Putting It Together: Biopsychology

Learning Objectives

In this module, you learned to

  • identify the basic structures of a neuron, the function of each structure, and how messages travel through the neuron
  • describe the role of the nervous system and endocrine systems
  • identify and describe the parts of the brain
  • explain how nature, nurture, and epigenetics influence personality and behavior

Read this abstract from Lane Beckes, James A. Coan, and Karen Hasselmo’s 2012 study, “Familiarity promotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat.”

Neurobiological investigations of empathy often support an embodied simulation account. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we monitored statistical associations between brain activations indicating self-focused threat to those indicating threats to a familiar friend or an unfamiliar stranger. Results in regions such as the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus indicate that self-focused threat activations are robustly correlated with friend-focused threat activations but not stranger-focused threat activations. These results suggest that one of the defining features of human social bonding may be increasing levels of overlap between neural representations of self and other. This article presents a novel and important methodological approach to fMRI empathy studies, which informs how differences in brain activation can be detected in such studies and how covariate approaches can provide novel and important information regarding the brain and empathy.

Did you recognize any of the concepts discussed in this module? This study used fMRI to examine the brain activation of people as they looked at cues and received, or were threatened with receiving, mild electric shocks while holding hands with either a friend or a stranger. The results showed the expected response—brain activation in the anterior insula, putamen, and supramarginal gyrus when a person was threatened with a shock. What was remarkable, however, was that people showed nearly the same brain activation when a friend was threatened with the shock, but not a stranger. This provides insight into studies on empathy, and the idea that the concept of “self” can expand to include others as well.

As you can see, there is a limitless amount of information that could be studied on the brain. Neuroscience is a relatively new field, but the more research that is done, the more it appears that much of human behavior and mental processes—the key interests for psychological study—are intimately intertwined with activity in the brain. Understanding the brain is important no matter what type of psychology you will be involved with, because its effects permeate all human behavior.

The more we learn about the brain and its functioning, the better able we are to work towards repairing the brain or mimicking its capabilities. These advances in research lead to medical discoveries and breakthroughs, such as the one explained in the following video: