Notes from the Psychology Underground: Titchener’s Science of Introspection

Instrumentalism and Psychology

The field of science studies has increasingly brought into question the role of instruments in the production of knowledge. Works such as Shapin and Schaffer’s “Leviathan and the Air Pump” and Latour’s “Laboratory Life” question whether experimental instruments and technologies are concrete proof of the objectivity of scientific inquiry, or perhaps whether these instruments are actually creating the objects they purport to be studying.

Particularly in the field of psychology, whose scientific status has been hotly debated for nearly 100 years now, questions of objectivity vs. social construction are very pressing. One of the big questions being put to the field revolves around the nature of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). Is this catalogue of mental disorders simply a tool for standardizing diagnoses, or it is actively constructing the fluid idiosyncrasies of human nature into labels for mental illnesses complete with bullet-pointed lists of condemning symptoms?

Although a relatively recent invention, a careful examination of the evolution of the DSM from 1952 to today’s DSM-IV reveals some interesting clues about this instrument of psychological knowledge. One often-cited example is the inclusion of homosexuality as a type of mental disorder until 1974. Also of interest is the expanding number of diagnoses, with 106 diagnoses in the original DSM-I to 365 in the most current version. These textual clues offer insight about the evolution of psychological knowledge over time, as well as the recursive effects this instrument has on our knowledge.

The DSM has been the subject of much study and critical consideration, but it is not the first textual instrument of its kind. I would like to take a look at another psychological manual from the earliest days of scientific psychology: E.B. Titchener’s “Experimental Psychology: A Manual of Laboratory Practice”, published originally in 1901. This textual instrument, although definitely a dry technical manual, still yields a lot of interesting information about the dawn of scientific psychology.

E.B. Titchener and Wundt

E.B. Titchener Experimental psychology
E.B. Titchener

E.B. Titchener was trained in Wilhelm Wundt’s laboratory in Leipzig, generally recognized as the first lab for experimental psychology. He brought back many of Wundt’s experimental methods (themselves largely derived from the methods of physiology) to America, and translated several of his works into English for the first time. However, as Ash and Voodard are careful to emphasize in their book, “Psychology in Twentieth-Century Thought and Society”, Titchener was only a student of Wundt’s, not a follower. Titchener believed more strongly in the powers of the experimental method than Wundt, who saw strict limitations in experimentation’s ability to deal with higher order processes such as concept-formation and language.


Titchener expounded a structuralist theory of psychology, in which the phenomena of the mind could be broken down atomistically and described like a series of elements and their chemical reactions- or, as Wundt describes it, a “mere field of billiard balls”. Furthermore, Titchener believed that these mental elements could be described and categorized through experimentation. His series of instructive manuals describing experimental laboratory methods in psychology were a part of his work to standardize these methods.

Titchener’s structuralism did not gain much popularity, being squished, as it were, between the directly opposing theories of Behaviorist and Gestalt psychology. However, “Titchener’s Manuals” transcended theoretical dispute, and were essential textbooks for classes in experimental psychology for nearly 30 years. Interestingly, these manuals consisted of 4 books- student and instructor’s manuals for both Qualitative and Quantitative methods. Titchener was writing in the earliest days of scientific psychology, and particularly in America the teachers themselves were often new to the methods and concepts of experimental psychology. These texts clearly played a central role in the development of modern psychology.

IntrospectionOptalmotrope, Instruments for Visual Perception, Psychological experimental instrument

Although it seems that Titchener’s manuals were used in a purely instrumental way, they are not entirely devoid of theoretical content. In the first sentence of the Student manual on qualitative methods, Titchener says that “A psychological experiment consists of an introspection or a series of introspections made under standard conditions.” (xii). The issue of “introspection” was the center of much debate in the early days of psychology, with many considering it as a vague philosophical method lacking in the true rigor of the scientific method. However, Titchener firmly believed that introspection could done in a standardized, experimental setting, thus attaining new levels of accuracy and reproducibility. These manuals consist of a series of different types of experiments in areas such as “Visual sensation”, “The affective qualities” and “Visual space perception”, each meant to acquaint students not only with the design and execution of psychological experiments, but also to themselves undergo these experiments in order to gain a more refined introspective capability (in turn also refining the execution and design of experiments). According to Titchener’s method, psychological experiments are best done not with a random subject or set of subjects (as we typically use today), but with a highly trained introspective experimenter/observer. Titchener’s experimental method requires that the student be trained both as an Experimenter, and as an Experimental subject. Examine these prescriptive statements from the introduction to the student manual:

The student who acts as E [Experimenter] during the first part of a laboratory period has a certain advantage over his partner. When he comes to act as O [Observer], his introspection will, evidently, be guided to some extent by his knowledge of the instrument used, and of the outcome of his partner’s introspection. Hence it is advisable to alternate the functions of O and E.”

