Chapter 1: Introduction to Biological Psychology

1.7: Overview of the Book

This book consists of 11 chapters. It starts by covering foundations of biological psychology (e.g., brain anatomy, neurons, research methods), continues to higher-level topics that link biology and psychology (how drugs and hormones affect the brain and behavior; brain development; genetics; and emotions) and concludes with how things can go wrong in the brain (brain damage, neurological diseases, and psychological disorders). Here is a brief overview of each chapter:

Chapter 2 introduces the anatomy and structure of “The Brain and Nervous System.” It describes the organization of the central and peripheral nervous systems and introduces major brain regions and terminology that will be used in later chapters.

Chapter 3 on “Neurons” provides an overview of the basic structure of neurons and their means of communication. The goal with this chapter is to learn the anatomical structure of neurons and understand how they communicate via electrochemical signals to process sensory information and produce complex behaviors.

Chapter 4 introduces the “Research Methods in Biological Psychology.” Biological Psychology is a wide-ranging field, so not surprisingly, it employs many research techniques. Early insights into the function of specific brain regions (like the left temporal lobe’s role in speech perception) emerged from rare cases of focal brain damage. Today, researchers can observe brain activity using sophisticated brain recording and imaging methods like EEG, fMRI, and PET. Researchers can also test theories by activating or deactivating neurons with, for example, strong magnets (transcranial magnetic stimulation) or genetic manipulation (e.g., optogenetics). Much of what we know about the brain comes from studies with laboratory animals that use invasive research methods like implanting electrodes into animals’ brains or modifying an animal’s genes.

Chapter 5 introduces “Psychopharmacology,” or the study of how drugs affect behavior. Drugs that change the way you think or feel are called psychoactive or psychotropic drugs, and almost everyone has used such a drug (yes, caffeine and alcohol are psychoactive). Drugs can increase or decrease activity at a neuron’s synapse by, for example, blocking or mimicking the naturally occurring neurotransmitters. This can have a profound impact on brain activity, and in turn, subjective experience, mood, behavior, and mental and physical health. This chapter covers how pharmacokinetics (i.e., how a drug is processed by the body and brain) affects neural transmission and the use of drugs to treat psychiatric disorders. This chapter concludes with descriptions and animations of how drugs like alcohol, caffeine, and cannabis affect neurotransmitters and synaptic processing in the brain.

Chapter 6 introduces “Hormones & Behavior” and the field of behavioral endocrinology (the scientific study of the interaction between hormones and behavior). Hormones are chemical messengers released from endocrine glands that travel through the blood system to influence the nervous system and regulate behaviors such as aggression, mating, and parenting of individuals (Nelson, 2023). This chapter highlights differences between neural transmission and hormonal communication and introduces the powerful behavioral effects of several common hormones such as cortisol, estradiol, testosterone, and oxytocin.

Chapter 7 provides an overview of the “Development of the Brain and Nervous System.” It covers the stages of development from the neural tube in embryo to fully formed brain structures in adulthood. We discuss early stages of neural growth and migration, the key developmental process of programmed neuron death, and the recent discovery of adult neurogenesis (adults do in fact generate new neurons). The chapter covers neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change), how plasticity varies across the lifespan (e.g., in sensitive periods), and tradeoffs between brain plasticity and processing efficiency. Understanding brain plasticity and development has ramifications for learning, maturation, treatments of developmental disorders, and staving off age-related declines.

Chapter 8 covers “Genetics and Epigenetics in Psychology.” Psychological researchers study genetics to understand the biological factors that contribute to certain behaviors. Genes (nature) and the environment (nurture) both clearly influence the structure and function of the brain and therefore our thoughts and behaviors. In this chapter, we review fundamental genetics. Then we look at how behavioral geneticists study the relative contributions of genes and environment and try to tease apart the influences of nature and nurture. We discuss gene-environment interactions, and the relatively new field of epigenetics, which studies how the environment and behaviors can cause changes in how our genes work.

Chapter 9 on “Emotion and Affective Neuroscience” provides a brief overview of the neuroscience of emotion. The chapter integrates findings from human and animal research to describe the brain networks and associated neurotransmitters involved in basic affective systems and emotions such as fear, anger, pleasure, and love (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2023).

Chapter 10 “Brain Damage, Neurodegeneration, and Neurological Disease” presents some of the many ways that healthy brain function can be disrupted. Understanding brain dysfunction helps appreciate the delicate balance and fragility of a healthy brain, and is important for developing effective treatments for brain damage and neurodegeneration. In the Neurological Disease section, we cover Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis. In the Brain Damage section, we cover Stroke, Brain Tumors, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). TBI has many causes including the widely recognized risks from contact sports or car accidents; a less recognized but rampant cause of TBI is Domestic or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). To introduce that topic, we turn to an expert researcher from Harvard Medical School, Prof. Eve Valera. Note that this content can be distressing, especially for those who’ve been directly or indirectly affected by IPV. We include some links to resources and guidance from the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) on ways to address and prevent Intimate Partner Violence.

Chapter 11 covers the “Biopsychology of Psychological Disorders.” Psychological disorders can be linked to brain dysfunction and genetic factors. This chapter examines such biological underpinnings and the symptoms of several common psychological disorders including schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While this chapter doesn’t focus on the full range of treatments of such disorders (that would be covered in a course on abnormal or clinical psychology), understanding the biological basis of psychological disorders does inform treatment approaches.


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Biological Psychology Copyright © 2024 by Michael J. Hove and Steven A. Martinez is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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