The Writer As Psychohistorian

Why did they do that? What did they go through and how did it cause them to feel? What, exactly happened and how did it affect the person who was involved?

Those questions are part of the reason why psychohistory has become an important and vital scientific form of inquiry. This form of inquiry allows psychological study of people’s actions throughout history. The questioners ask: “What was the psychological and historical motivation of those who were involved?”

The process of Psychohistory combinines the traditions and methods of both psychology and history in order to find out.

The psychological investigation of historical events and periods that are horrific and traumatic is not of the faint of heart or for the weak of spirit. A common thread that runs throughout the literature on psychohistory is that it is almost constantly called a discomforting or a disturbing process. It is a process that deals with some of the most horrific events in history and involves a full immersion approach in order to determine the motivations, feelings, and other emotional and mental factors that went into living and being an actor during those events, either as the instigator, as the witness or as the participant.

The term “Psychohistory” is attributed to Robert James Lifton, who spent eighteen years studying major events in history from a psychological perspective. His most important work involved interviewing veterans in order to collect the anecdotal rememberings of the horrific experience and trials of Vietnam Veterans and to examine them from a psychological and historical perspective.

After interviewing prisoners in the Gulags of the Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn joined the brotherhood of founding psychohistorians when he published his findings in his ground breaking novel, “The Gulag Archipelago”.

In her excellent treatment of the subject, Lynne Williams-Keeler, MA uses the description “The Terrible Beauty of the Confluence of History and Psychology” to summarize the suffering that psychohistory investigates, as well as the “purification of the character through the absorption of illuminating suffering” She cites Dostoyevsky’s treatment of his literary characters as they go through this process.

Characters in literature who serve as psychohistorians can be described as explorers and heroes who are delving into the worst experiences of humankind. The stories tell of the process of gaining understanding through their own suffering as they immerse themselves in the details of the events, then achieving the reward of understanding.

In a bizarre twist, Isaac Asimov is credited with a major fictional “Invention” of Psycho history as a form of mathematical science, where mathematics could be refined to predict the future of humanity based on data gleaned from very large populations. This non existent “mathematical language” was the basis of Asimov’s “Foundation” Trilogy, a fictional and futuristic psychohistory.


Lynne Williams-Keeler, MA “The Terrible Beauty of the Confluence of History and Psychology”

Karmen Anev “The Basics of Illustrating Asimov’s Psychohistory For Artistic Purposes”