Nine Serendipitous Discoveries in Psychology

Some discoveries in psychology are the product of serendipity. Also, of open minds capable of making great and unexpected discoveries.
Nine Serendipitous Discoveries in Psychology

Last update: 17 May, 2022

Serendipities or findings that arise by chance are a constant in the world of science and technology. They’re eureka moments that aren’t the product of magic, but perseverance. Chance discoveries in psychology aren’t as well known as those in the world of medicine or chemistry, but they do exist.

In the scientific field, advances such as penicillin, the Prussian blue pigment, Teflon, X-rays, or aspirin didn’t appear due to good luck. They were the result of open minds. Minds that were capable of appreciating all possible solutions to a problem, even if they seemed most unlikely at the time.

Psychological serendipities are the fantastic combination of chance with flexible mental approaches that are open to innovation. Also curiosity. Let’s take a look at eleven theories and concepts in psychology that emerged as a result of chance.

“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

-Albert Szent-Györgi-

Woman shocked by chance discoveries in psychology

Serendipitous discoveries in psychology

The term serendipity was first coined by the British writer Horace Walpole in 1754. It comes from a Persian story, The Three Princes of Serendip, whose protagonists were always making discoveries by accident or chance.

Serendipitous discoveries in the field of psychology (as well as science in general) have been a common occurrence throughout history. Indeed, some wonder how many discoveries we may have missed because researchers failed to appreciate or account for these unexpected variables.

Anyway, in this article, we’re going to pay tribute to nine of those serendipitous discoveries in psychology that perhaps not everyone knows about. Here they are.

1. Pavlov’s classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning is an essential part of the behavioral sciences. It’s thanks to his contribution that we understand the bases of associative learning. However, it’s interesting to know that this famous physiologist was actually interested in understanding the processes of digestion. In particular, the tendency of dogs to salivate when presented with food.

Suddenly, something happened that led Pavlov to develop the theory of the conditioned response in psychology. The dogs began to salivate just by seeing their laboratory assistants enter, whether or not they brought food with them.

This made it easier for him to enunciate the learning process by which an organism associates a conditioned stimulus (CS) and an unconditioned stimulus (US), the CS being capable of evoking a conditioned response (CR).

Many of the serendipitous discoveries in psychology have occurred in the field of research in neuroscience or physiology.

2. Psychopharmaceuticals and LSD

Tricyclic antidepressants were drugs that were initially used to treat tuberculosis. However, over time, their benefit in improving mood was seen. This was an advance in addressing the treatment of depressive disorders.

In the 1940s, the Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, was working for the pharmaceutical company Sandoz. He was trying to stabilize lysergic acid, a derivative of ergotamine (a component of a fungus) which was used to treat migraines. As a result of this investigation, he accidentally found lysergic acid diethylamide -25 (LSD).

3. The way the brain processes visual information

David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in 1981 for a chance and serendipitous find. They were trying to understand how the receptive fields of neurons in the visual cortex work.

Until then, it was conceived that this area of the visual brain was made up of a structure of thousands of cells that worked together to reconstruct everything that the eyes captured. However, after several tests, chance intervened and these two scientists discovered that this wasn’t the case. In fact, they found that there are selective cells that are activated only according to certain stimuli.

4. The right ear in dichotic listening

Within cognitive psychology and neuroscience, dichotic listening is an important phenomenon. It facilitates attention processes and is a procedure commonly used to investigate selective attention in the auditory system. In general, people always have a certain advantage in hearing with the right ear compared to the left ear.

This is one of the best-known serendipitous discoveries in psychology. The discovery was made by Dr. Doreen Kimura and her research was published in 1964.

5. Orientation depends on the hippocampus

The hippocampus is part of the limbic system and is an essential region in processes such as learning, memory, and emotional regulation. Also, special orientation.

John O’Keefe is a neuroscientist, psychologist, and Nobel Prize winner. He discovered that the hippocampus also facilitates orientation processes. This was a chance finding while he was investigating memory processes in animals.

6. The McGurk Effect

Sometimes, when you can’t hear someone well, you look at their mouth. However, in this lip-reading process, you make small mistakes.

The McGurk effect tells us that when someone pronounces the syllable ‘ga’ what we understand is ‘da’ due to an error in the brain when trying to decipher speech through sight.

This was another one of those serendipitous discoveries in psychology in the 1970s. It was cognitive psychologists Harry McGurk and John MacDonald who were responsible.

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” 

-Alexander Fleming-

7. The Thatcher illusion phenomenon

The Thatcher illusion is an extremely curious optical effect. It occurs when you modify the image of a person by turning it upside down. Sometimes, your brain doesn’t really know what’s going on. it perceives that there’s some kind of anomaly, but it can’t clarify exactly what it’s seeing.

Dr. Peter Thompson was responsible for this discovery. He published research on his unexpected findings in 1980. Another serendipitous discovery in psychology.

8. Mirror neurons

The discovery of mirror neurons by the neurobiologist, Giacomo Rizzolatti, was also down to serendipity. While analyzing the brain activity of a macaque linked to the grasping act, he was able to see that certain neurons in the animal were activated just by looking at the experimenter.

The act of looking later allowed the animal to imitate and learn from humans. This kind of process is mediated by mirror neurons, which were unheard of up until that time.

9. Repetition blindness

Another serendipitous discovery in psychology concerns repetition blindness. It arises when the brain can no longer recognize a visual element (images and words) to which it’s been exposed many times. For instance, when you repeat a word many times and in the end it stops making any sense.

This phenomenon was a chance discovery that Nancy Kanwisher made in an investigation in 1987.

These types of historical facts are a constant in any area of knowledge. However, they’re especially prevalent in scientific disciplines as they tend to be developed on the experimental plane. Chance and the unexpected form part of our lives. It’s important to know how to take advantage of these random events.

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  • Kimura, Doreen. (1967). Functional Asymmetry of the Brain in Dichotic Listening. Cortex. 3. 10.1016/S0010-9452(67)80010-8.
  • MCGURK, H., MACDONALD, J. Hearing lips and seeing voices. Nature 264, 746–748 (1976). https://doi.org/10.1038/264746a0
  • Thompson, P. (1980). Margaret Thatcher: A New Illusion. Perception, 9(4), 483–484. https://doi.org/10.1068/p090483