Learning Outcomes:
Upon completion of this module, you should be able to:
  • Define what is psychology
  • Trace the origin of psychology
  • Compare how philosophy and psychology explain human learning
The human being (Homo sapiens) is an unattractive smelly and aggressive creature that walks upright, grumbling and bellowing. It is one of many species that lives on this planet and emerges among the worst adapted.
Its’ young is helpless compared to other species. It has lost most of its bodily hair and what is left is little protection against the cold. Its eyesight is weaker that that of many other species, and its sense of smell responds only to the strongest odours.
If pursued, it can only run a very short distance, that also very slowly. It is remarkably unskilled at climbing trees or digging holes. It cannot live under water and it swims with less grace than almost any other animal. It is heavy and awkward and cannot fly. It can’t even jump very high.
It is unequipped by nature with weapons either for defence or killing for food. It is absolutely remarkable and utterly fascinating that the species has survived at all. [source:  adaptation of Guy R. Lefrancois, Psychology for Teaching, 1982. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company. p.]
Yes, it is truly remarkable that we have survived all these years. The humorous description by Guy Lefrancois is something to think about. How has the physically inferior human being survived? It has survived because of its God-given capacity to THINK. This capacity to think has enabled the human being to overcome its many deficiencies. For example, the human who is not naturally endowed with weapons invented spears, bows and arrows to hunt animals for food. Human eyesight is inferior compared to other species and it invented the telescope. Humans are less strong than many other species and invented the pulley and lever to lift heavy things. The capacity to think has enhanced our ability to survive which simply means learning to cope with the world.

‘Psychology’, an ancient Greek word made up of psyche which is the mind or the soul while logy means study. Simply put, psychology is the study of the mind or the soul. Many psychologists prefer to focus on the mind and leave the issue of the soul to theology and the great religions of the world. Though it is largely concerned with the study of humans, the behaviour of animals is also studied. In fact, many of the earlier theories of psychology originated from studies conducted with rats, pigeons, cats, monkeys and dogs. These theories have been used to describe human behaviour and have influenced educational practice.
The first is the term scientific which means studies using the scientific method.
The scientific method proposed by Dewey (1920) comprises the following step

  • A statement of the problem and identification of the hypotheses to be tested.
  • Design the study and employ data collection techniques to answer the research question or hypotheses
  • Collect and analysis data.
  • Report findings and decide whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.

The second term is behaviour which relates to whatever activity (by a human or animal) that can be observed, measured and recorded. Behaviour is also observed to occur when individuals speak or write something. For example, a person who records his or her fear or attitude is a manifestation of behaviour.

The third term is mental processes include all processes involved in thinking, memory, learning, attitudes, emotions and so forth. This has become the focus of many psychologists but the problem is that these processes cannot be observed and are difficult to record and measure accurately. [This is an issue that will be discussed later in the chapter].
Both the psychologist studying human behaviour and the scientist studying the physical word use the scientific method. However, for the psychologist, humans possess neither the simplicity nor the predictability of the physical world. Even the behaviour of a cat or dog is unpredictable! The physicist, the chemist and even the biologist, employing the scientific method has been able to discover great theories and laws explaining the behaviours of physical matter, molecules, cells and so forth. These explanations are more stable, precise and replicable. The psychologist is still struggling with having to discover a single, precise and magnificent law explaining the behaviour of a human or even a rat.
Even though the scientific method is widely used in psychology, researchers have to make various kinds of inferences and interpretations. Why? This is because the subjects studied are humans. Compared to cells or chemicals studied by scientists, humans are comparatively less stable (see Figure 1.1). Studying the behaviours of humans is more complicated because of the influence of extraneous variables that are difficult to control. Oftentimes it requires researchers to make inferences or interpretation because the data is comparatively less clear-cut.

