It is hard to imagine an introduction to into the realm of psychology without encountering the thought of how does the body affect the mind. What causes our emotions and behaviors to be, does some biological process provide the answer or do we still have much to learn about our bodies and ourselves? Where does bio-psychology begin and the realm of pure biology, bio-chemistry, and other “hard” sciences end? Let us begin our journey into the murky past of the foundations of bio-psychology.
What is bio-psychology and what does it mean to be a student of bio-psychology? Biological Psychology is the study of the brain and how it produces behavior (Wickens, 2005, p. xxv). However this definition of bio-psychology deserves more than that, bio is literally translated to mean “life”, psych is derived from psyche (Greek for mind), and logos (also Greek in origin) meaning reason or study of the mind (Wickens, 2005, p. 3). This conflicts with the earliest stirrings of the nascent philosophy/science that become modern psychology which seeks to find a more “scientific” structure and empirically derived body of knowledge.
The founders of what became psychology; include names from antiquity such as the Roman physician, Galen, who postulated the first recorded theory of the brain and its inner workings. The earliest bio-psychologists thought that the ventricles of the brain contained or carried some spirit that the mind told the body to function. We then see as scientific knowledge crept out from underneath the specter of religious authorities that would possible deem such knowledge or research heretical that a more scientific approach began to appear (Wickens, 2005).
The next leap was spearheaded by Rene Descartes, of the oft quoted author of the “I think therefore I am” remark. He offered a new theory that the mind and body were two distinct and separate entities; this became known as the Cartesian Dualism theory. However, this theory was unable to explain the how the body and mind affected one another. Descartes then theorized that it was the pineal gland that was the location for this exchange of information. But Descartes noted that not all actions were clearly based solely upon conscious thought but occurred out of something he termed “reflex” This evolutionary thinking of Descartes opened the door to later research (Wickens, 2005).
As early as 1791 we saw an Italian scientist, Luigi Galvani, who demonstrated that nerves communicate via electrical impulses through his research using amputated frog’s legs. This was then further advanced when in 1875 that another Italian scientist, Camillo Golgi, who discovered a stain that allowed for the first time individual nerve cells to be clearly defined utilizing silver nitrate. This discovery allowed study of the individual component of a nerve cell to be observed. This discovery saw its greatest advance within the workings of Ramon y Cajel’s, who showed that all nerves are distinct and individual entities not a mass as previously believed. (Wickens, 2005)
It is from this earliest work in the neurological elements of bio-psychology that we began to understand the unique relationship between mind and body. The role of genetics within bio-psychology began with the workings and research of Gregor Mendel, who first showed that a plant could be bred for specific traits from two different parent plants. Still the work of Mendel would not be as profound if it were not for Charles Darwin, considered by many to be the father of modern biology. It was upon Mendel’s work that Darwin’s theory of evolution found a bedrock upon which to stand (Wickens, 2005).
We then see where the juncture between biology and psychology merge, as we learn more about the structures of the human body beyond the micro-biological level we see how important that a clear understanding of the relationship between them becomes to the future of bio-psychology and psychology in general (Carr, 2008). It is the discovery of profound concepts as DNA and thus what role does our DNA play in who we become and how we behave do we find that connection with the field of genetics and bio-chemistry (Wickens, 2005). This cross-pollination of the science of the mind and body meet but both seem to be at odds with each other.
The major assumptions of bio-psychology is that with unlocking the interaction between the mind (a mental construct) and the brain and associated biological systems (physical reality) we will finally decide the question of “Nurture vs. Nature”. But the assumptions of the field of bio-psychology are more than simply answering this one question how ever profound. We seek to understand why past behaviors from a previous generation of human beings find themselves reborn it seems in the genes of the next. Is mental illness or its prevalence of a likelihood of contracting one have a genetic element? If so can we modify the gene or at least study how it affects subsequent generations?
However, we must move beyond assumptions and clearly the way is a unified and multidisciplinary approach to the field of bio-psychology. As students of the human condition, we must remember that while both the mind and body are distinct and seemingly separate entities; they are both involved in symbiotic relationship that we have yet to fully understand. I hope this paper has shed some light upon the field of bio-psychology and its role within the science of psychology in general.
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Carr, J. E. (2008, March). Advancing Psychology as a Bio-behavioral Science. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 15(1), 40-44. doi: 10.1007/s10880-008-9093-z; (AN 31518202)
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