Since the birth of psychology as a science, a large number of different theories and techniques have emerged that attempt to account for the analysis and study of the human psyche . Different theories have focused on different aspects and methods from which to work, such as working on unconscious aspects or directly observable behaviour.

One of the various methods elaborated throughout history, and in fact the one proposed and used by the considered father of scientific psychology Wilhelm Wundt, is the introspective method .

The introspective method: basic theory

The introspective method is understood as a procedure by which a subject focuses his or her attention on his or her own contents and mental processes . In other words, in introspection the subject analyses what is going on in his mind without stimulation interfering with it.

This introspection is then expressed verbally , so that it is the subject himself who reflects and exteriorizes the thought, trying to be as objective as possible and without modifying or contaminating the content of the thought with explanations or speculations about it.

The introspective method is one of the first methods employed in the study of the psyche. Although similar approaches can be found in classical philosophy, it was not until Wundt that this methodology was systematized and began to be used in a scientific manner. Through this method, the aim is to find the structure and characteristics of the different layers of the mind.

Types of classic introspection

Introspection has been a methodology that was developed throughout the beginnings of the history of Psychology and that, after being partially abandoned (despite having a certain presence in the different theoretical currents), would be recovered in the contemporary world.

We can mainly find two great types of introspection in the classical period , the experimental introspection and the systematic or phenomenological one.

1. Experimental introspection

The first of these, and one that is proper to Wundt and his disciples, is experimental introspection, which aims to focus on mental processes in an objective and scientific way by manipulating the stimulation to which the subject under investigation was subjected. The aim is to capture the expression of the psyche at the very moment it emerges for analysis.

For this purpose, in addition to the verbal recording of the patient, measurements are taken of his electrophysiological records, number of errors of appreciation, muscle tension or heart rate. Through these measurements and information it is possible to investigate the presence and functioning of attention, will or emotion, although not more complex elements.

The subject was trained to distinguish between experience and cognition, performing the experience as many times as needed and being able to graduate the stimulation received , and reporting the sensations immediately so that they are not contaminated with thoughts and cognition.

2. Systematic Introspection

Another subtype of introspection is the so-called systematic introspection, which would be used by the so-called Würzburg school . In it, the aim was to access the psyche through the resolution of a situation and the subsequent description of the steps followed to do so. In this case a process is carried out through the memory of the process, with what is called retrospective introspection. One of the figures linked to the emergence of this variety of introspection is Brentano, a figure critical of Wundt’s methodological proposal.

One of the authors who stands out in this regard was Ach, who divided the experience to be carried out into the steps of preparation, appearance of stimulus, search for adequate alternatives and response). The tasks used tended to be more complex and intellectual than those used in experimental introspection.

This type of introspection would later be applied in theoretical currents such as psychodynamics, with retrospective introspection being an integral part of both theory and practice of psychoanalysis and psychodynamics. They have also served as an inspiration for the Gestalt school.

Criticisms of the introspective method

The introspective method was widely criticized at the time. One of the greatest critics in this respect was Franz Brentano , who considered that the experimental introspection proposed by Wundt was intended to reduce to a temporary moment something fluid that cannot be cut.

The psyche cannot be observed at the same time from the psyche itself, as such observation is already modifying the response given. In addition, the mind continues to function at all times , so limiting its functioning to a single experimental moment is not possible.

It would also be criticized from the perspective of classical behaviorism, which considered that only allowed speculation and that it could not be considered scientific since it did not allow experimental replication, as well as the fact that objective data were not obtained but rather subjective and biased data.

Another criticism of introspection is based on the difficulty of being able to replicate the same results by different experimenters. Also the fact that part of the cognitive phenomena studied ended up being automated, so that the processes carried out ended up becoming unconscious.

Introspection today

Although in practice introspection is not used as a method per se, we can find a great influence of it in the professional practice of psychology.

Because of cognitivism, self-registration and self-monitoring procedures have often been used in both evaluation and therapy, for example to evaluate the thoughts and sensations that patients say they experience. Thus, a large part of the protocols used today are largely based on the identification and perception of one’s own thought, which is achieved through the practice of introspection.

Psychoanalysis and the different psychodynamic schools have also been included by introspection, as can be seen in the application of methods such as word association. In this sense , retrospective introspection is particularly used .

Bibliographic references:

  • Alonso-Fernández, F. (1968). Fundamentos de la psiquiatría actual, 1.
  • Mora, C. (2007). Introspection: Past and Present. Segunda Época (Vol, XXVI), 2. School of Psychology, U.C.V.