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Gustav Theodor Fechner
 
Researched and written by:  Adrianne M. Smith
 
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work. 

Biography
 
Childhood/ Family Life

        Fechner was born in southeastern Germany in a small village on April 1, 1801.  He came from a religious background, being the son and grandson of pastors.  His father was the village pastor and demanded a very strict and focused childhood for Fechner.  However, his father died early in his childhood, creating a dramatic upheaval in Fechner’s life (Rosenzweig, 1987).  He moved with his mother and brother to live with his uncle, where he remained until 1817.  At the young age of 16, he went to the University of Leipzig to begin medical studies, where he remained for the rest of his life.  By 1822, and at 21 years of age, Fechner received his MD degree (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).    

Adult Life

        Although receiving his degree in medicine, Fechner’s interests moved to physics and math.  In 1831, he wrote a paper on electricity, which got him invited to become a professor of physics at Leipzig (Rosenzweig, 1987).  He also translated many physics and chemistry books from French into German, which brought him recognition as a physicist.  He lectured in physics at the university and even conducted his own research (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  He became friends with a number of people, including Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of psychology.  This broadened his interests from physics to psychology (Rosenzweig, 1987).  
        Fechner carried a very humanistic viewpoint, which was in opposition to the currently accepted mechanistic view (Rosenzweig, 1987).  The mechanistic view held that humans were machines.  It assumed that humans were passive and had no free will, but were affected by the environment (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  Fechner believed more that humans had free will and were not just passive machines that needed to be acted upon (Rosenzweig, 1987).  
        Fechner was very interested in vision.  He was interested in sensation and wanted to conduct research on afterimages.  He injured his eyes while conducting an experiment in which he stared at the sun through colored glasses.  His eyes became unusually sensitive to light.  He could not stand even the smallest bit of light and spent most of his days in a dark, closed-off room where the walls were painted black.  He became very depressed and continued to be so for the next many years.  He was exhausted, could not sleep, and could not eat.  He tried many things to cure his illness, including laxatives and even electric shock.  None of these therapies provided a cure.  One day, a friend of Fechner’s claimed that she had a dream and that the dream told her how she could cure his long lasting depression.  She said that if she prepared a certain dinner of raw spiced ham in Rhine wine and lemon juice, he would be cured.  After eating the meal, Fechner claimed that he felt better.  This suggests that Fechner’s illness may have been slightly neurotic.  However, his improvement did not continue and after only six months, his symptoms returned and even worsened.  He then had a dream that included the number 77.  He believed that he would be well in 77 days.  This again suggests neurotic roots to his illness because he did get well in 77 days.  His depression turned to heightened euphoria and delusions of grandeur (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  Through this experience, Fechner developed the pleasure principle, which is the tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain (Reber, 1995).  
        His interests soon turned to philosophy after the nervous breakdown.  The depression caused him to be dismissed from his prestigious position at Leipzig due to the fact that he was officially recognized as invalid (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  He found comfort and interest in philosophy at this time.  He related to panpsychism, in which he found a personal religion (Rosenzweig, 1987).  Panpsychism is the belief that everything in the world has some mental aspect.  This view ascribes some degree of consiousness, however small, even to apparently inanimate bits of matter (Kemerling, 2001).  As a panpsychist, he believed that all objects on earth were capable of conciousness and life to some degree.  He even believed that the earth itself had a soul and could be seen from the standpoint of conciousness.  He called this the “day view”.  His views were once again in opposition to the more accepted views of the time.  The “night view” of materialism stated that the universe consisted of nothing but inert matter.  Even consciousness was inert matter (Rosenzweig, 1987).  Under the pseudonym “Dr. Mises”, he wrote essays using ridicule and sarcasm to satirize medicine and science (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  He communicated his spiritual perspective in an amusing way in these essays.  Aspects of panpsychism can be found in these essays (Rosenzweig, 1987).  So why would a man of science, a man who has studied psychology, medicine, and physics, ridicule medicine and science?  Fechner had two sides to his personality which created an intrapersonal conflict that he dealt with throughout his life.  He held an  interest in science, but also, an interest in the metaphysical (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).       

