Neuroscience and Physiological Psychology

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According to From Learning and Memory: From Brain to Behavior, Neuroscience (also know as 'neurobiology') is defined as the study of the brain and nervous system. It can be said that neuroscience is both a branch of biology, as well as a part of the biological school of thought as it pertains to psychology. The field of neuroscience encompasses many different areas of analytical study, including chemistry, medicine, and general philosophy as well as general psychology.

Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists focus on the biological aspects of the brain, as opposed to focusing on the behavioral, cognitive or psychoanalytic components of a person's personality like most psychologists. Neuroscientists focus on the physiological parts of the brain that give reasons, rooted in science, for a person's behavior--abnormal or otherwise. Technology and techniques have expanded on this field greatly, allowing researchers to study the brain at a cellular and even molecular level. Microscopic imaging allows scientists to see individual nerve cells to better grasp the way information travels into the brain and how it is processed there.


It can be said that the study of the human brain goes back to the Ancient Sumerians. They discovered the psychological benefits of plants like the poppy around 4000 BCE. Written in the Sumerian language of Cuneiform, ancient tablets describing how to dilute specific medicines have been discovered in modern day Iraq. The earliest surviving written record of the brain was discovered recently and dated to 1700 BCE. One of the most eminent natural philosophers of ancient times, Alcomaion of Cortona, conducted dissections of the sensory nervous system and the optic nerve.

During the times of the ancient Greeks, great human observers such as Hippocrates recognized what was thought to be epilepsy as 'a disturbance of the mind' and acknowledged the importance of the brain as the seat of intelligence in the human body. Plato agreed with this theory and often taught that the brain was the source of all mental processes. Not all of the great ancient philosophers had it right. Aristotle believed that the heart was the seat of all mental processes, even though he extensively hypothesized and dictated his thoughts on sleep and dreams. Also of this mindset, Herophilus (the 'Father of Anatomy') believed that the ventricles that carried blood in and out of the heart were the controller of the human body.

During the large period between 0 A.D. and the 16th century, many important discoveries regarding the human brain were uncovered. Spinal nerves, the optical chiasm, and the tenth cranial nerve were all identified. St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital was appropriated to only treating the mentally ill and the first long-term mental institution was opened in Valencia, Spain.

After the 16th Century, things really began to pick up in the field of psychological research. Great afflictions such as meningitis and stroke were identified, researched and diagnosed in the general population for the first time. Researchers were finally beginning to under how tiny structures in the ear and eye worked. In 1749, the word 'psychology' was coined by David Hartley. Areas of the brain were discovered and the purposes were recorded, such as the regulation of respiratory function contained in the medulla and the role of the cerebellum in equilibrium.


The American Psychological association was founded in 1837 (ten years before the American Medical Association). Charles Darwin published his earth-shattering theories in 1872. This all led up to the major research discoveries of the 20th century, including the works of Freud, Skinner, Pavlov, Zimbardo, Crushin and the introduction of Dexedrine, Chlorpromazine, and Fluoxetine to the United States prescription drug market. Thus, the major therapeutic and psychopharmacological industry we know today was born.

Advancement in Technology

"Just as we have anti-depressants today to elevate mood, tomorrow we can expect a kind of Botox for the brain to smooth out wrinkled temperaments, to turn shy people into extroverts, or to bestow a sense of humor on a born grouch. But what price will human nature pay for these nonhuman artifices?" - William Safire

Imaging Equipment: The betterment of imaging equipment has expanded the field of neuropsychology and neuroscience greatly. Tools such as comprehensive MRIs, fMRIs, PET scans, and CT scans have greatly increased scientist understanding of the human brain.
...............MRI Brain Scan................................fMRI Brain Scan...................................PET Brain Scan....................................CT Brain Scan................
MRIofBrainSS2.jpg FMRIof BrainSS.jpg PETScanofBrainSS.jpg CTof BrainSS.jpg

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: This non-invasive method of treating neurological problems (migraines, strokes, depression, etc.) causes the depolarization of the neurons located in the patient's brain. Using weak magnetic currents and minimal pain, doctors 'reorganize' a person's brain at the molecular level, leaving them feeling refreshed.

Careers in Neuroscience

Forgoing medical school, an individual with a degree in Neuroscience and it's sub-fields (neuroanatomny, neurobiology, neurochemistry, neuropathology, neuropharmacology, etc.) can expect to spend a lot of time conducting research and experiments. Many of the jobs in this field lie with research institutions like universities or with pharmaceutical companies. Some of these careers in neuroscience include:
Neuroscientist, Neuroanatomist, neurobiologist, neurochemist, neurological surgeon, neurologist, neuropharmacologist, neurophysiologist, neuroradiologist, psychobiologist, psychiatrist, neuroscience nurse, psychophysicist, and electroneurodiagnostic technician,

Links to Professional Peer-Reviewed Publications

The Magic of Encounter: The Person-Centered Approach and the Neurosciences

Social Neuroscience: The Footprints of Phineas Gage

Empathy and Other Mysteries

Can Neuroscience Advance Social Psychological Theory? Social Neuroscience for the Behavioral Social Psychologist

Additional Articles Related to Neuroscience

Time Magazine: The New Map of the Brain

Psychology Today: Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll: Problems in Neuroscience Reporting

Scienctific American Mind: Me, Myself and My Stranger: Understanding the Neuroscience of Selfhood

Newsweek: Can You Build a Better Brain?

