Psychology and the Brain


Biological Psychology, also known as Behavioural Neuroscience looks at the relationship the brain has with the mind, consciousness and behaviour and their integration. The human brain has been the centre of fascination since 1955, when physicist Albert Einstein died leaving his preserved brain to science. Upon an initial investigation scientists observed he had a average sized brain, nothing special there, however the localized regions responsible for the manipulation of visual imagery (Einstein’s speciality) proved to have identifiable differences in its structure.

Another famous case of exploring biological psychology is portrayed in the study of a railroad construction worker named Phineas Gage, he was involved in an accidental explosion that sent a rod flying through his skull, and shockingly he survived! Gage recovered and went back to work, however his co-workers noticed a change in his personality and behaviour, for where there once stood a moral, upstanding citizen of the community, now stood an angry, aggressive man who constantly snapped at co-workers and had a negative attitude in all aspects of his life. A complete change of character had occurred.

The main link between the body and mind is the nervous system, it processes and transmits information throughout the whole body via neurons (cells found within the nervous system), and their associated chemicals. So, how do doctors and psychologists examine the brain? Decades ago scientists would stimulate particular regions of the brain using small electrodes to see how the brain works, for example by locating the motor areas that help us move our limbs. In our modern era doctors and psychologists use non-invasive methods of investigation using tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to see the parts of the brain responsible for particular behaviour, for example, the rate of blood flow is measured, and the active parts of the brain are highlighted, while the patient lies in the FMRI machine, a map of the brain is observed to diagnose the problem.

Biological Psychologists study cases of mental processes and behaviourism, ranging from genetic diseases, such as Huntingdon’s, to epilepsy, to patients with brain damage caused by an accident, such as in the case of Phineas Gage. Psychologists will investigate things like perception, motivation, learning and memory.

Famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud, used psychoanalysis as a method of studying the mind. Sigmund Freud’s speciality was bringing suppressed fears to his patient’s consciousness and discussing them, Freud is also famous for his studies on hysteria (melodramatic emotion person), and recalling suppressed memories of his patient’s. Although psychoanalysis offered therapy to help relieve or cure a lot of problems, their findings were often inconsistent and led to doubt.

Behaviourists regarded the brain to be an input/output processor, stimuli from the environment entered the senses and out came the behaviour, behaviourists tended to ignore anything that could not be observed or measured. In the late 1960’s when computers were becoming more common, scientists moved into cognitive psychology, investigating internal mental processes such as decision-making, language and thinking.

In the 1950’s Canadian neurologist Wilder Penfield investigated the brain physically by placing electrodes on the temporal cortex to ‘map the brain’, Penfield’s experiments involved retrieving memories of events long forgotten by his patients by stimulating the sides of the brain with the electrodes, Penfield pinpointed the areas of long-term memory in the brain. In the last few decades more and more scientists have turned to computers to understand the brain, with computers now knowing how we think and detecting when we are lying to artificial computers who ‘think’ like humans.

Biology and psychology of the brain has also been investigating chemical imbalance of the brain, naturally or through drugs, many scientists search for the mechanisms that make specific cells synchronise to lift a human to altered states/ levels of consciousness (Antonio Damasio, 1999). Brain cells – neurons – fire signals constantly, so we automatically drive cars, take bus journeys with (sometimes) no recollection of the actual journey. The brain fascinates scientists and psychologists alike, even today in a modern era we only use a very small percentage of the brain, the rest lies in dark matter, untouched and undiscovered.

The biological brain will continue to baffle scientists in the future, biological psychology however is becoming a recognised science in understanding the brain mechanisms and the behaviour of individuals.