His work was an attempt to prove the theory of reflexes and he founded what is known as the Behaviorist School of Psychology.
He fails; however, to take into account the whole situation as it appears to child, and to recognize the value or meaningfulness of a particular experience to a child. Moreover he denies and disregards the influence of unconscious impulses.
His classic experiments are so well known that a brief description here may be of interest to the lay reader.
He first observed that a sudden loud noise and a sudden loss of support were the only sure stimuli to produce a reaction of fear. He noted that they invariably resulted in a sudden catching of breath, marked changes in the heart beat and respiratory rhythm, crying and throwing upward of the hands.
He then arranged for the baby to be presented with a favorite toy or pet animal while simultaneously a steel bar was struck. Instantly the child was seen to stiffen, to catch its breath, cry and then crawl away.
After a few repetitions of this experiment, the infant reacted to the neutral object, the toy or animal, with fear as it would react to the loud noise, although no noise was actually made.
This is known as a conditioned emotional reaction. Similarly he proved that a child could be conditioned to fear, darkness, a flash of lightning, a furry animal and many other things.
He further went on to show that it was possible to recondition a child. The baby was given his dinner while at the same time a pet rabbit of whom the baby had been taught to be afraid, was disclosed at the far end of the room.
The next time the rabbit was brought a little nearer to what was called the “point of tolerance.” At the end of a few weeks the baby would allow the rabbit to sit on the table or even in its arms while his dinner was presented to him, and showed no outward sign of fear.
Gesell (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) has also done most important pioneer work, and his writings and findings are studied by every serious student of child psychology. He made detailed studies of infants and utilized for the purpose a careful laboratory method-a specially designed photographic dome made of one-way vision screening whereby the observer could observe and record movements and behaviour while remaining unobserved.
He made careful studies of all aspects of development, e.g. reaching, grasping, handling, hand preference, motor coordination and the like. He made records of vocalization and locomotion.
The result of many thousand observations on a great number of infants over many years produced the Gesell Developmental Scale, which is virtually the earliest form of a standardized intelligence test.
The norms of gross motor development, fine motor co-ordination, adaptive behaviour, language and personal social development were established for the normal child at each month of his life from birth up to three years and later.
His studies of twins are particularly valuable. His account of maturation and the effect of environment are most useful. His records of subnormal and supernormal children provide important clinical material.
Says mama, dada, or equivalent syllables, A+.
It is thus clear from this data that almost all children can hold their heads erect at six months, most children can turn their heads at the sound of a bell, and very few children can say definite syllables at this age.
This list gives a very detailed summary of the repertoire of a six- months-old baby. Gesell’s scale has been widely used, and is especially valuable in assessing developmental level in cases of adoption.
It is necessary to make some reference to the School of Gestalt Psychology, because it has had considerable influence on psychological thinking in general. The findings of this school have been fully discussed and explained by Professor Kafka.
The term “gestalt” means shape, form, or organization. The followers of this school are at pains to show that all our sensations, perceptions and inceptions are the result of organization. “What happens to a part of the whole is determined by inherent laws in the whole.”
The context, the associations, the links with other phenomena determines the nature of our sensations, perceptions and conceptions. Memory is not a mere entity or function, but the result and the determiner of organized processes. Traces are left behind which influence our way of behaving and thinking.
“This is a dynamic theory in which the processes organize themselves under the prevailing dynamic and constraining conditions.” This theory is especially important when applied to the perceptual field.
What we perceive is influenced by what is contiguous or contrasting to it, its distinctness and shape in relation to* other shapes, it segregation and separateness from other objects in the visual field.
All kinds of interesting experiments about the perception of shape, of points, of lines, of colour, and of sound have been undertaken. It was found that we tend to organize our perceptions to produce a meaningful shape. This is especially applicable to the infant’s development of perception and his way of learning about the world around him.
Learning is based on laws of organization inherent in the mind, and is essentially dynamic, not a mere mechanical linking of associations.
The method of successive comparison is outlined in some detail. This influences the learning process in that a person compares a particular perception with successive perceptions, and the preceding perception influences the present one. What has gone before influences the present, and a process of inter-relationship and inter-communication takes place.
The mind seeks always to organize its experiences into wholes, into meaningful unities. The whole process is essentially dynamic and active. The background, the context, the associations are of great importance and no behaviour must be considered sis an isolated unit.
A child who has an exciting experience after being exposed to a very dull and uneventful environment will be more strongly affected by the experience than if he was constantly enjoying it.
A child will react more strongly to a bright light in a dark room, than a bright light in a room full of light.
A child will not experience such intense fear if his mother is holding him when a peal of thunder is heard or a fierce dog barks.
Much of the Gestalt psychology is difficult and technical, and needs careful reading. The general principles are, however, very important.