Biology and Behavior - Introduction
Imagine sitting on the sandy beaches of the Florida Keys. You feel a swift
breeze rush over you as you gaze lazily at the descending sun, shaded by its
faint glow by a palm tree. The sunset gives you a feeling of peacefulness and
pleasure. Before you go dreaming of sandy beaches again, here's a question
to think about: how is it that we're able to feel the way we do? What makes it
so we can feel the wind on our face or the feel a sense of laziness while we
gaze at the sunset? Psychology determines what people perceive to feel and
behave, but underlying it all - ultimately determining the way we act, feel and
behave is biology.
Biology is the science of living things. It is a rather broad discipline encompassing everything from how plants make energy and food from sunlight and water to how the human brain works. So why discuss biology when this site is about psychology? Well, biology (in particular physiology) plays an integral role in supporting psychology, as most evident with the biology of the intricacies of the brain and its supporting structures. Consequently, it is important for psychologists to establish a bridge between psychology and biology. This lesson won't cover everything in biology, but it will give you a focused introduction into how biology affects behavior.
When studying psychology there are three important approaches of biology to
keep in mind. One approach in biology is the causation of behavior. When our hand touches a hot stove, we quickly move our hand away from the fire because we feel pain. The "cause" - the hot stove - makes the "effect" or behavior - our hand moving accordingly to avoid the pain of the fire. Such cause-effect relationships are one of the bases of adaptation, changing according to our
environment. But some cause-effect relationships are not so apparent, as with
the case with the picturesque imagining above. What causes us to perceive
peacefulness and beauty? With such questions, the influence of biology is more
subtle and relies more on psychological analysis such as in emotion and
A second aspect of biology is genetics. Genes are located within all the cells
of our body and contain the hereditary information of each individual.
They are the units that determine a person's characteristics - both physical and
mental. Genetics will play an ever-increasing role in psychology especially with
the complete mapping of all the genes in the human genome.
Biologically-orientated psychologists can search for and isolate spots on the
genome that affect behavior. The fact that genes play a role in determining a
person's mental state is of significant importance to psychologists. For
example, suppose there was a gene that increased intelligence. Studying how
genes can affect a person's mental being can lead to a better understanding
about the biological influences on behavior.
The third aspect of biology in the sphere of psychology is considering the
theory of evolution. First proposed by Charles Darwin, evolution is a theory of
how new species and changes in species arise due to adaptation to the
environment. Human evolutionary theory not only tries to describe how humans
have changed physically but also how they have changed behaviorally. How did we
go from a grunting, language-less species to a species capable of expressing and
forming complex ideas and expressions? Psychologists are concerned with
answering questions like these, such as how language and thought developed.
Additionally, evolution plays an importance in relating humans to other animals.
Since certain species of primates are similar to us evolutionarily, we can
sometimes use these species as models for human behavior.
Whatever the approach, a biologically-orientated psychologist will always try to
link behavior with the immediately preceding biological or physiological event.
For instance, a recent article
in the USA Today newspaper stated that omega-3-rich fish oil instates
"optimal brain functioning and mood." A biologically-orientated
psychologist might setup an experiment where he administers omega-3-rich fish
oil to patients and records how their behavior changes, by measuring how their
intelligence or motor function changes. After obtaining results, he might go
about trying to explain them in a biological context according to the
supplements of omega-3-rich fish oil. Such a simple example illustrates how
psychology and biology can be interconnected.