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Physiological Psychology: Definition & Principles

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  • 0:03 What Is Physiological…
  • 1:48 Physiological…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

There are many ways to study human behavior, and one very practical one is to watch the ways that physiological events affect behavior. In this lesson, we'll define and explore aspects of physiological psychology.

What Is Physiological Psychology?

The maniacal Dr. Frankenstein applied the electrodes to his monster's head. Laughing evilly, he exclaimed under his breath, ''Let's see what happens when we apply voltage!''

When the doctor flipped the switch, the monster immediately sat up, punched the doctor in the face, and then reclined again on the operating table. Reeling, the doctor changed the settings, moved the probes, and flipped the switch again. Once again, the monster sat up, punched the doctor in the face, and then reclined once more on the operating table.

Confused, the doctor asked aloud, ''What is going on here? These impulses can't all be having the same effect on the brain!''

Chuckling, the monster sat up again and looked at the doctor, grinning. ''They aren't. I unplugged the probes from your machine.''

Physiological psychology is the study of human behavior through physiological impact. Doctors don't normally do much of this sort of research on humans because the effects on the subject can be unpredictable, even damaging, but nonhuman subjects are subjected to various types of stimuli and biological manipulation, while doctors observe the resulting behavior. This approach lends a highly empirical (observation-based) aspect to behavioral science and springs from the idea that human consciousness is nothing more than the end result of nervous system activity. Scientists of this discipline tend to support the view that you are aware of yourself and your surroundings only because the neural signals racing around in your body and brain are making you aware. They feel that there is no soul or spirit behind the mind; it's merely a physiological phenomenon. Whether you believe that or not, physiological psychology is a very practical approach toward learning about how the brain and nervous system work, and how our immediate environment affects our behavior.

Physiological Psychology Principles

Scientists conduct research experiments, hoping that they will eventually be able to understand and explain the things they're studying. That's the foundation of the scientific world and is the source of much of the human knowledge that we take for granted. We have microwave ovens, cell phones, and automobiles because someone studied the physical principles behind those devices and shared their knowledge, allowing engineers to design and build useful things.

When you're conducting research, you generally take one of two directions, generalization or reductionism. Physiological psychologists have to use both. Generalization means that you take the various behaviors that you observe and then hypothesize, proposing laws that apparently govern those behaviors. Then you do more tests to find out if you're right. What you're hoping for, in the end, is statistical certainty. In other words, if things work the same way enough times, you can say that for all practical purposes you're right about the laws behind them. This is the approach taken by most psychologists. They watch behavior, looking for consistencies. They introduce new environments, and then observe the results. They might carefully introduce certain chemicals to try to help people deal with their problems, and then observe how behavior changes. They're looking at the big picture.

Physiological psychologists take a different path. They are psychologists, so they are interested in the generalized approach. How does the patient (or subject) behave? What is the overall effect? What conclusions can we draw? However, they're also physiologists (people who study the physical body), so they apply a reductionist approach to most of their research, looking at complex things happening in the body and then breaking them down into individual functions, effects, chemical reactions, etc. They study the most complex events by analyzing their simplest pieces.

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