Professional Accomplishments

        Fechner was very interested in sensation.  On October 22, 1850, Fechner was lying in bed and realized that a connection between the mind and the body could be made through a relationship between mental sensation and material stimulus.  By relating the body and mind to each other empirically, Fechner made it possible to conduct experiments on the mind.  This was a huge turning point in psychology at the time.  Fechner now had to decide how he would measure both stimulus and sensation.  Stimulus could be easily measured by physical intensity.  Fechner proposed two ways to measure sensations.  The first way was to determine if the stimulus is present at all and can be sensed, or if the stimulus is absent and can not be sensed.  The second way was through the absolute threshold.  The absolute threshold determined the point of sensitivity at which below, sensations can not be experienced.  However, above this point, sensations can be experienced (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  
        While this method was useful, it could only identify the lowest point of sensation.  Fechner needed to measure more levels of sensitivity and developed the differential threshold.  The differential threshold measures the point of sensitivity at which the smallest amount of change in a stimulus can be detected in a sensation.  This concept related back to Weber’s concept of just noticeable difference, which is the smallest difference that can be detected between two stimuli.  Due to the differential threshold, stimulus and sensation could be measured.  Fechner proposed a mathematical equation to measure the two: S = K log R.  In this equation, S is the sensation, K is a constant, and R is the stimulus.  Fechner later realized that the equation he derived for the measurement of stimulus and sensation had essentially come from what Weber’s work had already shown.  The significance of this equation was that it showed that psychological events could be tied to measurable physical events in a systematic way.  This had been thought to be impossible.  Fechner helped to make it known that psychology was in fact, a science (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  
        Fechner then moved on to do research in psychophysics.  Psychophysics is the relationship between the mental and material world (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  This area combined both parts of Fechner’s personality, letting his interest in science and his interest in the metaphysical work together.  Fechner’s research included three fundamental methods used in psychophysics today.  The method of average error consists of adjusting a variable stimulus until it is perceived to be equal with the constant stimulus.  The mean, or average, value of the differences represents the error.  This method is used often in psychology through calculating the mean (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  
        Fechner also worked on the method of constant stimuli and the method of limits.  His research in psychophysics lasted seven years.  One of his major lasting contributions to scientific psychology was his textbook, “Elements of Psychophysics” (1860).  Through his precise techniques of measurement, Fechner helped declare psychology a science.  He is often called the Father of Experimental Psychology.  However, Fechner did not set out to “found” a new school of thought.  He was interested in research, nothing more.  Therefore, he is not accredited with the founding of psychology.  The deliberate and intentional act of founding arrived 15 years after Fechner’s textbook was published and the honors were given to Wilhelm Wundt (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  
        Much later, Fechner’s work also had an impact on another famous psychologist by the name of Freud.  Fechner was interested in the unconscious.  He suggested that the unconscious was like an iceberg in that the greater part of the mind lay below the surface and is interacted upon by unseen forces.  This suggestion influenced Freud and the development of psychoanalysis.  Freud was also influenced by Fechner’s pleasure principle, and even enjoyed reading many of Fechner’s satirical essays under the pen name Mr. Mises (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).  Fechner’s impact on psychology did not end with his work, but continued to impact other significant psychologists in the years to come.
 

References
 
Kemerling, G.  (2001).  A dictionary of philosophical terms and names.
Reber, A.S.  (1995).  Dictionary of psychology (2nd ed).  New York, New York: Penguin 
     Books, Ltd.  
Rosenzweig, S.  (1987).  The final tribute of E.G. Boring to G. Fechner.  American
     Psychologist, 42, 
Schultz, D.P. , & Schultz S.E.  (2000).  A history in modern psychology (7th ed). 
     Orlando, Florida: Harcourt College Publishers.
 

 

 

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