainstream sciences and academic literature in the realm of human sciences. Over the early 20th century, the pursuit of standardised measures for various aspects of human psychology such as personality, cognition/intelligence, or unconscious processes (i.e., Thematic Apperception Test, Rorschach Test, Personality, or Intelligence inventories)- albeit with varying levels of success. Mid-20th century, client-centred and humanistic modalities were introduced as a shift away from the ‘formulaic’ stance held by purist behaviourism models of human psychology.

Progressing towards mid-late 20th century we start to see the beginnings of theories of human development, attachment sciences and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – a turning point in the evolution of therapy. During this time, we see the exploration and integration of eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism, Hinduism or Taoism as informing elements of treatment – such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. One major way eastern philosophies or practices are represented in modern psychology is mindfulness and yoga – both of which have had clinically demonstrable benefits on wellbeing.