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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Margaret Floy Washburn and the Motion of Thought.

Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) was the first American woman to receive a PhD in psychology (though not, as we learned from our time with Ladd-Franklin, the first to earn one), and was among the most significant psychologists of the early Twentieth century of any gender. Born in New York, a lack of friends during childhood left her much time to study and read by herself, placing her well in advance of her peers in school, and allowing her to graduate high school and enter college at the age of fifteen. Like many women of her era, her school of choice was Vassar, where she graduated in 1891. As she explained in her 1930 autobiographical essay,

At the end of my senior year I had two dominant intellectual interests, science and philosophy. They seemed to be combined in what I heard of the wonderful new science of experimental psychology. Learning of the psychological laboratory just established at Columbia by Dr. Cattell, who had come a year before from the fountain-head, the Leipzig laboratory, I determined to be his pupil, and my parents took a house in New York for the year.

James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944) had only just become the head of the psychology department in 1891. Cattell would grow to become a key figure in making psychology a respectable branch of science in the United States, particularly in the experimental form he had learned in Germany from Hermann Lotze at Göttingen and Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, but upon Washburn’s entry to Columbia he was just setting out on his life’s course, without any institutional preconceptions about restricting women’s entry into the university system.

Washburn studied with Cattell for one year as an auditor, since Columbia did not yet accept women as graduate students, before moving onto Cornell where America’s other great Wundt disciple, E.B. Titchener, was just starting out on his mission to bring introspective analysis to American psychological practice. Titchener took on Washburn as his graduate student (his first), as he would later do for Cecilia Parrish and Eleanor Gamble, and set her to work studying how visual imagery affects the mind’s perception of tactual distances, which was an extension of the work she had already begun with Cattell. In 1894, she received her PhD, and Titchener valued her findings so highly he sent her dissertation on to his mentor Wilhelm Wundt, who had it translated and published in 1895 in his prestigious journal Philosophische Studien.

For the next six years, Washburn taught at Wells College, where she was offered the position of Psychology Department chair for the reason that the university president desperately wanted to teach Greek and desperately did not want to teach psychology, and was therefore searching for somebody to take the responsibility from his shoulders. While at Wells, she began to find her own path as a psychologist, becoming interested in finding a new way between the hyper-refined analysis of Titchener and the stream of consciousness approach of William James. By 1900, however, Washburn was growing restless, and after brief stints at Cornell and the University of Cincinnati, she found herself in 1903 back at Vassar as a professor of philosophy, where she would remain until 1937.

It was at Vassar that she would perform the research that placed her squarely at the center of American Psychological life. Her most lasting contribution originated in an experiment she performed in 1905 on color perception in a brook fish. Its ability to distinguish between colors without the possession of a cortex fascinated her, and she set out to collect as much as she could in the literature on animal cognition and psychology. The result was her 1908 book The Animal Mind: A Textbook of Comparative Psychology, which was an exhaustive collection of all the work done to that point on animal psychology, boasting a bibliography of some 476 titles. The book ran into multiple editions (in which the bibliography would ultimately expand to 1683 titles), and was for decades the standard text in the field of comparative psychology, which took as its central thesis the idea that strict behaviorism, with its focus only on what could be observed externally (though that’s a characterization that would only be solidified in 1924 with John Watson’s book Behaviorism), was too limiting a concept when dealing with animal psychology. She argued that animals exhibited not qualitative, but rather simply quantitative, differences in their mental faculties, and must be judged as existing on a scale of reasoning and consciousness with humans, rather than alone in the separate sphere to which behaviorism had necessarily consigned them.

Washburn’s other great activity was the development of her motor theory of thought. As expressed in her paper “The Function of Incipient Motor Processes” (1914) and her subsequent book Movement and Mental Imagery (1916), Washburn conceived of consciousness as arising from a tension between conflicting movement impulses, and thought as originating in the body’s reaction to objects. For Washburn, thought doesn’t happen without motion, of some sort. Over the course of Movement, she gives several compelling examples of how this might be so - when you think of the sound of a word, it feels like your lips are on the verge of saying it, or when you pull to mind a visual image, it feels like your eyes are straining to track it. Washburn states that the appropriate motions associated with a sound or an image in fact are being made, just on a level that is not consciously noticeable.

So far, so plausible. I can’t think of an image of Superman zooming past my field of vision without also feeling my eyes trying to move in that direction, or my neck muscles twinging in anticipation of swiveling my head to catch another few final glimpses. When we head into the field of thoughts and reasoning patterns, Washburn heads into thornier terrain, maintaining still that even in its most abstract form, thought is movement. Everything we conceive comes from a stimulus we once experienced. Each stimulus, when received, is registered in unique and characteristic ways by an arsenal of motor responses throughout our body, from the obvious motion of the eyes, lips, and eardrums, to the subtle and unmeasurable movements of internal organs. Thinking, then, is a complicated symphony of movement resulting from our body combining the characteristic stored patterns of motion associated with each idea that forms the chain of thought.

Reading Movement today is an interesting exercise in personal befuddlement. There is a difficult line here between the “maybeness” that accompanies reading a lot of introspection-based psychology, and the fact that, with a few substitutions of terms, a great number of these ideas actually turned out to be… kinda true. The discovery of mirror neurons, and with them of our neural tendency to fire pathways associated with an action even when we are just watching that action, has, the more you think about it, something of a family resemblance to a number of the points Washburn makes throughout Movement about the unconscious encoding and replaying of experiences when bringing them to mind.

Though her book did not draw much attention upon first publication, by the time she wrote her memoirs in 1930 she was gratified to note that what she considered to be her most important contribution to psychology seemed to be gaining a second wind in the estimation of the psychological community.

In 1937, Washburn suffered a stroke that ended her career at Vassar, and just two years later she was dead. The first woman to receive a PhD in psychology was also the second woman to assume the presidency of the American Psychological Association (in 1921), the first woman elected to the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the guiding force behind the publication of sixty-eight undergraduate psychological papers, and the author herself of nearly 200 articles, Margaret Floy Washburn not only paved the way for women to enter psychology, but played a key role in bridging the gap between the warring philosophical and experimental branches of American academic psychology, an example we would do well to keep in focus still.


Movement and Mental Imagery is, I’m happy to say, readily orderable in reprint editions, and reading it makes for a fun game of, “Is this ridiculous, or is it brilliant?” which I still can’t satisfactorily answer. Washburn’s autobiographical notes are available free online from the University of Toronto’s Psychology Classics site, and is a great document not only for her life but for the state of psychological practice of her time. Finally, as expected, you can find brief accounts of her both in Women in Psychology: A Bio-Bibliographic Sourcebook and Scarborough and Furumoto’s Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists.

And for over 250 more stories of women in psychology and neuroscience, keep your eyes peeled in the Spring of 2024 for my A History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience from Pen & Sword Books!


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