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Topic section: The ‘Puzzle Solver’
The ‘Puzzle Solver’
The ‘father of psychology’, German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt, established the world’s first psychological laboratory, in Liepzig, in 1879. Within the laboratory he set his subjects a series of puzzles in the hope of reaching a better understanding of the way the human mind
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Hipp Chronoscope for measuring reaction time.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 works. The puzzle of the mind would be solved, Wundt hoped, once the basic laws of thought had been established. To this end, he concentrated on measuring the senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. To work out the speed of thought, Wundt devised the reaction-time experiment – a method that is still used by experimental psychologists today.

The ‘Puzzle Solver’ model that he established has since been used by other psychologists in the cause of
Behaviourism began to be criticised for lacking humanistic sensitivity
 experimental psychology. The preferred habitat for the ‘Puzzle Solver’ is the psychological laboratory, a place that encourages the pursuit of objectivity. It therefore enjoys the highest prestige among those who believe that psychology’s mission is to predict and control human behaviour.

Prediction and control was particularly valued by the first generation of American psychologists. At Columbia University in 1898, Edward Thorndike placed a cat in a ‘puzzle box’ – a wooden crate with a lever-activated exit. After measuring the length of time it took for the cat to escape over a series of trials, Thorndike formulated one of psychology’s first Laws of Learning. B F Skinner modelled his famous ‘Skinner Box’ on Thorndike’s pioneering work, believing that psychology should dispense with metaphysical
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Astronaut Walker exploring ways of processing materials in the weightless conditions of space.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 talk about the mind and simply focus on measuring overt behaviour. The ‘behaviourist’ tradition has produced one of experimental psychology’s most iconic images: the rat in a maze. Clearly, the Puzzle Solver need not necessarily be human.

From around the middle of the twentieth century, behaviourism began to be criticised for lacking humanistic sensitivity. Yet the theory that came to replace it – cognitive psychology – was itself modelled upon a machine: the computer. Psychology’s new terminology was based on computer metaphors: information flow and processing, short-term and long-term memory, and featured detection devices.

Today, many psychologists are excited by the rapid developments in ‘cognitive neuroscience’, the attempt to solve the puzzle of human nature by investigating the relationship between the brain and the mind. Behaviourism might have been replaced by the ‘cognitive revolution’,  but the Puzzle Solver model has nevertheless maintained its key position at the heart of a reinvigorated discipline.

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Topic section: The Tool User
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The Tool User is a pragmatist: what counts is what works. It is hardly surprising, then, that this model is normally applied in administrative and practical contexts. And of all tools the most powerful is language.  > more

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Topic section: The Story Teller
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The model of Story Teller underpins psychoanalysis. This has influenced philosophy, cultural studies and English literature – and is now making a belated return to psychology.  > more
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