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What is Physiological Psychology?

By Christina Whyte
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Physiological psychology is a branch of psychology that is concerned with the biological basis of behavior, as opposed to the social influences on behavior. It is also known as biological psychology, biopsychology, or psychobiology, and is closely related to neuroscience. Physiological psychologists study the electrical and chemical functions and activities of the brain, and how they relate to a person's mental experience and behavior. This branch of psychology is an approach to psychological research, which is used to study many different psychological phenomena.

There are a number of areas of focus within physiological psychology. Most research focuses on the brain, and the reactions that take place at a neurological level. In the beginning of the field's development, sensation and perception were the focus, such as the brain's response to familiar smells. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are frequently studied by physiological psychologists, including the development of psychiatric medications that address chemical imbalances in the brain.

Some subjects commonly thought of as purely social can be studied from the viewpoint of physiological psychology. Research on mirror neurons, for example, helps to explain how people empathize with other people. Mirror neuron research looks at how neurons in one brain are activated when that person or animal is watching someone else perform a behavior that activates those same neurons. This is useful to help people who struggle with social interaction, such as people with autism.

Many different techniques are used in physiological psychology. Machines to view the brain, such as in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are often used to study the brain's physical structures and functional activity. Other methods include electrodes on the head that monitor the brain's activity, or wires inserted into the brains of animals that stimulate different brain structures. People who have experienced brain damage are frequently studied to determine which part of the brain was damaged and the corresponding effects of the damage on the person's behavior.

Surgery is sometimes used in this branch of psychology research, particularly in animal research, but also in humans who are undergoing brain surgery for other conditions, such as cancer or epilepsy. Surgeons investigate the effects of stimulation or damage to a given brain structure on behavior and, in the case of human brain surgery patients, on the subjective experience of the person. Surgery is used less in this field as accurate and non-invasive brain imaging techniques became available.

Animal research is a controversial ethical issue in physiological psychology. Experimentation on animals is very important for a great deal of research in this field and can yield research findings that help many people. Ethical guidelines for the care and treatment of research animals must be followed by researchers, but animal suffering still occurs even if it is minimized. Animal rights groups in particular may oppose the use of animals in this research.

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Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On Aug 17, 2014

I'm interested in studying in this field. It's something that has interested me since a long time. My sister has a problem where, whenever she is nervous or scared, she gets sick to her stomach. She develops nausea and vomiting. So when she has an exam, she's sick. If she has to speak in front of class, she's sick and just about everything in between. I want to study physiological psychology to understand why this happens to her.

Why does it happen to some people and not others? What makes some people so sensitive that their thoughts cause physical reactions in their body?

By ysmina — On Aug 16, 2014

@ddljohn-- I don't know about the use of physiological psychology for ADD specifically, but this branch of psychology is definitely being utilized in the treatment of many disorders. I don't need to go through them as the article described them already. But for example, if we consider ADD to be a type of anxiety, physiological psychologists have studied brain function to understand how anxiety occurs and how it may be treated.

By ddljohn — On Aug 16, 2014

Physiological psychology is a very, very important field but I don't think that it's getting the recognition it deserves. I think that this field can open doors for many alternative treatments of common disorders that are currently difficult to treat.

For example, my niece has attention deficiency disorder. I was reading about it over the weekend and found out that there are centers around the world that study the brain reactions that occur when children with ADD are asked to behave in certain ways. And these studies help doctors understand the cause behind the disorder and look for ways to treat it. Many individuals have successfully been treated this way so far.

I don't understand why we don't focus our attention towards physiological psychology methods for ADD treatment instead of constantly trying to treat our kids with drugs.

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