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What is Physiology? - Definition & History

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  • 0:01 What Is Physiology?
  • 0:41 Levels of Organization
  • 1:38 History of Physiology
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Matott
Have you ever wondered how physiology is different from medicine? Did you know that there are physiologists who study plants or bacteria or fungi? This lesson describes what physiology is and offers a brief history of how the field developed.

What Is Physiology?

Physiology is the study of how organisms function. The physi- part of the word comes from a Greek word that is broadly translated as 'natural origin.' The same root is used to form the words physician, physical, and physics. When we think of physics today we think of the study of how matter and energy work, but another way to think about physics is as a study of how nature functions. In that sense, physiology is also a study of how nature functions - in this case, within a living organism. Physiology can be divided into many sub-fields, including plants, animals, bacteria, and more, but most early physiology records focused on how human systems work.

Levels of Organization

An organism can be broken down into different levels of organization, all of which can be studied by physiologists. Within an organism are multiple organ systems, like the digestive system and the respiratory system. These organ systems are typically made up of multiple organs and glands. An organ is a distinct structure that has a specific function within an organism. For example, the stomach is an organ that is part of the digestive system. In the stomach, food is both mechanically and chemically broken down to make it easier to absorb nutrients.

Organs are made up of one or more types of tissue. A tissue is a collection of cells that have similar structures and function. Smooth muscle is a type of tissue that makes up a large portion of the stomach. At the smallest level of organization is a single cell from a tissue. For example, a single muscle fiber within a muscle. Some physiologists study how the parts within a cell work or how different proteins or chemicals interact within a cell.

History of Physiology

Physiology has long been studied together with anatomy and medicine. Ancient civilizations from Greece, Egypt, India, and China all have written records describing human physiology and treatments for various diseases. The history of physiology in Europe during the Renaissance from the 16th to the 18th century was greatly influenced by classical Greek works of natural philosophers such as Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. The term physiology was first used by 16th-century French physician Jean Fernel.

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