There are certain experiments in which it is necessary to let O write his own introspective record, while E attends wholly to the instruments and method…Wherever possible, however, O should dictate his introspections to E. In this way, O gains practice in the translation of mental processes into words ; E can put where he does not fully understand a statement. If O be left to write out his own report, he will probably use general terms and stock phrases, which are intelligible to him(because they are eked out by his memories), but which convey little psychological information to another reader. Whenever O is obscure or vague, E must question him, and hold him strictly to the definite and concrete.”

For the most part, the manual consists of simple stimulus/response experiments, similar to the experiments conducted by Wundt in his laboratory. However, Titchener goes beyond Wundt’s circumscribed use of these experiments by asking the “observer” to describe his phenomenal experience of the stimuli, and in the final section of the Qualitative manual even expands the use of experimentation to higher-order elements of consciousness, such as memory and association of ideas.

Going through the manual and trying to do the exercises, I realized that indeed even the simple exercises were in fact more complicated than they appear. In the case of optical illusions (pictured below), some of them were fairly easy to see, but others took several repeats and a careful reading of Titchener’s directions to even see the illusion.

Below are a series of exercises from Titchener’s manual: try to do the experiment, and then ask yourself the questions posed by Titchener. I think you will discover that perhaps “introspection” is not quite as easy as it sounds, nor your own perceptions as clear to you as they seem to be.

Optical Illusions:

Psychological Optical Illusion Titchener's Manuals

Fig. 29. — Hering’s Crosses.

(i.) Fixate the point a in A and B of Fig. 29. What is its position relatively to the plane of cd? Does its position remain fixed so long as fixation is steady?

Move the eye slowly along the line ab to b. Does the position of ab remain constant? Does that of cd remain constant?

Fixate a in C and D. What happens ? Does the position of cd remain the same ?

Fixate d. What happens? What of cd?

Fixate a and d successively in E and F. Is there any illusion? Is there anything special to be noted about it? What illusions are possible with G and H?

Difference Tones: Here the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness has reproduced a full account of Titchener’s experiment on Difference tones, complete with the actual tones (which are, of course, not contained in the original text): (I found the link to this from a fascinating paper by Eric Schwitzgebel titled “Introspective Training Apprehensively Defended: Reflections on Titchener’s Lab Manual”. The link to the paper is here:

Ideational Type

And finally, try your hand at this questionnaire which is meant to allow the Experimenter to categorize the Observers “ideational type”. This is one of the last exercises- and as the book is definitely cumulative, and so one has to imagine that in order for the Experimenter to give a successful account of the ideational type, he must have data from a very practiced Observer.

