Biological Foundations in Psychology

Biological Foundations in Psychology

Most of us understand that the nature of our behavior and thinking results from a complex interaction of various physiological systems and processes within the human body. Professionals who study such internal interactions work within the field of biological psychology, “The scientific study of the biology of behavior … [which] denotes a biological approach to the study of psychology” (Pinel, 2009, p. 3), such as in studying which parts of the brain, nervous system, and eye structures produce our visual perceptions.

Although it is unknown as to the precise date of biopsychology’s birth, “D.O. Hebb played a key role in its emergence … [with] the publication of The Organization of Behavior in 1949” (Pinel, 2009, p. 4). According to Pinel (2009), in opposition to the traditional view that psychological functioning was too complex to have its origins in the brain, “Hebb developed the first comprehensive theory of how complex psychological phenomena, such as perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and memories, might be produced by brain activity” (p. 4). Next, we will discuss theorists which have been influential to the field, the major underlying assumptions of the biopsychological approach, and we will conclude with the six major divisions of biopsychology.

Influential Figures in the Field

            In order to resolve the 17th century conflict between science and the church, Rene Descartes created the physical-nonphysical dichotomy which gave the spiritual knowledge to the church and the physical knowledge to the scientists (Pinel, 2009). Cartesian dualism gave way to the long debated nature-nurture issue that has persisted to this day, in one form or another. As a scientist committed to the physical environment, John B. Watson was completely in favor of the nurture side of the issue, paving the road which led to the development of behavioral psychology in North America (Pinel, 2009). G.G. Gallup was influential to the field of biopsychology due to his experiments which proved that humans are not the only species capable of self-awareness by testing chimpanzees in front of a mirror (Pinel, 2009).

A Biopsychological Model

According to Pinel (2009), the model that biopsychologists use deals with evolution, genetics, and the interaction of genetics and experience in developing behavior. I will number each section of the model accordingly; (1) evolution carries a collective pool of behavior-influencing genes to be passed on to each member of a species with a unique program of neural development which experience interacts with to determine whether a particular genetic trait is expressed or not (Pinel, 2009). After the interaction of (2) genes and (3) experience, the (4) current organism’s unique pattern of neural activity determines its behavioral capacities and tendencies which may be experienced as thoughts, feelings, and memories within the (5) current situation, giving way to the organism’s (6) current behavior, resulting from its ongoing unique neuronal activity and its perception of the current situation (Pinel, 2009).

The final section of the model, current behavior, influences two previous parts of the model: evolution and experience. Evolution provides the genes which interact with experience to give way to the current organism in the current situation which produces its current behavior; in turn, a successful current behavior is encoded into the organism’s evolutionary genetic program and repertoire of experience for future generations of the species.

Six Major Divisions of Biopsychology

Pinel (2009) describes “physiological psychology [as] the division of biopsychology that studies the neural mechanisms of behavior through the direct manipulation of the brain in controlled experiments—surgical and electrical methods of brain manipulation are most common” (p. 9). Considering that it would be unethical to use humans as subjects for this type of research, animals are commonly used instead. “Psychopharmacology is similar to physiological psychology, except that it focuses on the manipulation of neural activity and behavior with drugs” (Pinel, 2009, p. 9). Until a drug has been well developed, subjects consist of animals and in the final testing phase, human subjects may be used. Pinel (2009) explains that “although drugs are sometimes used by psychopharmacologists to study the basic principles of brain–behavior interaction, the purpose of many psychopharmacological experiments is to develop therapeutic drugs or to reduce drug abuse” (p. 9).

Pinel (2009) describes “Neuropsychology [as] the study of the psychological effects of brain damage in human patients” (p. 9). Since it is unethical to cause damage to a human subject’s brain, non-experimental studies of those already having brain damage comprise a majority of the research by professionals in this field (Pinel, 2009). “Psychophysiology is the division of biopsychology that studies the [relationship] between physiological activity and psychological processes in human subjects” (Pinel, 2009, p. 9), which make use of noninvasive recording methods to view brain activity while having the subject carry out certain tasks. This kind of noninvasive recording method is also utilized by those interested in cognitive neuroscience, the study of advanced mental processes such as thought, memory, attention, and complex perceptual processes, which require human subjects for research (Pinel, 2009). When it comes down to it, all of these advanced mental processes are at the heart of the work of all professionals within the many fields of biopsychology.

The last major division of biopsychology mostly deals in comparative psychological research on different species’ behavior “in order to understand the evolution, genetics, and adaptiveness of behavior … [and] two [resulting] areas of biopsychological research often … included … as part of comparative psychology … [are] evolutionary psychology [and] … The other is behavioral genetics” (Pinel, 2009, p. 11). The previously discussed five subdivisions of biopsychology described in the above paragraphs ultimately study the brain, the brain’s neural pathways and nervous systems, and its role in mental processes which all play a part in producing behavior; the differences are in their specific goals and methods for studying certain parts of the brain and the behaviors they affect.

The final subdivision is more experimental in that these professionals gather data, either directly or through previously written research, to compare behavioral habits between different species; possibly identifying similar human habits shared with other species, such as how the chimpanzee has been identified to have conscious awareness; something long thought only to be a human quality! With the current and potential discoveries in a field as vast as biopsychology, this area of study promises to remain exciting and stimulating!


Pinel, J. P. J. (2009). Biopsychology (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon

  1. Howdy just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same results.

  2. Everything is very open with a clear explanation of the issues. It was really informative. Your website is extremely helpful. Thank you for sharing.

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