Why do psychologists study the brain and nervous system?

Psychology is known to be the scientific study of the human mind and behaviour. This article will cover why psychologists study the brain and nervous system. It also covers the techniques psychologists use to study the brain and the nervous system. In the end, the article will answer some frequently asked questions.

Why do psychologists study the brain and nervous system?

Studying the nervous system and the brain is an important part of the psychological study of the mind. The mind and the nervous system are studied as they are significant to the way people think, feel and behave. 

A study from the University of Virginia, (2013) found that humans can connect with other humans without necessarily going through the experience. 

This means we are wired to feel others’ feelings and experience the same thing. When participants went through the fMRI scans it was found that the correlation between the self and friend was strong enough. 

The study of the nervous system involves two major processes:

  1. The central nervous system: consists of the brain, the spinal cord, and the cerebral cortex, which is involved in higher cognitive, emotional, sensory and motor functions.
  2. peripheral nervous system: this is divided into two additional sub-systems- The somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system

The role of the somatic nervous system is to play the primary function of regulating the actions of the skeletal muscles. Whereas the autonomic nervous system regulates various involuntary activities, such as breathing and regulating heart rate.

Biopsychology is one branch of psychology that is used to analyse how behaviours, thoughts, and feelings are influenced by the brain, its neurotransmitters, and other aspects of our biology. 

There are several names for this field of psychology such as biopsychology, physiological psychology, behavioural neuroscience, and psychobiology. Biopsychologists are related to other areas of study such as comparative psychology and evolutionary psychology. Biopsychologists further study how our biological processes interact with emotions, cognitions, and other mental processes. 

Brief History of Biopsychology

The roots of this field of Biopsychology often date back many years ago. Dated to early philosophers, though it might seem like a recent concept. During the early days, philosophers and psychologists debated what was known as the mind/body problem. 

Other thinkers during the early days, wondered what the relationship was between the mental world and the physical world.  In the recent era, the mind and brain are considered synonymous. 

Link Between Biopsychology and Human Behavior

One of the early attempts at understanding how human behaviour is controlled by different parts of the brain led to the emergence and development of a pseudoscience known as phrenology. According to this, human faculties can be linked to indentation and bumps of the brain and this could be felt on the surface of the skull. During the later years, phrenology was dismissed by scientists and 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 popular case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who suffered a devastating brain injury helped influence our understanding of how damage to certain parts can lead to the impact of various other functioning and behaviour of the brain. 

Newer Biopsychology Research

Researchers have made various important discoveries in understanding how the various roles of the brain and their biological underpinnings of behaviours. Research on understanding the localization of brain function, neurotransmitters and neurons has led to the understanding of how several of our basic biological processes impact thoughts, emotions, and behaviours

The Brain and Nervous System

The outer part of the brain is known as the cerebral cortex. The central nervous system (CNS) is composed of the brain and spinal cord. The cerebral cortex is that portion of the brain which is responsible for cognition, sensation, emotions and motor skills. 

The brain is comprised of four lobes:

Frontal lobe: This part of the brain is involved in cognition, motor skills, expressive language and higher-level cognition.

Occipital lobe: This part of the brain is involved in understanding and interpreting visual stimuli and information.

Parietal lobe: This part of the brain is involved in the processing of information which is tactile in nature, such as touch, pressure, and pain as well as several other functions.

Temporal lobe: This part of the brain is involved in interpreting information of the sounds and language we hear, memory processing, as well as other functions. Another important part of the nervous system is known as the peripheral nervous system, the peripheral nervous system is divided into two parts:

The motor (efferent) division connects the central nervous system to the muscles and glands, and the sensory (afferent) division, carries all types of sensory information to the central nervous system.

Another component of the nervous system is known as the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating automatic processes such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.

The autonomic nervous system has two parts: 

The parasympathetic nervous system: This part of the nervous system is responsible for regulating processes such as digestion as well as bringing your body back to a state of rest. 

The sympathetic nervous system: This part of the brain controls the “fight or flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body to the stress and danger in the environment.

Studying the Nervous System

In order to study the nervous system, various physiological, as well as anatomical techniques, have been improved over the course of time. The gross morphology of the nervous system will require an eye-level view of the spinal cord and the brain. To resolve minute components, several optical and electron microscopic techniques are developed which are needed. 

Electron microscopes and light microscopes have changed our understanding of several intricate connections that exist among nerve cells.

Modern staining procedures such as (immunocytochemistry) now make it easy to select neurons that are of one type or another as well as the ones that are affected by the growth. 

Fine structures like the synaptic cleft between the pre-and post-synaptic neurons can be studied minutely with the help of better resolution of these electron microscopes. 

Many methodologies along with neuroanatomical techniques help several neuroscientists in studying the physiology of the nervous system as well as its function. 

During the early studies of the animals, various information about the function of the nervous system was gained by removing parts of the nervous system or using neurotoxins to destroy them and these changes were documented by studying its effects on behaviour and other mental processes. 

During the later days, more sophisticated forms of microelectrode techniques were introduced. These techniques further led to recording single neurons in animal brains and investigating their physiological functions. These studies led to the formation of several theories studying how motor and sensory information are processed in a brain. 

Electroencephalographic (EEG) techniques were introduced to study many neurons (millions of them at a time).  Methods such as this are used to study large ensembles of neurons, which represent different parts of the nervous system, with (event-related potentials) or without stimulation function together. 

There are many other scanning techniques that are used to get a visualised picture of the brain. These methods are used to understand the function and structure of the brain. Some of them include: computerized axial tomography (CAT), this technique uses X-rays to capture many pictures of the brain, these are later transferred into 3-D models to study the structure of the brain. 

Another method known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), this technique uses large magnets that bobble (precession) hydrogen nuclei in the brain. The resolution of MRI scans is better than that of CAT scans, however, there is no functional information that is provided about the brain. 

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is another technique that involves the acquisition of functional images of the brain based on the detection of positrons. Radio-labelled isotopes of certain chemicals, such as an analogue of glucose (fluorodeoxyglucose), enter the active nerve cells and emit positrons, which are then mapped and captured into scans. 

Scans such as this display how the brain and its various modules further become active (or not) when they are energized by entering the glucose analogue. 

However, there are several disadvantages of PET scans that include them being invasive and having poor spatial resolution.

This is one of the other reasons why PET machines are coupled with CAT scanners, doing this helps get better resolution of the functional brain. 

In this manner, in order to avoid the invasiveness of PET, functional MRI (fMRI) techniques were developed. Techniques such as the fMRI help visualize the functions of the brain and map the changes in the blood flow in various of the brain that occurs over time. In recent times these two techniques are popular among several cognitive neuroscientists. 


In this manner, gaining an understanding of the nervous system is a long journey and has taken over several years of research and studies which have been carried over the years in several other fields such as the fields of philosophy, evolution, biology, physiology, anatomy, neurology, neuroscience, cognitive sciences, and psychology and are everchanging over the years. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Why do psychologists study the brain and nervous system?

How much intelligence is required as a psychologist?

You require higher levels of intelligence to become a psychologist. You need to be able to have qualities of self-learning and analytical thinking.

What are brains made up of?

Soft tissue, including the grey matter, white matter, nerve cells, and non-neuronal cells make up the brain. The brain also includes small blood vessels. Brains also have high water content and nearly 60% of fat.

What part of the brain controls behaviour and personality?

Prefrontal Cortex – The term prefrontal cortex refers to the very front part of the brain located behind the forehead and above the eyes. It appears to play a critical role in the regulation of emotion and behaviour by anticipating the consequences of our actions and inhibiting behaviours.


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