What Is Psychology?

Wise men study the sciences which deal with the origins and development

of animal life, with the structure of the cells, with the effect of

various diseases upon the tissues and fluids of the body; they study the

causes of the reactions of the body cells to disease germs, and search

for the origin and means of extermination of these enemies to health.

They study the laws of physical well-being. They seek for the chemical

> principles governing the reactions of digestive fluids to the foods they

must transform into heat and energy. So the doctor learns to combat

disease with science, and at the same time to apply scientific laws of

health that he may fortify the human body against the invasion of

harmful germs. Thus, eventually, he makes medicine itself less


But another science must walk hand in hand today with that of medicine;

for doctors and nurses are realizing as never before the power of mind

over body, and the hopelessness of trying to cure the one without

considering the other. Hence psychology has come into her own as a

recognized science of the mind, just as biology, histology, chemistry,

pathology, and medicine are recognized sciences governing the body. As

these are concerned with the "how" and "why" of life, and of the body

reactions, so psychology is concerned with the "how" and "why" of

conduct and of thinking. For as truly as every infectious disease is

caused by a definite germ, just as truly has every action of man its

adequate explanation, and every thought its definite origin. As we would

know the laws of the sciences governing man's physical well-being that

we might have body health, so we would know the laws of the mind and of

its response to its world in order to attain and hold fast to mind

health. Experience with patients soon proves to us nurses that the weal

and woe of the one vitally affects the other.

"Psychology is the science of mental life, both of its phenomena and

their conditions."

So William James took up the burden of proof some thirty years ago, and

assured a doubting world of men and women that there were laws in the

realm of mind as certain and dependable as those applying to the world

of matter--men and women who were not at all sure they had any right to

get near enough the center of things to see the wheels go round. But

today thousands of people are trying to find out something of the way

the mind is conceived, and to understand its workings. And many of us

have in our impatient, hasty investigation, self-analytically taken our

mental machines all to pieces and are trying effortfully to put them

together again. Some of us have made a pretty bad mess of it, for we

tore out the screws and pulled apart the adjustments so hastily and

carelessly that we cannot now find how they fit. And millions of other

machines are working wrong because the engineers do not know how to keep

them in order, put them in repair, or even what levers operate them. So

books must be written--books of directions.

If you can glibly recite the definition above, know and explain the

meaning of "mental life," describe "its phenomena and their conditions,"

illustrating from real life; if you can do this, and prove that

psychology is a science, i. e., an organized system of knowledge on

the workings of the mind--not mere speculation or plausible theory--then

you are a psychologist, and can make your own definitions. Indeed, the

test of the value of a course such as this should be your ability, at

its end, to tell clearly, in a few words of your own, what psychology


The word science comes from a Latin root, scir, the infinitive form,

scire, meaning to know. So a science is simply the accumulated, tested

knowledge, the proved group of facts about a subject, all that is known

of that subject to date. Hence, if psychology is a science, it is no

longer a thing of guesses or theories, but is a grouping of confirmed

facts about the mind, facts proved in the psychology laboratory even as

chemical facts are demonstrated in the chemical laboratory. Wherein

psychology departs from facts which can be proved by actual experience

or by accurate tests, it becomes metaphysics, and is beyond the realm of

science; for metaphysics deals with the realities of the supermind, or

the soul, and its relations to life, and death, and God. Physics,

chemistry, biology have all in their day been merely speculative. They

were bodies of theory which might prove true or might not. When they

worked, by actually being tried out, they became bodies of accepted

facts, and are today called sciences. In the same way the laws of the

working of the mind have been tested, and a body of assured facts about

it has taken its place with other sciences.

It must be admitted that no psychologist is willing to stop with the

known and proved, but, when he has presented that, dips into the

fascinations of the yet unknown, and works with promising theory, which

tomorrow may prove to be science also. But we will first find what they

have verified, and make that the safe foundation for our own

understanding of ourselves and others.

What do we mean by "mental life"?--or, we might say, the science of the

life of the mind. And what is mind?

But let us start our quest by asking first what reasons we have for

being sure mind exists. We find the proof of it in consciousness,

although we shall learn later that the activities of the mind may at

times be unconscious. So where consciousness is, we know there is mind;

but where consciousness is not, we must find whether it has been, and is

only temporarily withdrawn, before we say "Mind is not here." And

consciousness we might call awareness, or our personal recognition

of being--awareness of me, and thee, and it. So we recognize mind by

its evidences of awareness, i. e., by the body's reaction to stimuli;

and we find mind at the very dawn of animal life.

Consciousness is evidenced in the protozooen, the simplest form in which

animal life is known to exist, by what we call its response to stimuli.

