Discuss Environmental and Physiological Effects on Cognition

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In the past, people primarily related physiological processes to be influenced by genetics only and therefore it was largely believed that the brain was fixed. Now, it is said that certain effects of the environment can affect physiological processes. It can be induced that the there is a bidirectional relationship between both the environment and physiology as cognition can affect biology and vice versa. The two effects of the environment on physiological processes that will be discussed include the enrichment of certain environments on brain plasticity and that higher levels of melatonin contribute to seasonal affective disorder.

In Rosenthal’s experiment, he hypothesized that seasonal depression is due to high melatonin in the body was due to a lack of light. He therefore conducted light therapy to help patients suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). There was a selected 29 patients of 2000 who reported suffering from depressions in fall and winter who contacted Rosenthal’s team to be a part of this treatment. During the winter of 1981, 11 patients were treated with bright white lights and all experienced some antidepressant effect. The results may be dramatic for such a small sample size as it shows that a brighter environment can counteract depression. Yet, there are lots of discrepancies relating to this experiment. First of all, the SAD article was written in a newspaper, which asked people to take apart. People knew in advance that light was supposed to be good for you after reading the article. What this indicates is that the people that participated in this experiment were under the “placebo effect”. This is when people get better just because they are being treated and not because of the treatment itself. Coupled with a small sample size, Rosenthal’s findings should be regarded as preliminary. What Rosenthal could do to verify his findings would be to conduct a blind study where patients don’t know which treatment is real or fake so that it would truly be objective.

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The second effect of an environment on physiological processes that will be discussed is brain plasticity. This is the brain’s ability to rearrange its connections with its neurons. This translates to the idea that the structure of the brain changing as a result of exposure to different environments.  Two studies that support the idea that the brain is effected by the environment include: Maguire's study on spatial navigation and its effect on the hippocampus, and Rosenzweig and Bennett's study on deprivation versus enrichment and its effect on rat brains.

        In Rosenzweigs and Bennets (1972) study, rats were placed in two ...

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