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Approaches to Psychology


The biological approach: the basics
What assumptions do biopsychologists make? Psychologists from the biological approach assume that behaviour and experiences are caused by activity in the nervous system of the body. The things that people think and feel, say and do are caused, one way or another, by electrochemical events occurring within andbetween the neurones that make up their nervous system, particular those in the brain. Many biopsychologists also agree that because the development of the brain is determined (at least partly) by the genes a person inherits, that behaviour may be influenced by genetic factors. Furthermore, because the genes we inherit are the result of evolution, many biopsychologists think that behavioural andpsychological characteristics may have evolutionary explanations. How do biopsychologists explain human behaviour? Biological psychologists explain behaviour by trying to relate it to the functioning of the brain and nervous system. The brain can be subdivided into many different areas and structures and biopsychological explanations often focus on which brain areas are responsible for which types ofthinking or behaviour and how they connect with other functions and brain areas. For example, biopsychologists believe that language in humans is governed by two areas of the cerebral cortex, Broca’s area, which controls the production of speech and Wernicke’s area, which controls the comprehension of speech. These ‘speech centres’ are connected to a variety of other brain areas including thoseinvolved in thinking and in auditory working memory. Other biopsychologists focus more on the role of genetic influences in particular types of behaviour. For example, it is widely believed by biopsychologists that schizophrenia, a psychological disorder involving a range of symptoms including hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thinking and speech, is at least partly the result of inheriting afaulty gene or genes. These genes are thought to influence the development of the nervous system, making it vulnerable to malfunctioning in certain ways that produce the symptoms of the disorder. Biopsychologists believe that chemical processes in the brain can be an important influence on behaviour. The brain relies on a large number of chemicals (called neurotransmitters and hormones) to sendsignals between neurones. Too much or too little of any of these chemicals can result in over- or under-activity in various parts of the brain, which results in changes to thinking, feeling and behaviour. For example, some researchers have shown how behaviour can be affected by altered levels of sex hormones. Increased testosterone leads to increased risk-taking, whereas increased oxytocin leads toincreased nurturing and social responsiveness. How do biopsychologists study human behaviour? The role of biological processes in behaviour can be studied in many different ways, but researchers favour methods that are quantitative, objective and well controlled because these are most likely to produce valid scientific evidence. Researchers who are interested in genetic influences may use twin,family history and adoption studies. All of these involve comparing people with different degrees of genetic relatedness to see how similar they are in relation to a particular trait or behaviour. Studies of schizophrenia patients and their families, for example, have shown that the more closely a person is related to a schizophrenia patient, the greater their own risk of developing the disorder,which supports a role for genes in the disorder.
Aidan Sammons

Approaches to Psychology


Various types of brain scanning technology including PET and MRI can be used to study the structure and functioning of the brain. The nervous system can also be studied by manipulating the brain surgically. This might be done with animals, as biopsychologists view the...
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