Edwin Boring

“Mr. Psychology”

Edwin Garrigues (Gary) Boring (October 23, 1886 – July 1, 1968) was an American experimental psychologist, Professor of Psychology at Clark University, and at Harvard University. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a Quaker family interested in science. Boring studied engineering and psychology at Cornell University, receiving his Ph.D. in the latter in 1914.

He had started out, at Cornell, on an engineering track and took an elementary psychology class under the professorship of Edward B. Titchener[1]. On one test Boring received back, Titchener had written “You have the psychological point of view!” He always pointed to this as his trigger. He decided to do his thesis on visceral sensibility. He conducted the study by placing a stomach tube in his own stomach to learn more about the sensations of the alimentary tract.

The results indicated that the stomach and esophagus were more sensitive to temperature and pressure than had been realized. The studies indicate his interest, from an early age, in the physical and experimental components of psychology. In 1914, Boring’s efforts were rewarded when he received his Ph.D. Then Boring and his wife, Lucy M. Day, joined Titchener’s lab group and became part of Titchener’s selective in-group, and spent several years working on his research projects. Redesigning the psychology course there sparked Boring’s interest in writing a history book.

Boring was not drafted into World War I due to the birth of his first son. Robert M. Yerkes[2] asked him to join in the development of intelligence testing. In 1920 Boring took a position at Harvard because he felt he had a mission to “rescue Harvard psychology from the philosophers”. Just before taking that job, he was offered by Clark University a job as professor of experimental psychology for three years with the promise that if his work was satisfactory, his position would be made permanent.

He enjoyed his work at Clark until the new president there wanted to replace psychology with geography. Soon he would take his next offer at Harvard. He was injured in an automobile accident, fractured his skull, and spent 6 weeks in the hospital.

The blow to his head caused temporary retroactive and progressive amnesia. The experience caused Boring to question what it means to be conscious. If a person could not recall what the person had said moments afterward, could he really be considered conscious? Such questions become a lifelong endeavor for Boring to try to answer. He recovered and became laboratory director in 1924 and remained in that position until he retired in 1949

Books by Boring
  • A History of Experimental Psychology (1929)
  • The Physical Dimensions of Consciousness (1933)
  • Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology (1942)
  • Introduction to Psychology (1938)
  • Sensation and perception in the history of experimental psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. (1942)
  • Psychology for the Fighting Man (1943)
  • Psychology for the Armed Services (1945)
  • Foundations of Psychology (1948, with Herbert Langfeld and Harry Weld)
  • A History of Experimental Psychology (1950) (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Psychologist at Large: an Autobiography and Selected Essays (1961)
  • History, Psychology, and Science: Selected Papers (1963)
  • History of Psychology in Autobiography (1967)
Some of Boring’s Work
  • Figure-ground phenomena research – Later in his career Boring became interested in the perceptual ambiguity of figure-ground phenomena. He discussed cartoonist W. E. Hill’s “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” in a 1930 journal article, explaining that this illustration was an accurate representation of the phenomena because the two different images are interpenetrating one another with no formal dividing line. He contrasted this image to Edgar Rubin’s Rubin vase figure, where he felt that there is an obvious dividing line between the human profiles and goblets. This description made Hill’s young-woman/old-woman puzzle famous and earned it the title of the “Boring figure”.
  • Tonal brightness research – In 1936, with graduate student, Stanley Smith Stevens, published their research on tonal brightness. At the time it was known that tonal brightness varied with pitch; and, based on previous research, it was believed that high tones are bright and low tones are dull. The question that Stevens and Boring researched was concerning the bright and dull tones that could be produced with a siren when the holes were appropriately spaced, hypothesizing that brightness varies with both the intensity and the frequency of the pitch. Boring suggested that they embrace the new technology and conduct the experiment with a cathode-ray oscilloscope and a wave-analyzer. They concluded through this study that tonal brightness is essentially the same as tonal density.
  • Moon illusion research -One of Boring’s best-known projects is his 1940 study of the moon illusion. Boring and fellow researcher A. H. Holway hypothesized that the moon appears larger on the horizon because the eyes view it directly at a leveled position, while the moon overhead appears smaller because the eyes must look up. They tested this experimentally and found that for an observer whose eyes were kept in a fixed position while a circle representing the moon moved up (through the use of a pulley system), the moon appeared to increase in size. This illusion did not occur when participants were lying down while viewing the moon, and they also found some evidence of it not occurring when viewing the moon with only one eye. These results led the researchers to conclude that the illusion of moon shrinkage depends on the movement of the eyes in the head, not the movement of the actual head and that it depends on binocular vision, that is, the use of both eyes together. This study exemplifies Boring’s interest in misperceptions of sensory experience.

  1. Edward Bradford Titchener (January 11, 1867 – August 3, 1927) was an English psychologist who studied under Wilhelm Wundt for several years. Titchener is best known for creating his version of psychology that described the structure of the mind: structuralism. After becoming a professor at Cornell University, he created the largest doctoral program at that time in the United States. His first graduate student, Margaret Floy Washburn, became the first woman to be granted a Ph.D. in psychology (1894).
  2. Robert Mearns Yerkes (May 26, 1876 – February 3, 1956) was an American psychologist, ethologist, eugenicist, and primatologist best known for his work in intelligence testing and in the field of comparative psychology. Yerkes was a pioneer in the study both of human and primate intelligence and the social behavior of gorillas and chimpanzees.


Harvard University
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Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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