Margaret Floy Washburn was a 20th century American psychologist (Kimble & Wertheimer, 2003). She was born in a middleclass family and was the only child in her family. Her father, who was an Episcopal priest, influenced her greatly. She joined Vassar College in New York after graduating from high school. While in college, she developed great interest in philosophy through her other interests that included literature and poetry (Kimble & Wertheimer, 2003). After graduating from Vassar, she joined the Sage School of Philosophy in 1892. Washburn is famous in the field of psychology because of her contribution. She conducted extensive studies in animal behavior, and developed the motor theory. She is recognized as the first female psychologist to receive a doctorate in psychology.
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Washburn’s contribution was monumental in promoting the development of psychology in the United States. Her studies were directed towards teaching that mental occurrences are real and form an important area of study in psychology (Hergenhahn, 2008). She achieved that through her studies in animal behavior and consciousness. She presented her ideas and research findings in her book titled The Animal Mind. Her studies defied the prevalent belief at the time in psychology that mental occurrences could not be observed and were therefore not important for scientific study. She supplemented her studies with research findings from experiments carried out in German and France on mental processes. In addition, she borrowed hugely from psychological schools of thought such as functionalism, behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, and structuralism (Hergenhahn, 2008). She disagreed with the theories of psychodynamics because they were tentative and did not last for long.
Washburn’s motor theory of consciousness differed greatly from the perspective of structural psychology that divided the mind into different parts (Comer & Gould, 2010). Washburn was highly critical of the perspective and hence developed her own theory. She believed that psychological movements were responsible for all mental processes. Therefore, she described mental processes such as learning and emotions as series of psychological movements (Denmark & Paludi, 2008). Her perspective also differed from other perspectives concerning consciousness that had been developed in the field of comparative physiology. She believed that consciousness was the cause of all mental processes (Comer & Gould, 2010). During the 20th century, mental processes were not scientifically studied in psychology because they could not be observed. However, she went beyond assumption and carried out several experiments that studied mental behavior in animals. She believed that mental processes were appropriate for study in psychology.
Contributions to psychology
The two main contributions of Washburn to the field of psychology were his studies on the animal mind and development of the motor theory (Comer & Gould, 2010).
The animal mind
Washburn’s main contribution to psychology was her extensive study of mental processes in animals and humans (Comer & Gould, 2010). However, she focused more on study of animals. Her book, the animal mind, was a compilation of her findings on studies she conducted on animals. She studied the existence of processes such as attention, which were thought to be evoked by consciousness. Other mental activities that Washburn studied include sensation, perception, vision, hearing, and learning (Comer & Gould, 2010). Her experiments were significant to the development of psychology because she studied more than 100 animal species. Her work was exceptional because at the time, animal studies used mostly rats to conduct experiments. In one of the chapters in her book, she describes the mind of an amoeba. She maintained that the consciousness of animals and humans were similar because they both possessed similar mental structures (Weiten, 2012). She rejected claims by certain school of thought that mental behaviors could not be studied scientifically because they could not be observed.
Washburn is recognized for the development of the motor theory. She developed the theory in her attempts to find a connection between structuralism and behaviorism schools of thought (Weiten, 2012). Structuralism focused mainly on consciousness while behaviorism focused on visible phenomena. The theory holds that consciousness arises from the inhibition of a stimulus towards motion by another similar stimulus or signal (Weiten, 2012). She argues that senses form a representation of an object that they encounter. As a result, the body responds by either moving away or closer to the object. According to the theory, different objects stimulate different senses and cause different responses. The senses remember those sensations in the absence of objects. The theory further states that learning results from association of certain movements into different combinations by senses (Weiten, 2012). As such, when two movements are closely connected, the stimulus that causes the first movement invokes a second movement.
Therefore, thinking can be defined as an action that is stimulated by such movements (Denmark & Paludi, 2008). She also stated that the ability of animals to delay responses after perception is an indication of the existence of partial actions. The theory postulates that higher mental processes exist when an animal is able to delay action and as such, engage in mental process such as reflection (Weiten, 2012). The animal learns by responding to movements that encourage action and movements that inhibit action. She cleared doubt that surrounded the issue of consciousness. She stated that consciousness could only be understood through study of laws that govern the motor phenomena. Consciousness had its foundation on the functioning of motor processes (Weiten, 2012). She published her work on motor theory in many books that were very significant in development of psychology during the 20th century.
Margaret Floy Washburn was a 20th century American psychologist. She is famous in the field of psychology because of her contributions in the study of animal behavior and development of the motor theory. In addition, she is recognized for being the first female psychologist to receive a PhD in psychology. The two main contributions of Washburn to the field of psychology were her studies on animal behavior and development of the motor theory. She studied the existence of processes such as attention that were thought to be evoked by consciousness. Other mental activities that Washburn studied include sensation, perception, vision, hearing, and learning. Her experiments were significant to the development of psychology because she studied more than 100 animal species. She developed the motor theory in her attempt to find a connection between structuralism and behaviorism schools of thought. The theory holds that consciousness arises from the inhibition of a stimulus towards motion by another similar stimulus or signal. She argues that the senses form a mental representation of an object that they encounter. As a result, the body responds by either moving away or closer to the object. She was monumental in development of psychology in the 20th century.
Comer, R., and Gould, E. (2010). Psychology around Us. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Denmark, F., and Paludi, M. (2008). Psychology of Women: Handbook of Issues and Theories. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Hergenhahn, B. (2008). An Introduction to the History of Psychology. New York: Cengage Learning.
Kimble, G., and Wertheimer, M. (2003). Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, Volume 5. New York: Psychology Press.
Weiten, W. (2012). Psychology: Themes and Variations. New York: Cengage Learning.