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Psychology

Psychology

Psychology comes from the Greek words ‘psyche’ which means ‘mind’ and ‘logos’ which means ‘the study of’; psychology is therefore the study of the mind. Psychology is now thought to be the scientific study of human (and animal) behaviour and mental functions. Psychology developed from research in biology and philosophy therefore there is much overlap. The Psychology syllabus ensures you will cover areas such as ethical treatment of individuals with conditions like schizophrenia or Obsessive compulsive disorder. How do we help those with gender problems? How do children develop their thinking processes? As you should see much of what you study directly applies to real life situations with the aim to understand in order to best help people.

The ultimate question we seek an answer to is ‘What causes us to behave like we do?’ or simply ‘What drives/motivates our behaviour?’

What makes us conform to peer pressure (or not!) is it our brain, our learning, our personality, our genes – or is it some combination of all of these. Do babies have a personality already present (genetic?) or is it all shaped by their experiences? Why do mental disorders, like schizophrenia or Obsessive compulsive disorder, occur and what can we do to best treat those having problems? Do we manipulate their brain through drugs and surgery or do we use talking therapies to intervene?

At A level you will learn that there are a number of views on the nature of psychology. However, the main opinion is that psychology is a multi–disciplinary subject with a scientific orientation that uses a number of different key approaches. These different approaches complement one another. Thus, in the study of memory, the experimental approach enables psychologists to measure in the laboratory the effect of variables on, for example, the ability to recall under different conditions. Although this may be an artificial setting, such findings can be applied to everyday life, in the form of specific techniques, like full reconstructions and special interview methods, to ensure the most accurate recall by victims and eye-witnesses in court.

Cognitive psychologists try to imagine how different memory systems might work together, suggesting that we have for example, two different memory stores — one for short-term and one for long-term remembering. Physiological psychologists also investigate memory by trying to find which parts of the brain are involved with the storage of memories. There is a link between research into memory and the psychoanalytic approach. One of the theories of why we forget includes motivated forgetting, which suggests that certain emotionally charged memories (such as abuse as a child) may be deliberately pushed from our conscious awareness. Behaviourist psychologists believe that all behaviour is learned (conditioned) from our environment e.g. being bitten by a dog and learning to fear all dogs (phobia).Social learning approach is similar to behaviourism but believes we all learn from the environment but concentrate on humans and animals learning by copying (observational/social learning) others e.g. Studies by Mineka showing baby monkeys learning fear responses to snakes (never having seen snakes themselves) simply from watching adults displaying fear to a snake on a video screen.

There are also ethical considerations, particularly when putting participants in a laboratory to conduct experiments on them and asking them to carry out unusual tasks — this may dehumanise them e.g. in Cognitive psychology the human mind is compared to computer processing and this can be criticised for treating humans mechanistically.

Psychology also studies animals and often generalises the findings to humans. The A-level will also ask you to consider both practical and philosophical issues. Is it right to experiment on animals? Is it scientifically valid to generalise findings from animals to humans?

How much distress is acceptable in experiments? In Professor Milgram’s famous obedience experiment (a key element of module 2 at AS) the participants were exposed to a considerable degree of distress while thinking they were electrocuting others. These are questions we must consider at AS level.

At A level, biological psychology has significant role. Integral parts of what causes our behaviour are our genes, neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), hormones, and the actual structure and function of our brains! The Biological approach commonly studies cases of brain damage and compares functioning before and after damage, looking for a relationship between the area damaged and specific functions. For example, there is an area called Broca’s area (Left side of brain), if this area is damaged, e.g. by a stroke, the person will lose the ability to speak (Broca’s aphasia). Studying examples like these reveals much about how the brain directly affects our behaviour. If you are interested look up these two examples from AS level: Clive Wearing and HM (who both have a condition called Anterograde amnesia).

At A level you will also study learning. In some cases, as animals are easier to study in the laboratory under controlled conditions, most behavioural research has been done this way. Using dogs, rats and other animals, behaviourists have focused mainly on learning. Using methods derived from such investigations, behaviourists have been successful in treating people with behaviour problems such as phobias and alcoholism.

The diagram shows a still from famous "Little Albert" experiment by J. Watson - a small bot that was conditioned (taught by classical conditioning by making a scary noise with 2 metal bars at the same time Albert was being shown the white rat) to develop a phobia of white rats (and anything white and fluffy - like a beard!).  

In Psychology you will also study various disorders and how we treat them. One of the most common methods is to directly influence brain chemistry. GABA is a chemical; transmitter. Many sedative/tranquilizing drugs act by enhancing the effects of GABA. In module 2 you will learn about antianxiety drugs like diazepam (valium) which helps reduce the symptoms of phobias/OCD by manipulating the levels of GABA in the brain.Another is Dopamine. Dysfunction of the dopamine system is also implicated in Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia, both of which are studied at AS and A2 level.Serotonin functions to regulate appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature, mood, behaviors, muscle contraction, and function of the endocrine system. It is speculated to have a role in depression and anxiety disorders(both covered at AS and A2 level). Imbalance of this chemical is thought to contribute to the symptoms. Therefore is targeted by drugs used to treat these conditions e.g. SSRI’s like prozac.

As you can see, Psychology covers a varied range of material, requiring hard work and a willingness to engage with many new concepts. However we are extremely popular at both AS and A2 level and our students enjoy the course. If you are interested please feel free to come to the department for more information.