Physiological Psychology


Physiological psychology is a sub-field of neuroscience. Researchers in this field study the brain and how it's manipulation effects the behavior and/or motor movements of the subject and the human consciousness. Human consciousness being the fact that humans are aware of and can tell others about thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and memories. Most early information gained on this subject was collected by observing victims of head injuries. By observing these individuals varying handicaps, researchers learned a great deal about what portions of the brain affect the person as a whole. Modern technologies, such as MRIs and PET scans help researchers with mapping of the brain.

While the research uncovered serves no immediate practical purpose, it is useful for developing theories that are applicable in most other field of psychology. These theories often fill in the missing links concerning brain-behavior relationships.


Between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. the Greeks and Romans identified many psychological disorders such as melancholia, mania, dementia, hysteria, delusions, and hallucinations. Hippocrates believed that abnormality and physiological disorders stemmed from internal physical problems and an unbalance of the four humors:

  • Black bile = melancholia
  • Yellow bile = mania
  • Blood & phlegm

Hippocrates suggested treatment in an attempt to "rebalance" the four humors.

A good starting point in the history of physiological psychology begins with Rene Descartes' (1596-1650) theories regarding the roles of the mind and the brain in control of behavior. Descartes was a duelist, believing each person posses a mind. The mind being a unique human attribute that is not subject to the laws of the universe. This differed from his view of animals which he saw animals as machines with their behavior being controlled by environmental stimuli. Descartes was the first to suggest a link between the human mind and the brain which served as the mind's physical housing. Descartes suggested the brain consists of hollow chambers (ventricles) that are filled with fluid under pressure. According to him, when the mind decides to perform an action, the brain tilts the pineal body in a certain direction causing fluid to flow from the brain to the proper set of nerves. The fluid flow then causes the same muscles to move and inflate.

Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) was another pioneer in physiological psychology. He would remove parts of animals' brains and observe their behavior. His method is referred to as experimental abolition. Flourens other methods included the faradic and galvanic stimulation (steady or pulsed electrical) of the brain of animals and humans and clinical studies where he studied patients with neurological or mental deficits, after death, in an attempt to correlate them with detectable alterations in the brain tissue.

Paul Broca (1824-1880) applied the experimental ablation principle to the human brain. Broca observed the behavior of people who suffered brain damage by strokes. He performed an autopsy in 1861 on a man's brain who had suffered from a stroke and resulted in the loss of ability to speak. The part of the brain that he discovered had been damaged later became known as Broca's area, which is responsible for the control of speech.

German physiologists Gustav Fritsch (1838-1927) and Eduard Hitzig (1838-1907) used electrical stimulation as a tool for understanding the physiology of the brain in 1870. The men applied a weak current to an exposed surface of a dog's brain and observed it for stimulation effects. They found that when stimulation is applied to a specific region of the brain, the stimulation caused contractions of certain muscles on the opposite side of the body. Nowadays this region of the brain is referred to as the primary motor cortex and that there are nerve cells contained there that directly communicate with those that cause muscular contractions.

Phineas Gage

In 1848 Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman, suffered a horrendous accident. He was doing his usual job at the time, building railroad tracks through rural Vermont. One day, Gage was filling holes with gunpowder to break up stubborn rock formations. He was pressing gunpowder into a hole with a tamping iron when there was an unexpected explosion occurred and sent a iron flying through the air and was thrust through his head. The iron pierced his head and went through his cheekbone, destroying much of his prefrontal cortex. Gage survived his ordeal, but suffered an extreme personality change. After his accident his physician, J. M. Harlow described Gage's personality as:

"Fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom)...his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was "no longer Gage."

Careers in Physiological Psychology

Many seeking a career in physiological psychology can become physiological psychologists who study brain processes ranging from the neural activity of a single cell to the role of large brain areas on behavior. Physiological psychologists can perform clinical research, work in the field of education at a community college or high school with an undergraduate or master's degree or a the college/university level with a PhD. in physiological psychology. Similarly, many of the jobs held in neuroscience can also be applied to physiological psychology seeing as physiological psychology is a sub-field of neuroscience.

Links to Professional Peer-Reviewed Publications

J.J. Waterston 1843: A Neglected Pioneer in Physiological Psychology

Ganser Syndrome With Work-Related Onset in a Patient With a Background of Immigration

Detecting Consciousness in a Total Locked-in Syndrome: An Active Event-Related Paradigm

Additional Articles Related to Physiological Psychology

Time Magazine: Bleep! My Finger! Why Swearing Helps Ease Pain

Women's Health: Do You Binge When You're Upset?

Newsweek: The Kids Can't Help It

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