The Definition of Biological Psychology
In the most fundamental sense, people are biological entities, and some psychologists emphasize how the physiological functions and structures of our body work together with our mind to influence our behavior. Biopsychology is the branch of psychology that specializes in the biological bases of behavior and mental processes. Biopsychologists study a broad range of topics with a focus on the operation of the brain and nervous system. For example, they may investigate the ways in which specific sites in the brain are related to a disorder such as Parkinson’s disease, or they may attempt to determine how bodily sensations are related to emotion (Kowalski & Westen, 2005).

The Historical Development
The famous Greek physician Hippocrates thought that personality was made up of four temperaments: sanguine (cheerful and active), melancholic (sad), choleric (angry and aggressive), the phlegmatic (calm and passive). These temperaments were influenced by the presence of “humors,” or fluids, in the body. For instance, a sanguine person was thought to have more blood than other people. Moreover, Franz Josef Gall, an eighteenth-century scientist, argued that a trained observer could discern intelligence, moral character, and other basic personality traits from the shape and number of bumps on a person’s skull. His theory gave rise to the “science” of phrenology, employed by hundreds of practitioners (Wickens, 2005). According to the philosopher Descartes, nerves were hollow tubes through which “animal spirits” conducted impulses in the same way that water is transmitted through a tube. When people put a finger too close to a fire, then the heat was transmitted via the spirits through the tube, directly into the brain (Wickens, 2005).

While these “scientific” explanations sound farfetched today, at one time they represented the most advanced thinking regarding what might be called the psychology of the era. Even without knowing much about modern-day psychology, one can surmise that the understanding of behavior has advanced tremendously since these earlier views were formulated. Yet most of the advances have occurred relatively recently, for, as sciences go, psychology is one of the newcomers on the block. Although its roots can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and though philosophers have argued for several hundred years about some of the same sorts of questions that psychologists grapple with today, the formal beginning of psychology is generally set at 1879. In that year, the first laboratory devoted to experimental study of psychological phenomena was established in Germany by Wilhelm Wundt; about the same time, the American William James set up his laboratory in Cambridge (Goodwin, 2005).

Throughout its some 13 decades of formal existence, psychology has led an active life, developing gradually into a true science. As part of this evolution, it has produced a number of conceptual models that have guided the work being carried out. Some models have been discarded – just as have the views of Hippocrates and Descartes – but others have been developed and elaborated on and provide a set of maps for psychologists to follow.


The most important Theorists
To talk about biological psychology without mentioning Darwin and his genial theory of evolution and Mendel with his rules of genetic inheritance would mean to neglect the cornerstones of biology (Wickens, 2005). Other major contributions came from Galvani and his discovery of  electrical currents within the human body, from Hooke who “coined the word ´cell´” (Wickens, 2005, p. 7), from Leeuwenhoek who tested human tissue, from Golgi who discovered a stain which could be used for the examination of nerve cells, from Ramon y Cajel who gave a description of the neural anatomy and its structure, from Sherrington who termed the word “synapses,” and Loewi who discovered that neurotransmitters, which were responsible for the chemical transmission within the synaptic gap. Additionally, the “research on the giant squid axon” (Wickens, 2005, p. 15) shed some light on the question of the neuron’s electrical and chemical properties and was conducted by Young at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus, the experiment with the giant squid gave way to the discovery of the nerve impulse by Hodgkin and Huxley (Wickens, 2005). In addition, Watson and Crick facilitated “probably the most important scientific advance of the twentieth century” (Wickens, 2005, p. 400) by unraveling the chemical structure of chromosomes. Those remarkable men are counted as the founders of biological psychology; even though they all came from different scientific fields.


Description of the Biological Approach
The biological approach to psychology is the psychological model that views behavior in terms of biological functioning. When one gets down to the basics, behavior is carried out by living creatures made of skin and guts. According to the biological approach, the behavior of both people and animals should be considered from the perspective of their biological functioning: how the individual nerve cells are joined together, how the inheritance of certain characteristics from parents and other ancestors influences behavior, how the functioning of the body affects hopes and fears, what behaviors are due to instincts, and so forth. Even more complex kinds of behavior, like emotional responses such as fear, are viewed as having critical biological components by psychologists using the biological model.

Because every behavior can at some level be broken down into its biological components, the biological model has broad appeal. Psychologists who subscribe to this model have contributed important advances in the understanding and betterment of human life, advances that range from suggesting cures for deafness to identifying drugs that help people with severe mental disorders.


In sum, as one discusses the biological characteristics that are of interest to biopsychologists, it is important to keep in mind the basic rationale for doing so: The understanding of human behavior cannot be complete without knowledge of the fundamentals of the brain and the rest of the nervous system. As one will see, much of the behavior of humans – the moods, motivations, goals, and desires – has a good deal to do with the biological makeup of these humans.


Yours, Beate Landgraf


Goodwin, J. (2004). A History of Modern Psychology. 2nd ed., 29. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Retrieved April 04, 2008, from University of Phoenix, eBook Collection.
Kowalski, R. & Westen, D. (2005). Psychology. 4th ed. 4. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Wickens, A. (2005). Foundation of Biopsychology. 2nd ed. 7-15, 400, Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, England