Introduction - Brain and behaviour

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

Brain and behaviour

Mark Solms & Oliver Turnbull

How do we know that the brain is the part of the body that allows us to think, feel and act? One of the tasks of neuropsychology is using science to understand the part of the body that produces that thing we use for thinking, the thing that we call the mind.

However, the brain and the mind are not exactly the same thing. To know that the mind is produced by the brain is like saying that the power for driving a car comes from its engine. This is basically right but it is lacking in detail. It does not tell you the specifics of how your car manages this remarkable process. How do the different parts of the engine work — what does the distributor do, what role is played by the spark-plugs, what is a compression cycle? Why does a car need petrol, oil and water? Why does it emit exhaust fumes? Most people who drive cars have little idea of how an engine functions — just as most people can use their minds without knowing the first thing about how the organ of mind really operates.

If you are sufficiently interested in the mind to take a psychology course, then you must surely be interested in knowing how mental experience is produced. This is the topic of the next two chapters. Of course, trying to explain how mental life is produced by the brain can never be fully accomplished by an introductory text. The brain is a remarkably complex organ, and, unlike the engine of a car, there is still a great deal more that we have yet to understand about how it operates. Part of the task of neuropsychology is trying to understand what the basic design principles of the brain might be. However, though our understanding of brain function is incomplete, there is quite a lot that we do know. Through the following chapters we hope to provide enough detail to show you that neuropsychology is not only inherently interesting, but also that a basic working knowledge of the topic is absolutely essential for anyone who hopes to be a psychologist.

Chapter 7 on biological psychology and neuropsychology introduces the concept of the nervous system, which is important for understanding the brain. In addition, the chapter reviews the history and development of neuropsychology — where there have been several landmark discoveries. This chapter also gives some idea of the practical work that is carried out by neuropsychologists in their day-to-day encounters with people who have suffered some form of brain disease or brain damage.

Chapter 8, on sensation and perception, explains how our brains process the stimuli that come in through our senses and how we make sense of these stimuli. The chapter explores the various sensory systems, with a particular focus on vision. This is because vision is the best investigated of the senses.

For millennia, intelligent human beings have been able to understand a great deal about the way the human mind operates — developing profound insights into psychology. For this reason, we are able to experience a range of universal truths of human nature in literatures from around the world. (An example of this is found in Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island copy of Shakespeare’s collected works. Mandela marked a section of Act II, Scene II of Julius Caesar, a statement on the topic of courage and mortality that he found relevant and inspirational — even though the words were written almost 400 years earlier, across the breadth of two continents, and were read by someone raised in an entirely different culture.) Without question, Shakespeare understood a great deal of the operation of the human mind. However, like the motorist who understands nothing of how the car’s engine works, all Shakespeare’s insights into human experience lay unconnected to a knowledge of how the mind was produced. We should feel rightly privileged to live in an era when such knowledge is becoming available.

Hopefully, the chapters in this part will make it clear that biological psychology is a fascinating field, and one that is central to any well-rounded understanding of human psychology.