Time Capsule

Many psychologists rightly credit the likes of George A. Miller, PhD, Noam Chomsky, PhD, and Allen Newell, PhD, with kick-starting cognitive sciences in the academic world. But few are aware that earlier psychologists laid its groundwork during behaviorism's heyday. And fewer still know that one of its more pre-eminent forebears, Otto Selz, PhD, was killed by the Nazi regime at the height of his career.

Selz, a Jewish German psychologist born in 1881 in Munich, studied philosophy at the influential University of Wurzburg in central Germany. At the time, German schools of psychology were experimenting with ways to examine introspection and conscious thought, and Selz became consumed with finding psychological answers to philosophical questions of consciousness.

Behaviorism—the reigning approach to experimental psychology of its day—couldn't bring much to the discussion. To most behaviorists, people operated by learning from previous associations. That couldn't explain what Selz and his colleagues saw as humans' very goal-directed and creative ways of problem solving.

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.

Finding no favor

But even as his work progressed, Selz rankled many of his peers. For example, he might have found allies in the burgeoning Gestalt psychology movement, which held that consciousness arose from the brain as a self-organizing property. Instead, Selz harshly criticized Gestalt psychologists for taking a top-down approach to understanding problem-solving and idea formation. Gestaltists argued that a medley of perceptions can self-organize to form a solution, but that the perceptions themselves are meaningless without the solution. Selz instead argued for a bottom-up approach that recognized that these perceptions are like building blocks that the mind gradually learns to put together to form solutions.

Building on that theory, Selz emphasized that the mind behaves like a biological system, adapting to meet the needs of its environment, not just following rote self-organizing principles as the Gestaltists would have it. As he wrote in his 1924 book, "The Laws of Cognitive Activity, Productive and Reproductive: A Condensed Version," "perhaps our era is witnessing the beginning of a 'biology of the inner.' Psychology thus enters the ranks of the biological sciences."

These rifts resulted in several academic enemies for Selz, among them the prominent German psychologists Narziss Ach and George Elias Mueller. Without allies among top-tier researchers, Selz had limited exposure to international psychologists, and his influence was mostly limited to his research program at the Mannheim Business School, where he began teaching in 1923. He eventually resigned himself to the fact that he wouldn't receive widespread credit for his ideas and instead focused on finding practical applications for his work, such as using it to better prepare students to learn and teachers to educate. He wrote to his friend and colleague Julius Bahle, "It is quite immaterial whether my work remains linked to my name; all that matters is that my lifework itself should survive."

But the rise of the Nazi party threatened both Selz's life and his work. In 1933, his position at the Mannheim Business School was terminated because he was Jewish. The Nazis forbade German researchers from citing work by Jewish colleagues. In 1938, in the days following Kristallnacht, Nazi authorities sent Selz to the Dachau concentration camp for five weeks. He was released under the condition that he leave the country.

He resumed his research in the Netherlands, where fellow psychologists and education researchers were receptive to his work on improving teaching and learning methods.

Gate to AuschwitzSelz's work on problem-solving was a natural fit for studying pedagogy and he began to devote his research to this area. Working with Dutch researchers, Selz sought to identify the specific cognitive skills that students used when performing a task, such as addition or subtraction, defining a word or comprehensive reading, and then to teach more advanced students to pass on those skills to struggling classmates.

But two years after his move, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Though his colleagues offered to hide him in safe houses in Amsterdam, Selz refused, arguing that the Iron Cross he earned in World War I would be enough to protect him.

That was not the case. In 1943, the Nazis again detained Selz and put him on a train to Auschwitz. He died during transport, either from exhaustion or sickness. His last recorded correspondence was a postcard to his colleagues, telling them he planned to begin a lecture series for his fellow inmates.

Cognitivism refound

A decade or so later, the emerging field of computer science reawakened interest in Selz's work. One of the most daunting problems for computer scientists was teaching computers to simulate human tasks. To do this, they first had to learn how humans solved problems, step by step. What better way to do this than by studying introspective reports by humans themselves? That's when early computer scientists turned to Selz's research to guide them, rediscovering his work and incorporating his methods and ideas into a new field they called artificial intelligence.

In 1956, George Miller, Noam Chomsky and the rest of the better-remembered cognitive revolutionaries convened at an MIT information sciences symposium. The discussions there among these early computer scientists and cognitive psychologists convinced them that they were all seeking answers to the same questions about the human thought process. That meeting spurred collaboration among heretofore disparate academic disciplines and resulted in cognitive theories of the mind becoming a powerful force in experimental psychology.

Though cognitivism has splintered into its own subdisciplines—neuroeconomics, cognitive linguistics, cognitive neuroscience and dozens more—it remains a powerful tool in understanding mental life.


  • van Strien, P.J., & Faas, E. (2003). How Otto Selz became a forerunner of the cognitive revolution. In Dalton, T.C., & Evans, R.B. (Eds.), The Life Cycle of Psychological Ideas (pp. 175–201). New York, Boston, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

  • ter Hark, M. (2010). The psychology of thinking before the cognitive revolution: Otto Selz on problems, schemas and creativity. History of Psychology, 13(1), 2–24.

  • Miller, G. (2003). The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7(3), 141–144. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00029-9.

  • Robinson, D. The cognitive revolution. Retrieved from University of Texas, College of Education website.