  • Trace the origin of the word ‘psychology’?
  • Explain the 3 key attributes of the definition of psychology.
  • What is the main issue concerning the scientist studying physical phenomena and the psychologist studying human behaviour?
Bruner (1964, 1966) sees human survival as a process of amplifying capacities and reducing inadequacies;

Humans used their intellectual capacities to propose concepts, principles, theories and laws to explain and understand various phenomena in their environment. Among the many phenomena humans are attempting to unravel is to understand their own behaviour (and the behaviour of other species). This gave birth to the discipline called psychology.
Module 1:

There seems to be consensus among these early philosophers that the mind and body relationship is important is determining human behaviour. Most psychologists today agree that the concept of mind and body have merit. But, more important is to provide empirical evidence to confirm the relationship between mind and body. 
This module discusses what is learning and cognition and traces the traces the origin of psychology as a discipline. Psychology which has its roots in philosophy plays an important role in explaining how humans learn, think and behave. Even though psychology is among the youngest disciplines in the social sciences, it has contributed much towards understanding human behaviour. However, there is a much we do not know about ourselves and perhaps never will. This is because there is so much variability in our behaviour which depends on our culture, social position, political orientation, up bringing and more recently our genetic make up.
The moment a human is born he or she is learning until death. Human are learning machines who are continuously learning all sorts of things such as learning the alphabet, learning to dance, learning a foreign language or trying to remember someone’s name. If you were to ask someone What is learning? you are likely to get different replies. Saljo (1979) asked a number of students what they understood by ‘learning’. There were so many different responses and he classified them into the following categories:

You will notice that the first three statements imply that learning is the acquisition of a body of knowledge or content. It is like going to the supermarket, when you go out to buy knowledge and it becomes you property. This has been referred to as the product of learning. The last two statements define learning as something the learner does with the information. This has been referred to as the process of learning.

The term cognition is from the Latin word cogito which means to think. It has been variously defined. In a wider sense it means the act of knowing or knowledge, and may be interpreted in a social or cultural sense to describe the emergent development of knowledge and concepts that culminates in both thought and action. More precisely in psychology it refers to the mental processes of an individual, The mind has internal mental states such as beliefs, desires and intentions which interacts with the knowledge, skills and values gained through comprehension, thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem solving. These are higher-level functions of the brain and encompass language, imagination, perception, and planning (Wagner, 2008).
Cognition is the process or result of recognizing, interpreting, judging, and reasoning and according to Vernon (2006), it is concerned with being able to understand what is going on around oneself and being able to adapt and improvise accordingly. It implies an ability to understand how things might possibly be, not now but at some future time, and take this into consideration. Remembering what happened at some point in the past can help in anticipating future events, so memory is important too: using the past to predict the future 3 and then assimilating what does actually happen to adapt and improve the system's anticipatory ability in a virtuous cycle that is embedded in an on-going process of action and perception (see illustration).

Cognition has also been defined in the most basic terms cognition is the action of the brain or mind to understand the world around and to determine an appropriate action.  Cognition requires the adoption of many activities.  For example, you need to perceive the world around you, remember past events to compare present events to, select the important parts of the world to attend to, store what has been learned from the current experience for later use, understand and transmit language and so forth [We will discuss in more depth about cognition in Chapters 3 and 4]. The following are some general definitions of cognition:

a) Learning as a Product
Learning is seen as an outcome or the end product of some process which can be recognised. Learning is defined as a change in behaviour. Prior to learning the organism is not able to perform a particular task, but after learning the organism is able to perform the task. In other words, learning has taken place and there is a change in behaviour.
For example, before the lesson, students did not know about the formation of a tsunami, but after the lesson students know about the formation of a tsunami. The overt change in behaviour is observed when students express their understanding of the formation of a tsunami either orally or in an essay.
b) Learning as a Process
When learning is seen as a process, the focus is on what happens when learning takes place. Are people conscious of what is going on when they are learning something? Are they aware that they are engaged in learning? Can they identify the processes involved when learning something?
For example, to understand the facts relating to the policies of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, learners could use the process skill of comparison to deepen their understanding of the subject matter. Most disciplines or subject areas have their own process skills and when appropriately applied by learners, enhances their acquisition of the facts, concepts and principles of the respective content.

