In modern science, the brain is big news. Neuroscience is everywhere, having emerged over the last few decades as a key area of exploration in its own right, as well as across a wealth of disciplines – including psychology.
It makes sense that the study of the mind should overlap with the study of the brain, but just what is the role of neuroscience in psychology?
To understand how neuroscience plays a part in psychology, it’s helpful to first lay the foundations with an awareness of what neuroscience is, why it’s important and the relationship between the mind and body.
What is neuroscience?
In crude terms, neuroscience is brain science. Less crudely, it’s the scientific study of the nervous system. Neuroscience analyses what makes the brain and broader nervous system function: biological and chemical processes.
How the brain works has been studied since the era of the ancient Egyptians but neuroscience has developed rapidly as a discipline in recent years, encompassing elements of molecular biology, human behavior, anatomy and more.
Formatively, neuroscientific research focused largely on molecular and cellular studies of individual neurons. Through the use of ground-breaking new imaging tools and computer simulation, however, modern neuroscience now is able to provide insights into the brain’s anatomy and our understanding of neurological, physical and psychological functioning – essentially, how the brain, body and mind link up.
Modern neuroscience assesses the nervous system, studying its structure, how it develops and works. The discipline also looks at how the nervous system changes and malfunctions. Neural pathways in the brain transmit information and it’s these connections that are a key area of study for neuroscientists.
Through specialized brain scanning equipment, scientists can see how the connections in the brain are functioning, identify damage and investigate the effects of impaired neural pathways on the body and mind (Psychology Today 2019).
Branches of neuroscience
There are more than two dozen branches of neuroscience, each with a different focus.
Some branches of neuroscience concentrate on the neural basis of behaviour and the processes that generate and change the nervous system; others organize neuroscientific data by applying computational models and analytical tools.
Branches of neuroscience include:
Cognitive neuroscience – The study of how biology produces psychological functions. In cognitive neuroscience, researchers explore the relationship between neural circuits and mental processing.
Behavioral neuroscience – Applying biological principles to the study of behavior in humans and animals. Behavioral neuroscience – commonly referred to as biopsychology – focuses on the brain mechanisms that underpin behavior.
Cellular neuroscience – The study of neurons and their physiological properties at a cellular level. Cellular neuroscience focuses on how the brain develops and changes over time as it responds to experiences.
Molecular neuroscience – Studying the biology of the nervous system. Molecular neuroscientists focus on neurons’ molecular behavior and processes, examining the structure of the nervous system, as well as how it functions and develops.
Neural systems – The study of neural systems and circuits, with a focus on intricacies like how neural circuits are formed and how they produce functions like reflexes, memory and emotional responses. A key area of research is how networks of neurons underpin complex processes and behaviors.
Computational neuroscience – The study of brain structure development and functioning through mathematical models, computer simulation and theoretical assessment. Computational neuroscience is sometimes referred to as theoretical neuroscience.
Neuropsychology – The study of both neuroscience and psychology. Neuropsychologists focus on the relationships between the brain and neuropsychological functioning – typically, the changes in behavior following a neurological illness or injury.
These are just some of the strands of neuroscience – there are many more separate branches, and areas often overlap in research. The role of neuroscience in psychology incorporates strands of the discipline that include behavioral neuroscience, social neuroscience and more.
Mind or matter? The mind-body problem
Historically, it has been argued that to study psychology on a scientific level, it’s necessary to first have a comprehensive understanding of biology. In fact, William James put forth such a point of view The Principles of Psychology – one of the earliest volumes to explore the relationship between psychology and biology.
As a discipline, behavioral neuroscience began to take some vague shape in the 1700s, when philosophers started to seriously consider what has been coined the mind-body problem. That is, the extent to which the mind and the body are connected. The unsolved problem looks at the relationship between consciousness and the brain – one being a mental set of properties, the other physical.
Questions of how these two properties interact largely underpin the mind-body problem. Whether mental states are physical, whether each is distinct or one is a subclass of the other, and whether physical states influence mental states or vice versa all form the basis of the problem.
Then there are questions around consciousness, the physical self and intentionality – what are these concepts? How do they relate to the brain and the body? And does the mind belong to the body, or is the body simply a residence for the mind?
