In modern science, the brain is big news. Neuroscience is everywhere, having emerged over the last few decades as a key area of exploration in its own right, as well as across a wealth of disciplines – including psychology.
It makes sense that the study of the mind should overlap with the study of the brain, but just what is the role of neuroscience in psychology?
To understand how neuroscience plays a part in psychology, it’s helpful to first lay the foundations with an awareness of what neuroscience is, why it’s important, and the relationship between the mind and body.
What is neuroscience?
In crude terms, neuroscience is brain science. Less crudely, it’s the scientific study of the nervous system. Neuroscience analyses what makes the brain and broader nervous system function: biological and chemical processes.
How the brain works has been studied since the era of the ancient Egyptians but neuroscience has developed rapidly as a discipline in recent years, encompassing elements of molecular biology, human behavior, anatomy, and more.
Formatively, neuroscientific research focused largely on molecular and cellular studies of individual neurons. Through the use of ground-breaking new imaging tools and computer simulation, however, modern neuroscience now is able to provide insights into the brain’s anatomy and our understanding of neurological, physical, and psychological functioning – essentially, how the brain, body, and mind link up.
Modern neuroscience assesses the nervous system, studying its structure, how it develops and works. The discipline also looks at how the nervous system changes and malfunctions. Neural pathways in the brain transmit information and it’s these connections that are a key area of study for neuroscientists.
Through specialized brain scanning equipment, scientists can see how the connections in the brain are functioning, identify damage and investigate the effects of impaired neural pathways on the body and mind (Psychology Today 2019).
Branches of neuroscience
There are more than two dozen branches of neuroscience, each with a different focus. Some branches of neuroscience concentrate on the neural basis of behaviour and the processes that generate and change the nervous system; others organize neuroscientific data by applying computational models and analytical tools.
Branches of neuroscience include:
Cognitive neuroscience – The study of how biology produces psychological functions. In cognitive neuroscience, researchers explore the relationship between neural circuits and mental processing.
Behavioral neuroscience – Applying biological principles to the study of behavior in humans and animals. Behavioral neuroscience – commonly referred to as biopsychology – focuses on the brain mechanisms that underpin behavior.
Cellular neuroscience – The study of neurons and their physiological properties at a cellular level. Cellular neuroscience focuses on how the brain develops and changes over time as it responds to experiences.
Molecular neuroscience – Studying the biology of the nervous system. Molecular neuroscientists focus on neurons’ molecular behavior and processes, examining the structure of the nervous system, as well as how it functions and develops.
Neural systems – The study of neural systems and circuits, with a focus on intricacies like how neural circuits are formed and how they produce functions like reflexes, memory, and emotional responses. A key area of research is how networks of neurons underpin complex processes and behaviors.
Computational neuroscience – The study of brain structure development and functioning through mathematical models, computer simulation, and theoretical assessment. Computational neuroscience is sometimes referred to as theoretical neuroscience.
Neuropsychology – The study of both neuroscience and psychology. Neuropsychologists focus on the relationships between the brain and neuropsychological functioning – typically, the changes in behavior following a neurological illness or injury.
These are just some of the strands of neuroscience – there are many more separate branches, and areas often overlap in research. The role of neuroscience in psychology incorporates strands of the discipline that include behavioral neuroscience, social neuroscience, and more.
Mind or matter? The mind-body problem
Historically, it has been argued that to study psychology on a scientific level, it’s necessary to first have a comprehensive understanding of biology. In fact, William James put forth such a point of view The Principles of Psychology – one of the earliest volumes to explore the relationship between psychology and biology.
As a discipline, behavioral neuroscience began to take some vague shape in the 1700s, when philosophers started to seriously consider what has been coined the mind-body problem. That is, the extent to which the mind and the body are connected. The unsolved problem looks at the relationship between consciousness and the brain – one being a mental set of properties, the other physical.
Questions of how these two properties interact largely underpin the mind-body problem. Whether mental states are physical, whether each is distinct or one is a subclass of the other, and whether physical states influence mental states or vice versa all form the basis of the problem. Then there are questions around consciousness, the physical self, and intentionality – what are these concepts? How do they relate to the brain and the body? And does the mind belong to the body, or is the body simply a residence for the mind?
There is no clear-cut answer for these questions, hence the problem remains unsolved, but there are schools of thought that address the relationship between mind and matter.
Materialism – The Materialist view is that mental states are actually just physical states.
Dualism – The Dualist view is that both states are real and neither can be attributed to the other.
Idealism – The Idealist view asserts that physical states are actually mental states.
The problem can also be addressed in terms of reductionism. Constitutive reductionism suggests that mental processes are produced by the brain, thus the mind is a product of the body rather than being a separate entity. In eliminative reductionism, the mind is claimed to be brain activity alone.
Other neuroscientists don’t believe that the mind can be explained away as brain activity alone, and they qualify this belief with the phenomenon of emergence. Emergence takes place when an entity displays certain properties or behaviors only when it’s interacting as part of something else.
Water, for example, only takes on its form when an oxygen atom joins with two hydrogen atoms – alone, the atoms aren’t liquid. The brain’s neurons aren’t conscious, yet consciousness emerges from the processes taking place within the neural networks (Ludden 2017).
Assessing the evidence, the modern viewpoint held by many psychologists is that the mind is what the brain does. This viewpoint was initially put forth by cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky and can be largely backed up by evidence (LeadershipU 2019). Damage to the brain can alter the mind, as can drugs and trauma. People born without a brain do not show signs of consciousness and neither do those with a flat line for an EEG, which suggests that the mind does not exist independently but is created by the brain (Tryon 2014).
How does neuroscience help psychology?
With neuroscience focusing on physical sets of properties and psychology focusing on the mental counterparts, the two disciplines may appear to be disparate. However, neuroscience does have a role to play in psychology.