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Biological Psychology

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Biological psychology, as defined by the New World Encyclopedia, “is the application of the principles of biology to the study of mental processes and behavior”. In other words, it is the study of psychology in terms of bodily mechanisms.(New World Encyclopedia). Most processes associated with psychology have some sort of correlation with biological/physiological processes. The field of Biological psychology is based on this assumption or view.


Avicenna (980-1037) is a Persian psychologist and recognized physiological psychology in the treatment of illnesses involving emotions. He recognized the importance of physiological psychology and applied it to treat various illnesses related to emotions. Gradually, he came up with a way where irregularities in the pulse rate could be associated with inner feelings. It later on paved way to the word association test which is used in the field of psychology even to this day. Apart from this, he also provided psychological explanations for various somatic illnesses. Thus, he was able to link the physical and psychological aspects of various illnesses.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) proposed models to explain animal and human behavior. He proposed theories linking the mind and body and explanations for motor behavior (reflexes). He was a pioneer in identifying the mind with consciousness and self-awareness. He was also able to differentiate it from the brain.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) described the nature of evolutionary theory. It describes the way in which our bodies and behaviors change across many generations of individuals. He proposed the theory of Natural Selection, the evolutionary principle describing a mechanism by which organisms have developed and changed, based on the principle of “the survival of the fittest”. He demonstrated the idea that genetics and evolution play a role in influencing human behavior.

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) performed breeding experiments on common varieties of the garden pea plants. He proposed the theory of genetic inheritance and formulated the laws of inheritance.


A large volume of data in psychology comes from subjects such as mice and monkeys. This means that biological psychology has a close relationship with other disciplines such as neurobiology, comparative psychology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary studies and other fields of neuroscience such as neuropsychology. This area of research is focused on the behavior of humans and non-humans with certain nervous system dysfunctions.


The early behaviorists held the empty slate view of human behavior (nurture side of the nature-nurture controversy). They were reacting to the introspective school of thought and focused strictly on observable behavior. They argued that environment drives behavior (i.e., rewards, punishments. tokens, etc.). This is reductionist, however, as it focused only on external determinants of behavior (i.e., empty slate theory of human nature), which is an animal model of human behavior (e.g., rats will behave for a reward of food; therefore people will behave the same). In other words, for the behaviorist, the biological influences (although not denied) have little or no impact on behavior; the environment (i.e., behavioral modification programs, etc.) is all-important and shapes and influences behavior so if you reinforce desired behavior and not reinforce undesired behavior, the student/person s/he will behave as desired and expected. There is some truth to this, but there is much more to the human biology, which influences psychology (intellectual development, genetics, hormones, brain chemistry, etc.).

However, in reaction to criticism of being reductionist (Skinner), these early behavioral opponents argued that behavior has three components: actions, thinking and feeling components. However, they focus on the observable and measurable parts of behavior (actions) (but really totally ignored emotions and cognitions). Thus, the environment drives behavior.

It is important to remember the view of human nature that drives these theories, because treatment/behavior models follow from these ideas of human nature i.e., for the behaviorist – since human beings are born as an empty slate, the environment shapes behavior; for the cognitive proponents, since human beings are born with mental/intellectual ability that matures along developmental stages, cognitions drive behavior; for the nature proponents, the brain drives behavior, so any malfunction in human behavior is treated with medication to change and stabilize brain chemicals; for the holist proponents, all three are important and drive behavior, bio-psych-social-emotional-and sometimes spiritual – these holist opponents usually believe in a comprehensive assessment process to individualize the behavior change program as one person may need to change the environment, while others may need to change their thinking, while others might need to change both in order to return to a healthy state.

In other words, even though the biological influences are those influences that are considered part of our biology by most opponents (i.e., intellectual ability; genetics, such as temperament, personality variables inherited, etc; brain; hormones, etc.) different proponents explain it in different ways and give more weight to some, while ignoring the other. For example, as mentioned in my last response, neuro-psychologists (nature) argue that the brain is the driving force that causes behavior. Thus, changing behavior would be about having your brain functioning properly as a preventive measure of disease (and the behavior that goes along with brain dysfunction), and if it is not, you need medication or surgery as treatment as these proponents come from the medical perspective.

On the other hand, cognitive proponents think cognition drives behavior (you think. and then you act). In contrast, early behaviorists ignored cognitions. For the cognitive psychologist, if you change the way you think about things, behaviors and emotional change will follow. Thus, treatment and behavioral programs are focused on changing the way we think about things (e.g., “everyone hates me in my class” becomes, “some classmates might not like me, but many others like me” – changing irrational beliefs is the focus, which decreases anxiety which leads to decreased anxiety related behaviors – programs encourage the person in such a way: “Not everyone will like you and that is okay that some people do not like you”, “let’s make a plan of playing with the class mates that do like you”. Roles plays, such as what will you do when you want to meet a friend?

Then, the counseling psychologist or teacher might brainstorm with the child ways that s/he could meet new friends. Next, the counselor/teacher and the child may practice these new behavioral skills with the counselor in the safety of the counseling office, etc.). In other words, cognitions drive behavior. The process begins, though, with changing the way you think. Teachers can also use these types of techniques in the classroom. An extension of this is cognitive-behaviorism; these psychologists argue that that although cognitions drive behavior, in order to change, one must also take action (behavior) (the cognitive-behavioral modification).


_Biological Psychology_.(2008). New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved

on June 5, 2009 from the World Wide Web:


_Psychology Approaches._ Biological Approach. Retrieved on June 6,

2009 from the World Wide Web: http://www.simplypsychology.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/perspective.html

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