The Ancient History of Psychology

Generally, when talking about the history of psychology, we start in 1878 with Wilhelm Wundt’s lab in Leipzig, Germany. However, it is not an accurate starting point. Inquiries into the mind, behaviors, and even psychological testing have been around for a longer time.


Many Indian schools of thought have delved into the subject of the mind. Most dualist schools of thought consider it separate from the body. But more confusingly, the soul is considered something entirely different.

The body is a vessel, the mind is the part of the consciousness that interacts with the environment, and the soul is the eternal light that gives life to both these things. Advaitins or those who believe in the oneness of reality, go a step further and say nothing but this all-pervading light of consciousness really exists.

Apart from philosophy, there are texts in Yoga that describe practices on how to focus the mind and prevent distractions. Meditation, following routines, cleanliness, and prayer to God are among them.

Ayurveda describes various psychiatric illnesses and even had medications that were suggested by the Rishis of yore. Ayurveda describes three humors or doshas – Vata, associated with movement and governs breathing and the nervous system. Pitta is responsible for digestion, assimilation, metabolism, and intellect. Kapha governs the bones and muscles, and fluids in the body.

Though the brain is majorly under the Vata dosha, the other two components can cause changes too. This is quite strongly linked to the modern idea that the mind is a product of the brain. So too, in Ayurveda, the mind is said to emulate the constitution of the body. A person whose constitution or diet is high in Vata will have a highly active mind that can multitask.

But this also means they will be highly distracted. A Pitta-aggravated brain is sharp and intelligent. Aggravations of this dosha can cause bouts of anger and emotional outbursts. A Kapha brain typically has a good memory. Too much Kapha, however, can make the brain slow and lethargic.

Buddhism, too, talks in great detail about various psychological concepts like consciousness, perception, cognition, and emotion. Many concepts from this philosophy are incorporated in the modern branches of Psychology, such as humanistic psychology, and positive psychology, especially in areas such as mindfulness and personality development.


Though the ancient Egyptians thought the seat of the mind was the heart and not the brain, they did feel the brain was important enough to stuff into canopic jars after a person died. In the mummification process, the funerary priests paid much attention to the brain so the dead person could once again use it in the afterlife.

There have been discoveries of many papyri that describe the brain and speculate its functions. Some had incantations to ward off illnesses in this organ, while in some, even certain medical conditions and their surgical treatments are described.

In the Edwin Smith papyri, the various levels of consciousness are described – the perishing mind, the forgetful mind, the fleeing mind, the mind that goes away, and the mind that helps hear the spoken word.

The ancient Egyptians even broke down individuals into different parts – Khet was the physical body, Sah the spiritual body, Ren was identity, Ba was personality, Ka for vital essence, Ib was the heart, Shut the shadow, Sekhem was power, and finally, Akh was the combined spirits of all of these.


The philosophers of Ancient Greece frequently debated the concept of the mind. The word Psychology has its roots in the Greek language. “Psyche” is the ancient Greek word for the soul. Plato and Aristotle are world-famous names, but numerous other philosophers and polymaths of this ancient civilization also came up with theories and ideas about how a man thinks and acts.

In his book The Republic, Plato developed various ideas on how the mind works. He was a dualist and thus believed the body and mind were separate entities. He divided the mind itself into three – Logistikon, Thumos, and Epithumetikon. Logistikon, as the name suggests, is the seat of logic and reasoning. Thumos is the spiritual aspect; Theos is the Greek word indicating God.

And Epithumetikon is responsible for fundamental animal needs like desire and food. This tripartite theory is sometimes considered the inspiration for Sigmund Freud’s theory involving the id, ego, and superego.

Aristotle, though a student and mentee of Plato, differed significantly in his thought process. He was a monist; that is, he believed that the body and soul are one. Contrary to Plato’s belief that the soul continues to exist after the death of the body, Aristotle believed the soul represents the body’s ability to do things, and there is no soul without a body.

In his work, Para Psyche, he laid down the basic principles one should follow while studying the mind. He also elaborately described his theories on the basal drives of the mind. This is an early representation of Darwin’s ideologies behind the need to reproduce. Both Aristotle and Darwin believed that reproductive drives are linked to the want of achieving immortality.

Though Freud is universally credited for his word on the interpretation of dreams, in the 2nd century CE Artemidorus wrote his version of dream analysis in the book Oneirocritia.


Numerous physicians in Persia described and treated ‘diseases of the mind.’ Among them, two physicians stand out. Ahmed ibn Sahl al-Balkhi was the first to propose that there existed disorders common to both the body and the mind. It is one of the first mentions of psychosomatic disorders.

That is, a sick mind produces a sick body, or an unhealthy body can sicken the mind. Al-Balkhi emphasized the need to have a balanced body and ‘nafs’ or soul. He identified two types of depression, one with a physical cause and one with a psychological basis, and treated both differently.

The second significant contributor to psychology from medieval Persia is Abu Bakr Muhammad Zakariyya Razi. He is an important figure in modern medicine and was a polymath making contributions to several fields such as grammar, astronomy, logic, alchemy, medicine, and psychology. He set up the world’s first psych ward in his hospital and described and treated various mental illnesses.

Others like Ibn Sirin, Al-Kindi, and Al-Farabi developed theories on dream interpretation, music therapy, and social psychology. Ibn Tufail, another Persian, also proposed the ‘Tabula Rasa’ theory, which was popularised much later by John Locke, an English philosopher, physician, and Enlightenment thinker.

These are but some names of psychological theorists of the ancient world. There are rich works in Chinese that describe the mind and its illnesses. There are later French, English, and German scientists and philosophers who have made prominent contributions to psychology.

A study of these ancient ideas might seem futile as modern science seems to have many more answers, and by modern standards, the old ideas seem almost absurd. But a study of history shows us how little we have actually achieved on our own. Modern psychology is but a version, a currently accepted set of theories and principles, in the study of the intangible object that is the mind.

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