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AS and A Level: Physiological Psychology

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Five physiological approaches to research

  1. 1 Genetic – seeks to establish the extent to which traits are due to inheritance or environment. Researchers study concordance rates (if one person has a trait or disorder, what is the percentage probability that the relative also has it?) using twin, adoption and family studies e.g. susceptibility to stress.
  2. 2 Evolutionary – seeks to establish continuity between human and other species and explain human behaviours in terms of ecological adaptation, maximising survival and reproduction. Look out for studies on primate or other mammal behaviour that are used to draw conclusions about causes of human behaviour e.g ecological theories of sleep.
  3. 3 Neuroanatomical – seeks to understand the relationship between brain structure and behaviour. Often uses case studies of people with damage to certain parts of the brain or post-mortems of people with abnormal behaviours e.g. case studies of amnesiacs.
  4. 4 Psychobiological – related to the previous approach, but with more of a focus on measuring brain activity using a variety of scanning techniques whilst the individual is engaged in a specific task or activity. Often used for comparisons – eg. the brain activity of diagnosed psychopaths compared against the brain activity of ‘normal’ participants.
  5. 5 Biochemical – related to the previous approach, but with more of a focus on assessing the levels and activity of specified neurotransmitters or hormones and drawing correlations with specific mental states or behaviours e.g. post-natal depression, changes throughout the menstrual cycle.

Five big ideas for physiological psychology essays

  1. 1 Consider the causal nature of research findings – On the other hand, studies that do involve manipulation of an independent variable may require so much control of extraneous variables to produce a robust causal relationship that they can be criticised as being artificial and reductionist.
  2. 2 Consider the scientific nature of claims – Assess the extent to which explanations are supported by scientific research or not. Evaluate the techniques used by psychologists to operationalize mental processes in their research. For example, behavioural responses and psychobiological measures don’t tell us about the nature of thoughts.
  3. 3 Consider determinism – The more scientific the approach, the more determinist it tends to be, because science is the search for causes. Seeking ultimate causes of behaviour or chains of causal links is incompatible with the idea that humans have free will and complete moral responsibility.
  4. 4 Consider reductionism – Reductionism is the principle that one should always seek to understand at the most basic, most fundamental level: e.g reducing our understanding of depression to an explanation about the balance of chemicals in the brain rather than looking at the whole person in their social context. As a rule, the more scientific the approach, the more reductionist it is. Reductionist explanations have the benefit of being able to provide straightforward practical solutions.
  5. 5 Consider the correlational nature of research– Much physiological research is correlational, because it can be unethical to manipulate variables when studying topics such as the relationship between stress and the immune system or extreme sleep deprivation. Such studies can never produce a conclusive causal explanation, no matter how much we would like them to!

Four common brain imaging techniques

  1. 1 fMRI – Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging measures brain activity by measuring blood flow and oxygenation within the brain. When neurons are active they use more oxygen - so higher blood flow in a particular area signifies increased neural activity. fMRI scans are useful for studying the localisation and level of brain activity.
  2. 2 CT– A Computerised Tomography scan builds up an overall picture of the brain based on the way that X-rays are absorbed. Bone and hard tissue absorb more x-rays, soft tissue absorbs less, fluid absorbs very little. CT scans show the main features of the brain but are not so useful for looking at detailed structures.
  3. 3 PET– Positron Emission Tomography uses tiny amounts of radioactive material with very short half-life to map functional processes in the brain. When the radioactive material decays, a positron is emitted and this is detected on the scan. Higher radioactivity is associated with higher levels of brain activity.
  4. 4 EEG – Electroencephalography involves measuring the electrical activity of the brain with electrodes attached to the scalp and coverting the level of activity into an electroencephalogram, which shows the amplitude and frequency of brain waves. EEGs are frequently used in sleep research because it is a non-invasive technique, which can detect minute millisecond length changes in overall brain activity and arousal level.

  • Marked by Teachers essays 33
  • Peer Reviewed essays 14
  1. Marked by a teacher

    Discuss research into stress-related illness and the immune system

    5 star(s)

    They looked at chronic and naturally occurring stress in 13 female individuals, who had been caring for a relative with Alzheimer's disease for an average of 8 years. There was a control group for the experiment of 13 females matched to the carers in age and family income. The slowing of wound healing was used as a measure for immune damage, so the experimenters created a small wound in the arm of the participants, close to the elbow. Time taken for the wound to heal was assessed by photographs on a regular basis, and also by adding hydrogen peroxide to the wound, which would show that the wound had healed if there was no foaming.