Definitions of Learning by Scholars
The following are some definitions of learning by scholars in the field:

  • What is the difference between the product and process of learning?
  • To what extent do the definitions of learning reflect what you do as a teacher, instructor or trainer?
  • Ask a group of your colleagues about their definition of learning?
Psychology is interested in the nature of humans and how human beings function. However, psychology is by no means the only field of inquiry that seeks answers to the puzzles of human nature. The roots of psychology can be traced to the ancient philosopher based on their early records to understand psychology. The earliest roots of modern psychology can be traced to two different approaches to human behaviour: philosophy and physiology (see Figure).
Philosophy explores and attempts to explain human nature through introspection or self-examination of one’s experiences. Through a process of self-questioning and asking others questions, philosophers have attempted to unravel how we think, how we learn, how we gain knowledge and how we use our experiences. Physiology is the study of the human body and through observation early Greek scholars attempted to understand the workings of the human body.

An ancient King of Egypt, as far back as the seventh century B.C., can be considered the first psychology experiment. The king wanted to test whether or not Egyptian was t he oldest civilization on earth. His idea was that, if children were raised in isolation from infancy and were given no instruction in language of any kind, then the language they spontaneously spoke would be of the original civilization of man – hopefully, Egyptian.
The experiment, itself, was flawed, but the king deserves credit for his idea that thoughts and language come from the mind and his ambition to test such an idea. While the experiment failed to support the king’s hypothesis, Morton Hunt (1993) suggests that it does illustrate perhaps the first evidence in written history that as long as 2700 years ago there was at least one individual who had the “highly original notion” that mental processes could be systematically investigated and studied.

[source: Morton Hunt, The Story of Psychology, 1993, p.]


Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), known as the father of modern medicine argued that there was a close connection between the mind and the body. He proposed that mental illness was not caused by demons but caused by physical malfunctions. By dissecting human cadavers and operating on living organisms, he concluded that the mind controlled the human body. He was the first to suggest that the mind resides in the brain.
Early philosophers were most concerned with nature of knowledge or epistemology. In epistemology you ask such questions as: What is knowledge? What are the origins of knowledge? What does it mean to know?
Plato (427-347 B.C.) suggested that the mind and body were separate and the mind was located in the brain. He believed that reality did not lie in concrete objects but are represented in abstract form in our minds. In other words, when we see a chair, the ‘real’ chair exists in our minds. Plato reasoned that the head is the seat of the mind.
Plato believed that knowledge is gained through thinking and analysing in an effort to understand the world and people's relationship to it.
The mind and body interact with one another but they are essentially different. The mind is superior to the body. Truth is found in our thoughts (via introspection) not through our senses (via observation).
Plato's view formed the foundation for theorising about psychological processes that also led to empirical investigation later.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) argued that the mind and body were NOT separate and felt that the mind and body are one and the same. 
He believed that we understand the mind by studying the body and that we rely on observation of concrete objects and actions rather than on our own thoughts (introspection) to discover truth.
He argued that that reality lies only in the concrete world of objects that we apprehend through our senses.
Aristotle believed that knowledge is gained by experience, observation and experimentation. Aristotle's view formed the foundation for the methods of empirical psychological research.
Ibn Sina (980-1037), a Muslim philosopher famous for his works on medicine viewed the human being as consisting of both hidden (sirr) and open (alin) elements. The hidden part consists of the powers of the mind while the open part is the human body and its organs (Abd al-Rahman al Naqib, 1993). The powers of the mind or mental faculties are classified into three groups:
  • First, the group of vegetative faculties, in which humans and plants both share. They are concerned with the survival of the human being, growth through nutrition, and preservation of the species through reproduction. They comprise 3 faculties: feeding, growth and reproduction.
  • Second, the group of faculties shared by humans and animals. They comprise two faculties. One is the perceptive faculty of the exterior world though the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The other faculty is directed from within, by way of common sense, imagination, memory and reflection.
  • Third, the group of faculties which distinguish human beings from animals. They comprise two faculties: an active faculty directing the human’s practical conduct, and a cognitive faculty directing his or her intellectual conduct. The first is practical and the second is contemplative.

There seems to be consensus among these early philosophers that the mind and body relationship is important in determining human behaviour. Most psychologists today agree that the concept of mind and body have merit. But, more important is to provide empirical evidence to confirm the relationship between mind and body. (The History of Psychology, 2006). 
  • How is physiology related to psychology?
  • Explain the similarities and differences in opinion about learning and thinking as proposed by early philosophers.
Watch this 5 min video clips on "What is Psychology" and the different branches of psychology.
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