Questionary upon Ideational Type
Read the whole questionary twice through before you begin to write your answers.
1. Think of a bunch of white rose-buds, lying among fern leaves in a florist’s box.
(a) Are the colours — the creamy white, the green, the shiny white —quite distinct and natural? (b) Do you see the flowers in a good light? Is the image as bright as the objects would be if they lay on the table before you? (c) Are the flowers and leaves and box well-defined and clear-cut? Can you see the whole group of objects together, or is one part distinctly outlined while the others are blurred ? (d) Can you call up the scent of the rose-buds? Of the moist ferns? Of the damp paste-board? (e) Can you feel the softness of the rose petals ? The roughness of the ferns? The stiffness of the box? (f) Can you feel the coldness of the buds as you lay them against your cheek? (g) Can you feel the prick of a thorn ? Can you see the drop of blood welling-out upon your finger? Can you feel the smart and soreness of the wound? (i) Can you call up the taste of candied rose leaves ? Of candied violets ? Salt? Sugar? Lemon juice? Quinine?
2. Think of some person who is well known to you, but whom you have not seen for some little time.
(a) Can you see the features distinctly? The outline of the figure? The colours of the clothes? (b) Can you hear the person’s voice? Can you recognise your friends by their voices ? Can you call up the note of a musical instrument in its appro- priate clang-tint: piano, harp, organ, bassoon, flute, trumpet? Can you hear, in imagination, a note that is too high for you to sing? Think of the playing of an orchestra. Can you hear two different instruments playing together? More than two? Do the tones ring out in their natural loudness? Do they come to you from their natural places in the orchestra? (c) Can you hear, in memory, the beat of rain against the window panes ; the crack of a whip ; a church bell ; the hum of bees ; the clinking of tea- spoons in their saucers ; the slam of a door? (d) Can you see the person in familiar surroundings? Can you see more of these surroundings )e.g., a room) than could be taken in by any single glance of the eyes ? Can you mentally see more than three faces of a die, or more than one hemisphere of a globe, at the same instant of time? (e) Do you possess accurate mental pictures of places that you have visited ? Do you see the scenes and incidents described in novels and books of travel ? (f) Are numerals, dates, particular words or phrases, invariably associated in your mind with peculiar mental imagery (diagrams, colours) ? Are certain sounds always connected with certain colours? Have you any other constant associations from different sense-departments? Have you a special gift or liking for mental arithmetic or mechanics? Can you lay a plane through a cube in such a way that the exposed surface shall be a regular hexagon? Through an octahedron? Have you ever played chess blindfold? Explain fully how far your procedure in these cases depends on the use of visual images.
3. Think of the national anthem.
(a) Can you see the words printed ? Can you hear yourself say or sing them ? Can you hear a company singing them ? Can you feel yourself form- ing the words in your throat, and with your lips and tongue? Can you hear the organ playing the air? (b) Do you recall music easily? Do you make up tunes in your head when you are thinking steadily or in reverie? Does imagined music take any, considerable part in your mental life : i.e., do airs and motives and snatches of music play or sing themselves to you during the various occupations of the day? Have you an ‘absolute’ memory for music: i.e, can you identify a note that is struck upon the piano keyboard, or tell the pitch of a creaking door? (c) Partly open your mouth, and think of words that contain labials or den- tals : ‘bubble,’ ‘toddle,’ ‘putty,’ ‘ thumping.’ Is the word-image distinct ? Can you think of a number of soldiers marching, without there being any sympathetic movement or movement-feel in your own legs? Think of getting up from your seat to close the door. Can you feel all the movements? As intensively as if they were really made ? (d) Are you stirred and moved as you think of the words or music of the anthem ? Are you affected in this way at the theatre, or when reading novels ? Do you choke and cry (or feel like crying) as you read, e.g., of Colonel New- come’s death ? When you think of your childish terrors, or of your childhood’s injustices, do you feel over again the fear and resentment? (e) If you see an accident — the crushing of a limb or the catching of a finger in the door — do you yourself feel the blow and the bruise? Does the sight make you shiver, give you ‘ goose flesh ‘ ? Do you pant or hold your breath as you watch a difficult feat of climbing or trapeze-work? Can you, in general, call up organic sensations : hunger, thirst, fatigue, feverish ness, drows- iness, the stuffiness of a bad cold?
4. Arrange the following 20 experiences in groups, according to the clear- ness, vividness and distinctness with which you can remember or imagine them.
(a) A gloomy, clouded sky ; a sheet of yellow paper ; a black circle on a white ground. (b) The feel of velvet ; of dough ; of a crisp dead leaf. (c) The smell of tar ; of a fur coat ; of an oil-lamp just blown out. (d) The taste of chocolate ; of olives ; of pastry. (e) The warmth of a hot-water bag at your feet ; the cold of a piercing wind that cuts through your clothing. (f) Singing in the ear ; the buzz of an induction-coil vibrator ; the pre- liminary d of the violin. (g) Nausea ; tooth-ache ; pins and needles.
5. Give any supplementary information that occurs to you on the topics of this questionary. Do you recollect what your powers of visualising, etc., were in childhood? Have they varied much within your recollection? — What dif- ference do you find between a very vivid mental picture called up in the dark, and a real scene? Have you ever mistaken a mental image for a reality when in health and wide awake? — Are the characteristics of your mental imagery repeated in the other members of your family? — Have you a good command of your images ? Etc., etc.

Although by the end of these exercises, one definitely has a strong sense of the technicality and rigor of Titchener’s brand of introspection, a valid criticism of this method is that- like the DSM and other instruments for the production of knowledge- it may perhaps not simply be training you to better observe the world, but actively creating a new object of study. As the Gestalt psychologists would suggest, Titchener’s structuralist method seems to greatly exaggerate the atomistic character of experience, and is not actually true to our everyday experience, wherein we do not see things at all like the trained instrospectionist might see it.

But this danger is not particular to Titchener’s methods; there is a degree to which a scientific study of the human mind requires some necessary distortion and abstraction from “real” experience. And the instruments which we create to study the mind will always and inevitably have some effect on the mind itself. Given this, I think Titchener’s method of scientific introspection deserves some reconsideration within the context of current psychology- for it does not seem that simply abandoning the “subjective” and philosophically flavored terms such as Titchener uses, such as “consciousness” and “introspection” has or will ever make psychology a completely “objective” science, like physics or chemistry. 


Ash, Mitchell G., and William Ray Woodward. Psychology in Twentieth-century Thought and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.
Benjamin, Ludy T. A Brief History of Modern Psychology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007. Print.
Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Introspective Training Apprehensively Defended: Reflections on Titchener’s Lab Manual.” University of California Riverside, Feb. 2003. Web. <;.
Titchener, E. B. Experimental Psychology. A Manual of Laboratory Practice. Volume 1. Qualitative Experiments. Part 1. Students’ Manual. New York: MacMillan, 1901. Print.
Watson, Robert I., and Rand B. Evans. “Titchener and Structuralism: The Beginning of Experimental Psychology in America.” The Great Psychologists: A History of Psychological Thought. New York; N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.

5 thoughts on “Notes from the Psychology Underground: Titchener’s Science of Introspection

  1. Very clear writing. Informative. Introspection is a topic I consider very important not because it is successful or useful but because it concerns the issue of what we know and how we know.

    I’m a psychologist.

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