Gustav Fechner and the Sun

In April of 1801, Gustav Theodor Fechner was born in Gross-Särchen, Prussia– otherwise known as Southern Germany. His father, a Catholic priest much like his own father, began teaching him Latin as young as 5 years old, determined to make a scholar of him. Fechner’s father was a very strict man, who wanted to make sure that Fechner’s childhood was “focused.” Then, as is with every well adjusted small boy, his father died. From there, he moved with his mother and brother to his uncle’s home, where he lived until he was 16. In Leipzig, Germany, Fechner spent 5 years getting his MD.

Fechner decided not to practice medicine, though. He got a job working as a satirical newspaper columnist, under the pseudonym Dr. Mises. After two years, he started giving out public lectures to whoever wanted to listen.

Throughout his personal studies Fechner’s interests began to drift towards physics and mathematics, but hey– isn’t that everyone in their early twenties? He wrote a very successful and acclaimed paper on electricity which earned him an invitation to teach at Leipzig. He spent a lot of time translating physics and chemistry books from French into German. As far as his academic perspectives went, Fechner was a proponent of humanism over mechanism.

Mechanism, the popular viewpoint of the time, viewed humans more like machines than people. It dismissed the idea of free will, and suggested that we’re pretty much manipulated and guided by whatever happens around us. In researching this, I got dangerously close to remembering my one philosophy course I took, and one of the 50 discussions we had about free will. Thankfully, I can avoid all that and just say that Fechner was avant-garde in his time for suggesting that people were complex.

Fechner was interested– and I mean interested— in vision. If you want to get specific, he wanted to learn more about what are called “after images.” After images are what you get when you gently press on your eyelid, or if you look at a bright light and then look at a wall. It’s an imprint left on your sense of sight after it looks at something that’s a little too stimulating. If you were to look at a particular painting or something for too long, even that would over-stimulate your eyes enough to leave a “negative” version stuck to your vision for a few seconds. Now, of the examples I just mentioned, Fechner was especially into bright lights. Not just any bright light, though– because Fechner had access to the brightest light.

Fechner liked to stare at the sun. He really, really liked to stare at the sun. He became entranced with the knowledge one could unlock by studying their afterimages, and man did he make a lot of afterimages. He conducted an experiment where he put on some colored glasses and tried to gather different after images from the sun, but that one cooked his eyes so hard that he became incredibly sensitive to all lights. In the years that followed, Fechner had to lock himself in a room with no windows, and with everything from ceiling to floor painted black. He had to resign his professorship.

For some reason, Fechner was depressed. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep– every hour was a waking nightmare for Fechner. When laxatives and shock therapy didn’t fix his problems, he almost lost hope entirely. Thankfully a friend of his had an idea, and she told him that it had come a dream. She said he was to consume a feast of raw spiced ham, rhine wine, and lemon juice. Fechner, miserable and alone in his chamber of darkness, decided anything was better than crying in a pitch black room. He tried it, and claimed to feel better. Finally, Fechner was free to stare at the sun again.

For six more months Fechner was back on the wagon and rediscovered his love for afterimages. Day in and day out, Fechner just loved to roast his eyes. Pretty soon, Fechner found that his eyes actually refused to open! His body, somehow not onboard with this, told him “nah,” and tried to force his eyes shut automatically. Gustav Fechner, however, was not one to take “no” for an answer. After all, he’s not just a machine! He’s a human being! He has free will! So, after much consideration, Fechner drilled a little hole in his eyelids and just kept staring at the sun.

For whatever reason, Fechner got really sick and had to go back to his dark room. Depressed and blind once again, he was at a new low. Fortunately, he told a friend that he had a dream about the number 77. Now I don’t know about you, but when I dream about the number 77 I think “this definitely means something,” because Fechner gathered that this meant he would be cured in 77 days.

After 77 days, Fechner said he felt much better. His friends and personal journals said that he was not only cured of his depression, but in its place he had gained a heightened euphoria. Through this experience, Fechner developed the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle gathers that people avoid pain and seek pleasure. Now, you might think that’s an obvious truth, but we also thought people were machines and magnets could cure the crazy brains.

When Fechner finally returned to the university, he decided to teach philosophy, going back to his arguments against the status-quo of mechanism. In his free time, he began to research things like metaphysics, and concepts that he was free to explore in open thought, since his eyes were basically worthless.

Despite his unfettered love for blinding himself, Fechner was actually responsible for a lot of great developments in psychology. He developed the differential threshold, a mathematical formula that actually redefined psychology into an actual, quantifiable science. His work paved the way for psychologists like Freud to explain the unconscious mind. In many respects, he could be considered the “founder” of psychology, but he was always more interested in his research than the fame of claiming such a title. Strangely, his passionate studies about staring at the sun were never fully realized by the modern scientific community.

Fechner died on November 28, 1887. Today, most researchers agree that his strange and coincidental recoveries from blindness suggest that he was simply imagining his illnesses.


SOURCES: Bio 1, Brief Bio 2, Brief Bio 3, Full

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