There is no clear-cut answer for these questions, hence the problem remains unsolved, but there are schools of thought that address the relationship between mind and matter.
Materialism – The Materialist view is that mental states are actually just physical states.
Dualism – The Dualist view is that both states are real and neither can be attributed to the other.
Idealism – The Idealist view asserts that physical states are actually mental states.
The problem can also be addressed in terms of reductionism. Constitutive reductionism suggests that mental processes are produced by the brain, thus the mind is a product of the body rather than being a separate entity. In eliminative reductionism, the mind is claimed to be brain activity alone.
Other neuroscientists don’t believe that the mind can be explained away as brain activity alone, and they qualify this belief with the phenomenon of emergence. Emergence takes place when an entity displays certain properties or behaviors only when it’s interacting as part of something else.
Water, for example, only takes on its form when an oxygen atom joins with two hydrogen atoms – alone, the atoms aren’t liquid. The brain’s neurons aren’t conscious, yet consciousness emerges from the processes taking place within the neural networks (Ludden 2017).
Assessing the evidence, the modern viewpoint held by many psychologists is that the mind is what the brain does. This viewpoint was initially put forth by cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky and can be largely backed up by evidence (LeadershipU 2019). Damage to the brain can alter the mind, as can drugs and trauma. People born without a brain do not show signs of consciousness and neither do those with a flat line for an EEG, which suggests that the mind does not exist independently but is created by the brain (Tryon 2014).
How does neuroscience help psychology?
With neuroscience focusing on physical sets of properties and psychology focusing on the mental counterparts, the two disciplines may appear to be disparate. However, neuroscience does have a role to play in psychology.
In fact, far from being completely unrelated disciplines, psychology and neuroscience can complement one another in several ways. Together, the two areas can help answer questions around cognition and behavior, neural development, neuropsychopharmacology and plasticity, for example.
Understanding how the brain works on a scientific level and utilizing technology such as brain scanners can help identify correlations between brain and mental states. Neuroscience has created new and advanced ways for scientists to assess the biological processes that underpin behavior, which in turn enables professionals to make more informed decisions about mental interventions and treatments.
Looking specifically at how psychology and neuroscience link up to produce positive effects, neuroscience has contributed some important findings in relation to the following conditions that affect mental health and behavior:
A degenerative disorder of the nervous system, Parkinson’s causes impairment of the brain nerve cells that control movement, also affecting a person’s decision-making abilities.
Neuroscience is helping advance understanding of the disease’s course in a variety of ways, including the creation of computational models that offer insight into the strength of connections within the brain’s basal ganglia region. How the connections differ in patients with Parkinson’s can help scientists create therapies personalized to patterns of neural degeneration (Frontiers Science News 2017).
Characterized by cognitive deterioration, Alzheimer’s leads to a decline in a person’s intellectual abilities and can cause changes in personality and behavior. Through neuroscience applied to animals, researchers have discovered that age-associated memory loss might be reversible using a gene transfer approach.
In studies with monkeys, scientists have identified that control neurons in an area of the brain shrink with age and stop making the regulatory chemicals that affect reasoning ability and memory. By inserting a nerve growth factor into the cells and re-injecting them into the brains of the monkeys, scientists were able to restore cell count and function, providing invaluable insights into the potential for treatment of age-related disorders in humans (National Institute on Aging 2019).
A neurological disorder that causes involuntary movements and impaired intellect, Huntington’s is caused by a defective DNA sequence that creates toxic protein and damages sufferers’ neurons. Huntington’s disease has no cure as yet, but neuroscience is assisting with finding a solution.
Various types of gene editing therapy have been applied through research in recent years but a new system was generated in 2018 that showed promise in terms of being safer and more specific than previous creations. The more recently developed system was able to cut a strand of DNA, deactivate the defective gene and prevent the production of the toxic protein, providing vital data to inform a potential future cure for Huntington’s (Frontiers Science News 2018).
A psychiatric disorder characterized by impaired perception of reality, schizophrenia has a range of debilitating symptoms including psychosis and hallucinations. Through neuroscience, scientists have made some advances in categorizing symptoms and assigning them to brain structures and functions, with the goal of helping develop and improve treatment strategies (Strik et al 2017).
