What Is Biopsychology? (Brain and Behavior)

A biopsychologist studying brain scans
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Biopsychology is a branch of psychology that analyzes how the brain, neurotransmitters, and other aspects of our biology influence our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. This field of psychology is often referred to by a variety of names including biopsychology, physiological psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and psychobiology. Biopsychologists often look at how biological processes interact with emotions, cognitions, and other mental processes.

The field of biopsychology is related to several other areas, including comparative psychology and evolutionary psychology.

Brief History

While biopsychology might seem like a fairly recent development thanks to the introduction of advanced tools and technology for examining the brain, the roots of the field date back thousands of years to the time of the early philosophers. While we now consider the mind and brain synonymous, philosophers and psychologists long debated what was known as the mind/body problem. In other words, philosophers and other thinkers wondered what the relationship was between the mental world and the physical world.

Philosophers' Views

One important thing to remember is that it is only fairly recently in human history that people have come to understand the actual location of the mind. Aristotle, for example, taught that our thoughts and feelings arose from the heart.

Greek thinkers such as Hippocrates and later Plato suggested that the brain was where the mind resides and that it served as the source of all thought and action.

Later thinkers such as Rene Descartes and Leonardo da Vinci introduced theories about how the nervous system operated. While these early theories were later proven wrong, they did establish the important idea that external stimulation could lead to muscle responses.

It was Descartes who introduced the concept of the reflex, although later researchers demonstrated it was the spinal cord that played a critical role in these muscle responses.

The Link With Human Behavior

Researchers also became interested in understanding how different parts of the brain controlled human behavior. One early attempt at understanding this led to the development of a pseudoscience known as phrenology. According to this view, certain human faculties could be linked to bumps and indentations of the brain which could be felt on the surface of the skull.

While phrenology became quite popular, it was also soon dismissed by other scientists. However, the idea that certain parts of the brain were responsible for certain functions played an important role in the development of future brain research.

The famous case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who suffered a devastating brain injury, also had an influence on our understanding of how damage to certain parts of the brain could impact behavior and functioning.

Newer Research

Since those early influences, researchers have continued to make important discoveries about how the brain works and the biological underpinnings of behavior.

Research on evolution, the localization of brain function, neurons, and neurotransmitters have advanced our understanding about how biological processes impact thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

If you are interested in the field of biopsychology, then it is important to have an understanding of biological processes as well as basic anatomy and physiology. Three of the most important components to understand are the brain, the nervous system, and neurotransmitters.

The Brain and Nervous System

The central nervous system is composed of the brain and spinal cord. The outermost part of the brain is known as the cerebral cortex.

This portion of the brain is responsible for functioning in cognition, sensation, motor skills, and emotions.

The brain is comprised of four lobes:

  1. Frontal Lobe: This portion of the brain is involved in motor skills, higher lever cognition, and expressive language.
  2. Occipital Lobe: This portion of the brain is involved in interpreting visual stimuli and information.
  3. Parietal Lobe: This portion of the brain is involved in the processing of tactile sensory information such as pressure, touch, and pain as well as several other functions.
  4. Temporal Lobe: This portion of the brain is involved in the interpretation of the sounds and language we hear, memory processing, as well as other functions.

Another important part of the nervous system is the peripheral nervous system, which is divided into two parts:

  • The motor (efferent) division connecting the central nervous system to the muscles and glands.
  • The sensory (afferent) division carries all types of sensory information to the central nervous system.

There is another component of the nervous system known as the autonomic nervous system, which regulates automatic processes such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system:

  • The sympathetic nervous system, which controls the "fight or flight" response. This reflex prepares the body to respond to danger in the environment.
  • The parasympathetic nervous system works to bring your body back to a state of rest and regulates processes such as digestion.   

Neurotransmitters

Also important in the field of biopsychology are the actions of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters carry information between neurons and enable chemical messages to be sent from one part of the body to the brain, and vice versa.

There are a variety of neurotransmitters that affect the body in different ways. For example, the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in movement and learning. Excessive amounts of dopamine have been associated with psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, while too little dopamine is associated with Parkinson’s disease. A biopsychologist might study the various neurotransmitters to determine their effects on human behavior.

Career Opportunities in Biopsychology

If you are interested in a career in the area of biopsychology, then you have quite a few different options. Some who enter this type of field choose to work in research where they might work at a university, drug company, government agency, or other industry. Others choose to work with patients to help those who have experienced some type of brain damage or disease that has had an impact on their behavior and functioning.

The following are just a few of the career specializations that that are related to biopsychology:

  • Comparative Psychologist: Looks at the behaviors of different species and compares them to each other and to humans.
  • Evolutionary Psychologist: Examines the evolutionary bases of behavior.
  • Behavioral Neuroscientist: Analyzes how the brain, nervous system, and other organs impact behavior.
  • Neurologist: Treats patients with damage or disease that affects the brain and nervous system.
  • Cognitive Neuroscientist: Investigate brain activity and scans to research how people think, learn, and solve problems.

A Word From Verywell

Biopsychology represents one of the important ways of thinking about psychology. This perspective in psychology has allowed researchers to gain a greater understanding of how the brain and nervous system influence human behavior.

By studying normal brain functioning as well as how brain disease and injury influence behaviors, feelings, and thoughts, researchers are able to come up with new ways of treating potential problems that might arise.

Sources:

Kalat, JW. Biological Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2013.

Klein, SB & Thorne, BM. Biological Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers; 2007.

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