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Biological psychology is the part of psychology that examines the relationship between biological processes and psychological functions.
Biological psychology is related to a number of other disciplines outside of psychology and uses knowledge from, among others, neurobiology, genetics and anatomy to study the biological basis of human and animal behavior.
A number of other disciplines in psychology use the same knowledge base as biological psychology, examples of which are neuropsychology, cognitive neuroscience, physiological psychology, psychophysiology and evolutionary psychology.
In international academic literature, biological psychology is often included under the term neuroscience.
As a discipline of science, biological psychology has been developed from both philosophical and biological traditions. Already Plato and Aristotle discussed the relationship between body and mind, and can thus be said to be the first to describe issues in biological psychology. The philosopher Rene Descartes developed physiological theories in the 1600s to explain both animal and human behavior. In the 19th century, the philosopher William James described how physiological processes and anatomy were the basis of psychological processes. The discovery of nerve cell communication by electrical signals was important for understanding how the central nervous system works, and helped to form the basis for understanding the relationship between the brain and behavior. During the 20th century, a rapid evolution of understanding of the biological basis of behavior occurred. Examples of major advances during this period are Ivan Pavlov’s studies of classical conditioning, Hans Selye’s description of stress responses, Terje Lømos and Tim Bliss’s studies of long-term potentiation in nerve cells.
Technological developments in the last century have brought new opportunities for exploration of the biological basis of behavior. The development of electrophysiological methods such as electroencephalography (EEG) and the measurement of Galvanic skin response are examples of methods that have made major contributions in biological psychology since the first part of the last century. The development of modern computer technology and systems for taking pictures of brain function has been very important for research in biological psychology. In particular, the development of fMRI in the nineties has led to increasing knowledge about how the brain functions and controls behavior.
The research methods in biological psychology are many and include both animal and human research. The earliest scientific studies in biological psychology were based on the observation of brain damage in humans, so-called lesion studies. A well-known example of this is the 19th-century description of an American man named Phineas Gage. Gage survived a blast accident in which he received an iron bar through frontal parts of the brain. In the post-accident period, Gage’s personality and behavior changed significantly, and one could conclude that the parts of the brain that were injured in the accident had specific functions in relation to behavior regulation.
Today, experimental methods are the most prominent method in biological psychology. Indirect measures of neural activity such as EEG, fMRI and positron emission tomography (PET) have been widely used in experimental studies. Other electrophysiological methods such as Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) and Electromyography (EMG) are also used to measure autonomic nervous system activity and muscle activation, respectively, often as a measure of strength in reflexes.
Animal models are often used in biological psychology, and a good example of this is May-Britt and Edvard Moser’s Nobel Prize-winning research on memory processes and cells in the hippocampus. Clinical studies of patients with mental disorders are also a widely used method in biological psychology. This could be, for example, studies of hormonal changes in patients with severe mental disorders, or brain imaging of patients where one wants to find out whether structural changes in the brain are making differences in behavior. Common to research in biological psychology is that one wants to investigate whether variation in biological goals creates variation or disease measured by behavior or psychological conditions.
Knowledge from biological psychological research is used in areas such as mental health care, medical treatment, drug development, technology development and the development of artificial intelligence systems.
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