The nervous system

The issue of whether psychology can be reduced to biology has been…the subject of some debate’ [Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, 2002, p285]. It can be argued that to study the mind in full it is essential to have knowledge of the processes of the brain, to gain a deeper understanding of our psychological selves. A person’s biological makeup is determined by their genes. It has long been known that physical differences like facial features and height are inherited through the genes, and more recently genetic inheritance of illness. Now the link between our biological makeup and psychological wellbeing, such as personality and mental illness, is becoming a widely researched topic.

Psychologists are interested in the nervous system and the way that the neurons function or, more specifically, malfunction. For example drugs such as ‘Prozac’, a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), which inhibits the pre-synaptic neuron reabsorbing some of the neurotransmitter, have an alleviating effect on depression by allowing more serotonin to be available at the post-synaptic neuron and therefore affecting mood [Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, 2002, p258].

This leads researchers to believe that depression, which can be brought about by either genetic or environmental factors, is (at the biological level) a change in the chemical activity at the neuron’s synapses [Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, 2002, p276]. Without an understanding of the nervous system and synaptic function this kind of treatment would not be possible and previously sufferers of this disease would have gone untreated.

Depression is a good example of a mental illness that has been found to have an inherited susceptibility factor, but this is not exclusive or determinant [Anisman and Zacharko, 1982, citied in Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, 2002, p276]. If the ‘prone to depression’ gene is passed on, depression will not necessarily ever surface. Sometimes it will surface from no environmental factor whatsoever, and sometimes a trigger factor will start it. It is also possible in certain external circumstances to have depression without the genetic predisposition at all. More research needs to be done but knowing that a gene does predispose certain people to the illness could be very useful in the treatment of depression for psychologists.

One type of research developed in recent decades is non-invasive brain imaging. This is a very useful tool for psychologists and biologists alike as it is a viable and arguably ethical way of studying the brain’s activity [Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, 2002, p268]. So for example, continuing along the lines of mental illness, in cases of schizophrenia we now know, with the aid of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) scans, that when the sufferer ‘hears voices’ in their head the auditory part of the temporal lobe lights up: the sufferer is also unable to distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘internal’ speech as no additional area is activated when both speech types are heard together [, Psychiatric News Website, viewed April 25th 2004]. In other words, they really are ‘hearing’ those voices. This is invaluable research for the understanding and treatment of schizophrenia, which as an illness was until recently regarded with widespread scepticism.

‘Complex psychological phenomena do not exist ready-made in the genes [Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, 2002, p277] and yet more and more branches of psychological study are using the reductionist approach to see if the answer does lie partly at the biological or genetic level. To look at the biology of fear, when we are scared our autonomic nervous system (ANS) produces the ‘fight or flight reaction’, the adrenal gland releasing adrenalin that targets the heart to beat faster and the brain to focus specifically on the target of the fear (for example if we think there is an intruder on our property the auditory part of the temporal lobe would start working harder, with more blood pumped to it). The muscles in our legs are primed for running and our arms for fighting or defence. Other parts of our body such as the digestive system have the blood supply reduced by the ANS contracting the smooth muscle of the blood supply and concentrating it elsewhere.

In psychology it is useful to understand what is going on internally with the high numbers of stress-related illnesses, as the fight or flight reaction is often maladaptive in modern times – driving in bad traffic for example: the adrenalin release is not compensated for (the body is primed for action but none occurs) and that can lead to general feelings of continual stress, often reported to psychologists in recent years, and if not dealt with can create serious health problems such as nervous breakdowns [Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, 2002, p274]. So short-term, stress can be beneficial – ‘eustress’ [Psychology Port 5 website,, accessed 26th April 2004], aiding concentration, but our biological knowledge now tells us that long-term it can be physically damaging.

So mental and physical wellbeing seem to be inherently linked, and the studies of both biology and psychology aid each other in growth of understanding in each area. The workings of the brain can also be studied by psychologists interested in personality. A one-off yet fascinating incident happened to Phineas Gage [website: The Phineas Gage Information page accessed 25th April 2004] in 1848.

A tamping iron pierced his head from under his left cheekbone, out through the top of his head. ‘Before the accident he had been their most capable and efficient foreman, one with a well-balanced mind … He was now fitful, irreverent… grossly profane, impatient and obstinate’ [website: the Phineas Gage Information page]. This is the first example we have of how certain parts of the brain (in this case the frontal lobe, mainly if not solely the left hemisphere) affect our personality. More research has now been done following this but it is a good example of a freak accident leading to biological process study and hence an advance in psychology.

Psychological explanations for mental illnesses can be greatly helped by advancements in the understanding of biological processes. Non-invasive techniques such as FMRI scans and Positron Emission Tomography scans are ethically sounder than invasive ones and hence it is really possible to study the brain in detail now. Psychology as a discipline would carry on regardless of biological knowledge, but there is no doubt that biological studies have aided our understanding of personality, mental illness, stress, and many other psychological phenomena. Understanding the inner workings of the brain and the body helps us to gain insight in the study of psychology that would otherwise be impossible.


Miell, D., Phoenix, A. and Thomas, K (eds)(2002), DSE212 ‘Exploring Psychology’, Mapping Psychology 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Psychology Port 5 website,, accessed 26th April 2004.

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