    • Word count: 1188
  2. Marked by a teacher

    Outline one theory of the function of sleep

    4 star(s)

    This is supported by the evidence that babies sleep longer than older people, as they need more REM sleep to assist the development of the control nervous system and also by the fact that 50% of sleep in newborn babies is REM sleep to encourage rapid brain growth. It has also been found that people who have had electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) for depression or who have taken an overdose have an increase in REM sleep 6-8 weeks afterwards as it takes time for the brain to replace the protein.

    • Word count: 1508
  3. Marked by a teacher

    Memory Consolidation and REM Sleep.

    4 star(s)

    sleep. Electroencephalograph patterns for REM sleep are much like those during wakefulness, and include many fast beta-rhythms (2). It may even be that the brain works harder during REM sleep than when awake (3). REM sleep usually lasts anywhere from 11 to 25 minutes, typically longer in the later sleep cycles of the night (2). REM sleep is most often associated with dreaming, for most dreams occur during this period. One of the first theories linking REM sleep to memory was offered in 1966 by Roffwarg, Musio and Dement and suggested that repetitive firing of neurons during REM sleep in human fetuses was associated with neuron growth and development, and this synaptic reinforcement continued in adult life during REM sleep.

    • Word count: 1385
  4. Peer reviewed

    Outline and evaluate two social psychological explanations for aggression

    5 star(s)

    While both are a form of operant conditioning, the direct approach parallels the ideas much closer. Bandura outlined the following four steps in the modelling process of SLT: Attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. Attention is increased if the model is more prestigious, attractive or similar. This causes the person (Bandura's work was largely focused on children) to remember the aggressive behaviour through cognitive processes, thus retention. Furthermore, vicarious reinforcement is not enough; imitation can only occur if the person possesses appropriate skills to reproduce the behaviour. And finally, the child requires motivation to act out the aggressive behaviour as imitation is related to direct and indirect reinforcements and punishments.

    • Word count: 1094
  5. Peer reviewed

    Outline the clinical characteristics of one anxiety disorder

    4 star(s)

    Social phobia can be related to shyness. The anxiety reduces the phobic's ability to cope with the social surroundings and interferes with the individuals' ability to function in at least some areas of daily life. Approximately 1-2% prevalence of the population meets the criteria of social phobia. The phobia can be triggered by actual or perceived judgement from others. Agoraphobia is a fear of leaving a familiar area, which can be open or closed. It is the only phobia that is treated as a medical condition. The prevalence of the population is 2-3%.

    • Word count: 1815

Conclusion analysis

Good conclusions usually refer back to the question or title and address it directly - for example by using key words from the title.
How well do you think these conclusions address the title or question? Answering these questions should help you find out.

  1. Do they use key words from the title or question?
  2. Do they answer the question directly?
  3. Can you work out the question or title just by reading the conclusion?
  • Compare and contrast biological and psychological explanations of anxiety disorders

    "The behavioral view is that individuals are active in determining their behaviour. There is evidence to support the behavioral views. Behaviorists argue that phobias are learnt by classical conditioning and reinforced by operant conditioning. In concerning depression, according to, Lewinsohn (1974), a depressed person becomes trapped in a cycle of withdrawal which leads to a lack of positive reinforcement, perpetuating depression. Socially unskilled people may be more prone to depression. The problem with the behavioral account as we have seen is it has difficulties accounting for why people all over the world are similar."

  • To What Extent can psychological research provide useful forms of stress management techniques?

    "In conclusion, psychological research highlights the variety of stress management techniques and programmes as well as their respective strengths and weaknesses. However, the most appropriate method of stress management appears to depend on individual differences so a clear determination of the most useful method can not be reached."

  • Discuss the genetic and biochemical explanations of schizophrenia

    "In conclusion, dopamine is probably of importance in understanding schizophrenia. However, it looks increasingly as if there are various complex differences in dopamine functioning between those with schizophrenia and healthy individuals. There is also the causality issue. If we find an association between having schizophrenia and having high levels of dopamine, the excessive dopamine levels might have played a part in causing the schizophrenia. However, it is also possible that elevated dopamine levels are in part a consequence of having schizophrenia."

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