Allan Paivio coined in the 1970s the concept of mentalism to refer to the use of the introspective method as a basic technique of scientific psychology. Later the term would be applied to any current in this discipline that focused on the analysis of non-objectively observable mental processes, such as traditional cognitivism.

In this article we will talk about the origins and historical development of mentalist psychology , including its most recent manifestations. As we will see, in this sense it is fundamental to understand the central role that the behavioral paradigm had throughout the 20th century.

Defining the concept of mentalism

The term “mentalism” is used in psychology to refer to the branches of this science that focus their efforts on the analysis of mental processes such as thought, sensation, perception or emotion. In this sense, mentalism is opposed to the currents that primarily study the relationships between observable behaviours.

In this way we could include very diverse theoretical orientations within mentalism. Those most commonly associated with the term are the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener, the functionalism of William James and contemporary cognitivism, but psychoanalysis or humanism could also be seen as mentalism.

The word was popularized by the cognitive psychologist Allan Paivio, known above all for his contributions in the field of information coding. This author used the concept “classical mentalism” to refer to structuralist and functionalist psychology , which studied consciousness through the introspective method and subjectivity.

One of the most characteristic aspects of the proposals that are qualified as mentalists is that they oppose the understanding of psychological phenomena as a pure by-product of physiological processes , considering that this vision has a reductionist character and obvious relevant aspects of reality.

For most mentalists, thoughts, emotions, sensations and other mental content are somehow tangible. In this sense, we could understand the mentalist perspectives as successors of the Cartesian philosophical dualism , which is related in turn to the concept of the soul and which has influenced Western thought in a key way.

From the introspective method to cognitivism

In its beginnings as a scientific discipline (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) psychology oscillated between the mentalist and the behaviouralist poles. Most of the proposals of the time were located in one or other of the extremes, whether or not their authors identified with the above-mentioned perspectives; in this sense the hegemony of the introspective method was key .

The birth of behaviorism as we understand it today is attributed to the publication of the book “Psychology as seen by the behaviorist”, by John B. Watson, which took place in 1913. The father of behavioral orientation defended the need to study exclusively the observable and objective aspects of human behavior.

Thus Watson and other classical authors such as Ivan Pavlov, Burrhus F. Skinner and Jacob R. Kantor opposed those who conceptualized psychology as the study of consciousness . Within this category we find both the structuralists and the functionalists as well as the followers of psychoanalysis, who dominated psychology for decades.

The rise of behaviorism led to a reduction in interest in psychological processes, and in particular in consciousness. However, from about the 1960s onwards, what we now call the “Cognitive Revolution” began to take place, which consisted simply of a return to the study of the mind through more objective techniques.

In the second half of the 20th century, cognitivism coexisted with radical skinnerian behaviorism, the most successful variant of this perspective; however, it is evident that the “new mentalism” was much more concerned with objectivity than the classical one . This trend towards integration with scientific evidence as a basis has continued until today.

Mentalism Today

Despite the apparent opposition between mentalist and behavioural perspectives, we now very often find combinations between the two types of approach. As they have developed and have obtained solid empirical bases, the two theoretical currents have approached each other more or less spontaneously .

The most characteristic manifestation of modern mentalism is probably cognitive neuroscience. The object of study of this discipline is mental processes (including, of course, consciousness itself); however, it is based on much more advanced and reliable techniques than introspection, such as brain mapping and computer modeling.

In any case, this is a debate that will not be resolved in the near future because it responds to a nuclear dichotomy : that which occurs among psychologists who believe that this science should be dedicated above all to the study of observable behaviour and those who highlight the role of mental processes as entities susceptible to analysis in themselves.