Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology
Behavioral and cognitive psychology uses the principles of human learning and development and theories of cognitive processing to understand how the brain works, rests and recovers.
Physiological psychologists study the relationship between behavior and biology. They try to understand psychological states in terms of brain chemistry and the nervous system. Physiological psychologists conduct experiments on animals to determine the biological basis of behaviors. They use the data they obtain from these experiments to answer questions about human psychology.
Physiological psychologists are particularly interested in the endocrine system, which controls the hormones that govern or influence both emotions and actions. By studying how animals respond to different stimuli and how changes in the endocrine system or in brain structure affect different aspects of their behavior, they hope to better understand similar processes in human beings. Physiological psychologists attempt to understand the complexity of human psychology by studying the simpler chemical and electrical processes that underlie it.
Physiological psychologists justify the practice of animal experimentation by pointing to its possible benefits to human health and quality of life. Experiments conducted on animals by physiological psychologists have led to advances in the understanding of strokes, schizophrenia, anorexia, Parkinson’s disease, manic-depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders. Because many of these advances occurred incidentally while conducting unrelated research, physiological psychologists argue that they should be free to conduct animal experiments without restriction.
Many physiological psychologists work for colleges or universities, where they are expected to both teach and conduct new research. For example, a physiological psychologist at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University discovered that aging rats showed signs of cognitive decay similar to that found in aging humans, but without the expected loss of functioning brain cells. Her research found that some areas of their brains were actually hyperactive, rather than underactive, so she treated them with valproate to reduce activity in that area of the brain. If this treatment proves effective, it may offer a new approach to the treatment of dementia.
Education and Research
Some physiological psychologists work for government or private research laboratories, and some work for pharmaceutical companies. Whether they work for a university or a private employer, physiological psychologists must have a doctorate and usually a few years of post-doctoral work under an established researcher. Physiological psychology is a branch of neuroscience, and physiological psychologists may also be described as psychobiologists, biopsychologists or behavioral neuroscientists. Research in this field is published in academic journals such as the “Journal of Neuroscience” and “Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.”