Neuroscience is also helping advance research at a time when drug development for schizophrenia has deteriorated. Scientists have now discovered when and where dopamine alterations occur in the brain of sufferers. Understanding which neurotransmitter systems and brain regions are involved may help to identify the core neurobiological features of schizophrenia, such as changes in dopamine neurochemistry (Kesby et al 2018).
Characterized by persistent low mood, clinical depression has been addressed through various branches of neuroscience. Studies have used brain scans before a course of treatment to identify changes in individuals with depression, with findings showing that some types of treatment work better for individuals with relatively normal baseline activation of the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) brain region, while some worked better for those with abnormal baseline sgACC activation (Roiser 2015).
From such studies, data may be gathered and used to inform treatment selections for individuals with clinical depression. Some may respond best to psychological treatments; others to pharmacological treatment, for example.
Covering a broad spectrum of conditions, autism is characterized by challenges in areas like social skills, behavior and both verbal and non-verbal communication. Neuroscience research is contributing important information in relation to when and how autism is diagnosed, as well as helping provide insight into the characteristics of the condition in terms of brain activity.
Researchers have been able to identify both structural and functional differences in the brains of people with autism and related spectrum disorders, discovering that the amygdala brain region is underactive when people with autism try to read facial expressions, for example. Because more males than females are affected by autism, researchers have also been exploring the impact of fetal testosterone levels, discovering that higher levels of prenatal testosterone are associated with reduced social skills but higher attention to detail in infants – markers of autism that could help with early identification (Cambridge Neuroscience, The University of Cambridge 2019).
Anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent feelings of unease or worry. Treatment for anxiety disorders may take the form of therapy and/or medication, with varying degrees of success. A recent neuroscience-based breakthrough may change how some anti-anxiety drugs are formulated, however, after researchers identified a brain pathway that could be a new target for anxiety-reducing drugs.
Assessing a brain chemical messenger called NPY in relation to the stress-sensitive amygdala brain region, scientists identified the mechanism by which the chemical helps reverse the stress response caused by hormone CRH. Both chemicals use the same channels, and researchers have been able to identify and inhibit production of the anxiety-causing protein until the channels eventually disappear, providing a potential target for new drug production (University of Alberta 2018).
Drug abuse is classed as harmful patterns of misusing substances or alcohol that cause detriment in some area of a person’s functioning. In recent years, there has been much research into the causes of drug abuse, including neuroscientific assessments that analyse how external influences affect unconscious processing and drive addictive behavior.
A range of factors contribute to the onset of addiction and some neuroscientists suggest that as well as the neurochemical foundations of addiction, a person’s socioeconomic status influences their wellbeing through non-conscious processing, creating a higher need for additional rewards in the brain (Farisco et al 2018).
These are just several areas directly related to psychology in which neuroscience is making a tangible difference – there are many other ways in which neuroscience is informing research and scientific opinion across a broad array of disciplines.
Neuroscience and psychology: a happy couple?
There are, unarguably, distinct differences between the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology – but that’s what makes the relationship between these two subjects so fascinating.
Advances in neuroscience help solidify psychological theory in some cases; in others, neuroscience provides breakthroughs that challenges classical ways of thinking. Meanwhile, psychology provides vital insight into the complexity of human behavior – the product of all those neural processes.
Neuroscience and psychology work together and challenge one another in equal measure, which promotes progress in both fields, says Dr Kevin Fleming, Founder of Grey Matters International.
A unique service combining neuroscience and psychology, Grey Matters International provides life-changing solutions that merge these two areas, delivering tailored executive wellness, substance abuse and relationship therapy.
Dr Fleming commented:
“Decisional neuroscience—-specifically, how neural networks, biases, prior learnings, trauma patterns, and other critical brain-based factors all intersect to influence why we do what we do—-is central to Grey Matters International’s tool kit to guide people to faster and more effective change….especially when talk therapy hasn’t produced the life changes people desire. That’s what we are about.”
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LeadershipU (2019) Minds are simply what brains do
http://www.leaderu.com/truth/2truth03.html Date Accessed: 07/12/19
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https://www.nia.nih.gov/about/budget/alzheimers-disease-and-neuroscience-aging-3 Date Accessed: 12/07/19.
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