The protozooen has a limited power of self-movement, and will accept or

reject certain environments. But while we see that mind expresses itself

in consciousness as vague, as dubious as that of the protozooen, we find

it also as clear, as definite, as far reaching as that of the statesman,

the chemist, the philosopher. Hence, the "phenomena of mental life"

embrace the entire realms of feeling, knowing, willing--not of man

alone, but of all creatures.

In our study, however, we shall limit ourselves to the psychology of the

human mind, since that concerns us vitally as nurses. Animal psychology,

race psychology, comparative psychology are not within the realm of our

practical needs in hospital life. We would know the workings of man's

mind in disease and health. What are the instinctive responses to fear,

as shown by babies and children and primitive races? What are the normal

expressions of joy, of anger, or desire? What external conditions call

forth these evidences? What are the acquired responses to the things

which originally caused fear, or joy, or anger? How do grown-ups differ

in their reactions to the same stimuli? Why do they differ? Why does one

man walk firmly, with stern, set face, to meet danger? Why does another

quake and run? Why does a third man approach it with a swagger, face it

with a confident, reckless smile of defiance?

All these are legitimate questions for the psychologist. He will

approach the study of man's mind by finding how his body acts--that is,

by watching the phenomena of mental life--under various conditions; then

he will seek for the "why" of the action. For we can only conclude what

is in the mind of another by interpreting his expression of his thinking

and feeling. We cannot see within his mind. But experience with

ourselves and others has taught us that certain attitudes of body,

certain shades of countenance, certain gestures, tones of voice,

spontaneous or willed actions, represent anger or joy, impatience or

irritability, stern control or poise of mind. We realize that the

average man has learned to conceal his mental reactions from the casual

observer at will. But if we see him at an unguarded moment, we can very

often get a fair idea of his mental attitude. Through these outward

expressions we are able to judge to some extent of the phenomena of his

mental life. But let us list them from our own minds as they occur to us

this work-a-day moment, then, later on, find what elements go to make up

the present consciousness.

As I turn my thoughts inward at this instant I am aware of these mental

impressions passing in review:

You nurses for whom I am writing.

The hospitals you represent.

What you already know or do not know along these lines.

A child calling on the street some distance away.

A brilliant sunshine bringing out the sheen of the green grass.

The unmelodious call of a flicker in the pine-tree, and a towhee singing

in the distance.

A whistling wind bending the pines.

A desire to throw work aside and go for a long tramp.

A patient moving about overhead (she is supposed to be out for her walk,

and I'm wondering why she is not).

The face and voice of an old friend whom I was just now called from my

work to see.

The plan and details of my writing.

The face and gestures of my old psychology professor and the assembled

class engaged in a tangling metaphysic discussion.

A cramped position.

Some loose hair about my face distracting me.

An engagement at 7.30.

A sharp resolve to stop wool-gathering and finish this chapter.

And yet, until I stopped to examine my consciousness, I was keenly aware

only of the thoughts on psychology I was trying to put on paper.

But how shall we classify these various contents?

Some are emotion, i. e., feelings; others are intellect, i. e.,

thoughts; still others represent determination, i. e., volition or


There is nothing in this varied consciousness that will not be included

in one or another of these headings. Let us group the contents for


The nurses for whom I am writing:

A result of memory and of imagination (both intellect). A sense of

kinship and interest in them (emotion). A determination that they must

have my best (will, volition).

And so of the hospitals:

My memory of hospitals I have known, and my mental picture of yours made

up from piecing together the memories of various ones, the recollection

of the feelings I had in them, etc. (intellect).

What you already know.

Speculation (intellect), the speculation based on my knowledge of other

schools (memory which is intellect). A desire (emotion) that all nurses

should know psychology.

Child calling on street.

Recognition of sound (intellect) and pleasant perception of his voice


Desire to throw work aside and go for a tramp on this gorgeous day.

Emotion, restrained by stronger emotion of interest in work at hand, and

intellect, which tells me that this is a work hour--and will, which

orders me to pay attention to duties at hand.

So all the phenomena of mental life are included in feelings, thoughts,

and volitions which accompany every minute of my waking life, and

probably invade secretly every second of my sleeping life.

The conditions of mental life--what are they?

1. In man and the higher animals the central nervous system, which,

anatomy teaches us, consists of the brain and spinal cord. (In the

lowest forms of animal life, a diffused nervous system located

throughout the protoplasm.)

2. An external world.

3. A peripheral nervous system connecting the central nervous system

with the outside world.

4. The sympathetic nervous system, provided to assure automatic workings

of the vital functions of the body. These organs of the mind will be

discussed in a later chapter.