The spark of the cognitive revolution

Monitor on Psychology has a fascinating article on Otto Selz, a little known pioneer of the cognitive revolution who was decades ahead of the rest of psychology, before being captured and killed by the Nazis.

He was so little known, in fact, that the majority of people have never heard of him. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything written about him, despite the fact he was a major influence on the key players who launched the concept of ‘mind as information processing metaphor’ in the 1950s.

Selz began to lay the foundation for cognitive research in a series of experiments he and his colleagues conducted from 1910 to 1915. They asked participants to explain their problem-solving thought processes out loud as they tried to complete a task, such as finding a word related to but more generic than “newspaper” or “farmer,” such as “publication” or “worker,” respectively. The participants would explain how they identified the features of those words, how the features fit into larger categories and how the categories led them to new words.

Based on these statements, Selz concluded that their minds were doing more than simply associating words and images they’d heard in conjunction before. To Selz, the participants were operating under what he called a “schema,” or an organizing mental principle, that guided their thoughts. Under this schema, the mind automatically orders relationships between ideas and can anticipate the connections among novel stimuli, serving as a basis for problem-solving. The existence of such an organized mental life would later become a cornerstone of the cognitive revolution.

Selz was actually captured twice by the Nazis. He was first sent to the Dachau concentration camp but was released after five weeks on the condition that he leave the country.

He went to Holland and continued working for two years but was captured again when the Nazi’s invaded. He died while been transported to Auschwitz.

The article has an incredibly poignant moment where it mentions “His last recorded correspondence was a postcard to his colleagues, telling them he planned to begin a lecture series for his fellow inmates.”

Link to APA Monitor article on Otto Selz.

4 thoughts on “The spark of the cognitive revolution”

  1. Very interesting and sad commentary on a life and career stunted and prematurely ended by prejudice and hatred. Had he been able to complete his studies, modern psychotherapy would doubtless be way ahead.

  2. Co-incidentally I’ve jsut finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl a psychotherapist who was also captured by the Nazi’s (But was lucky enought to survive). Makes you wonder how many great minds were lost during that time.

  3. “Makes you wonder how many great minds were lost during that time”
    Lost? psychiatrists ran a program called T4. “T4” is the code name for the project located at 4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin.
    Look it up.

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