Biopsychology: Definition, origin, relation with other disciplines

What is biopsychology?

According to Dewsbury (1991), Biopsychology is the scientific study of the biology of behavior. Some refer to this field as psychobiology, behavioral biology, or behavioral neuroscience; but we prefer the term biopsychology because it denotes a biological approach to the study of psychology rather than a psychological approach to the study of biology: Psychology commands center stage in this text. Psychology is the scientific study of behavior—the scientific study of all overt activities of the organism as well as all the internal processes that are presumed to underlie them (e.g., learning, memory, motivation, perception, emotion).

Researchers in this field study topic in neuroscience so that they can learn about how and why the brain influences emotion. This field of study is quite ancient; Chinese and Middle Eastern scientists were exploring topics that continue to be explored in biopsychology today as early as the 800s CE. With the advent of advanced medical imaging techniques and a deeper understanding of the brain in the 20th century, the field was revolutionized.

Researchers study topics such as the brain and central nervous system, and the neurotransmitters used to send signals throughout these systems. Biopsychologists are interested in both normal and abnormal physiological functions, studying the diversity of the human brain to learn more about the diversity of human psychology. They use medical imaging studies and a variety of other techniques to learn about the physiology of the human brain.

This field of study has room for a great deal of fascinating research. Biopsychologists can work in a variety of settings to learn more about both human and animal behavior. Some work as instructors, providing education to new generations of people in the field. Others interested in biopsychology can work in pure research, and may also be found working at pharmaceutical companies, research hospitals, government agencies, and private organizations which foster a deeper understanding of the brain.

Because biopsychology often involves work with human subjects, it can be controversial. Researchers need to work under the guidance of ethics committees when they design experiments, to ensure that their work is conducted in an ethical way and that their subjects operate with informed consent. The practice of obtaining informed consent is a critical aspect of modern scientific research which is designed to address ethical concerns raised in the era of historical experiments in which people were not informed about what was going on. Some of these experiments involved highly controversial activities which were later viewed as exploitation and abuse of human subjects, leading to tougher rules about experimental ethics and to the development of committees to oversee experimentation.

The link between biopsychology and human behavior

Researchers also became interested in understanding how different parts of the brain control 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.

The origins of the field of biopsychology

The study of the biology of behavior has a long history, but biopsychology did not develop into a major neuroscientific discipline until the 20th century. Although it is not possible to specify the exact date of biopsychology’s birth, the publication of The Organization of Behavior in 1949 by D. O. Hebb played a key role in its emergence (see Brown & Milner, 2003; Cooper, 2005; Milner, 1993). In his book, Hebb developed the first comprehensive theory of how complex psychological phenomena, such as perceptions, emotions, thoughts,

and memories, might be produced by brain activity. Hebb’s theory did much to discredit the view that psychological functioning is too complex to have its roots in the physiology and chemistry of the brain. Hebb based his theory on experiments involving both humans and laboratory animals, on clinical case studies, and on logical arguments developed from his own insightful observations of daily life. This eclectic approach has become a hallmark of biopsychological inquiry. In comparison to physics, chemistry, and biology, biopsychology is an infant—a healthy, rapidly growing infant, but an infant nonetheless. In this text, you will reap the benefits of biopsychology’s youth. Because biopsychology does not have a long and complex history, you will be able to move quickly to the excitement of current research.

How is biopsychology related to the other disciplines of neuroscience?

Neuroscience is a team effort, and biopsychologists are important members of the team (see Albright, Kandel, & Posner, 2000; Kandel & Squire, 2000). Biopsychology can be further defined by its relation to other neuroscientific disciplines. Biopsychologists are neuroscientists who bring to their research knowledge of behavior and of the methods of behavioral research. It is their behavioral orientation and expertise that make their contribution to neuroscience unique (see Cacioppo & Decety, 2009). You will be able to better appreciate the importance of this contribution if you consider that the ultimate purpose of the nervous system is to produce and control behavior (see Grillner & Dickinson, 2002). Biopsychology is an integrative discipline. Biopsychologists draw together knowledge from the other neuroscientific disciplines and apply it to the study of behavior. The following are a few of the disciplines of neuroscience that are particularly relevant to biopsychology :

Neuroanatomy: The study of the structure and organization of the nervous system. In contrast to animals with radial symmetry, whose nervous system consists of a distributed network of cells, animals with bilateral symmetry have segregated, defined nervous systems.

Neurochemistry: Neurochemistry is the study of chemicals, including neurotransmitters and other molecules such as psychopharmaceuticals and neuropeptides, that control and influence the physiology of the nervous system. This field within neuroscience examines how neurochemicals influence the operation of neurons, synapses, and neural networks.

Neuroendocrinology: Neuroendocrinology is the branch of biology that studies the interaction between the nervous system and the endocrine system; i.e. how the brain regulates the hormonal activity in the body. The nervous and endocrine systems often act together in a process called neuroendocrine integration, to regulate the physiological processes of the human body.

Neuropathology: Neuropathology is the study of disease of nervous system tissue, usually in the form of either small surgical biopsies or whole-body autopsies. Neuropathologists usually work in a department of anatomic pathology, but work closely with the clinical disciplines of neurology, and neurosurgery, which often depend on neuropathology for a diagnosis.

Neuropharmacology: Neuropharmacology is the study of how drugs affect cellular function in the nervous system and the neural mechanisms through which they influence behavior. There are two main branches of neuropharmacology: behavioral and molecular. Behavioral neuropharmacology focuses on the study of how drugs affect human behavior (neuropsychopharmacology), including the study of how drug dependence and addiction affect the human brain. 

Neurophysiology: Neurophysiology is the study of the functional properties of neurons, glia, and networks. Historically it has been dominated by electrophysiology—the electrical recording of neuronal events ranging from the molar (the electroencephalogram, EEG) to the cellular (intracellular recording of the properties of single neurons).

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