How Psychologists Study the Brain

The old saying goes that if the brain were simple enough to understand, then we would be too simple to understand it. We’re a long way from fully comprehending the true complexity of the human brain and how it works and it might be a simple truth that we can never fully reach that understanding. But that sure doesn’t stop us from trying…

Thus for every mystery that the brain still holds, there is another amazing revelation or discovery that we’ve made and which has been able to shed new light on our view of our minds. While what we don’t know might be seductive and intriguing, it’s really rather amazing how much we do know and that shouldn’t be undermined.

So how do psychologists and scientists make these incredible discoveries? How do you go about studying the very thing that allows you to study? How do you pick apart something so complex that it makes the most advanced computer look like a children’s toy? Let’s take a look at some of the methodologies that have brought us to our current point of understanding…

Note: Of course the way psychologists study the brain is separate from the way they study behaviour, though the two are linked. That’s a story for another time…


The most obvious way to understand the brain is to reverse engineer it, and of course a lot can be learned simply from cutting open the brain and seeing the way it’s wired.

But to really make head or tail of this, we need context and we need to be able to see the brain in action. This is why the most useful studies into the brain involve live patients and their testimony or brain imaging techniques. Of course though there are some ethical problems to consider when cutting open live brains, so the question is how psychologists manage to get around this problem and still see what’s going on.

Here are a couple of those:

Brain Imaging: Brain imaging studies use all kinds of methods in order to ‘visualise’ what the brain is doing at any given time. For instance this can be accomplished with an MRI scan which gives clear enough temporal and special resolution to create a rough picture of how the brain is working.

For instance then, someone inside an MRI machine might be asked to use their mind’s eye in order to visualise their girlfriend. Hopefully this would then lead to firing in the visual areas (which we now know are located at the back of the brain and call ‘visual area 1’ or the ‘occipital lobe’) and the emotional areas of the brain (the hypothalamus, which is part of the limbic system).

From there we might then ask the participant to visualise a tennis ball and see which different areas of the brain fire. Presumably that would be just the occipital lobe, without interference from the hypothalamus. Of course these studies would need to be reproduced countless times in many sets of circumstances in order to rule out individual differences etc., but that’s the gist.

Other methods of brain imaging include CAT scans, electroencephalographs and X-Rays. Sometimes these involve the use of special liquids that show up more brightly when scanned than the rest of the blood in the brain.

Injury Studies: While a psychologist could never in good conscience take a slice out of someone’s brain, if someone should happen to injure their brain and they are willing, then there’s no reason that psychologists can’t study the results.

For instance if someone was in a car crash and damaged their limbic system they could potentially end up losing their ability to feel emotion (this has actually happened to some people). By looking at the nature of the damage and making that connection, this is another way that psychologists have been able to identify the important role of the limbic system.

Of course strokes, developmental disorders and even illnesses (such as Parkinson’s disease) can also affect behaviour and perception and these can also be useful in aiding psychologists to get a better picture of the brain.

Open Brain Surgery: Another instance in which psychologists might be able to jump on the back of providence, is to ask open brain surgery patients if they are willing to let them run a few tests during their operation. It sounds rather gruesome, but of course the patient is in no discomfort and often finds the studies fascinating.

During these moments, psychologists have the rare opportunity to experiment on a live human brain and see the immediate results of their work. Often this is accomplished using electrodes which can suppress or stimulate the firing of particular neurons. Psychologists would apply these electrodes and then ask the patients to describe what they experience as a result.

For instance, did you know that using an electrode in just the right place can cause a person to experience their old memories in vivid detail all at once? This kind of thing can once again be highly enlightening for psychologists trying to learn about the way the brain works and which areas are responsible for which functions.

These days some similar experiments can be conducted without the need for brain surgery. Thanks to something called ‘transcranial direct-current stimulation’ (TDCS) it is now possible to stimulate some nerve clusters in the brain through the skull using special devices. This is how we might one day be able to control computer games with our thoughts, but for now the science is in its infancy and not nearly as precise as using patients of open brain surgery.

Animal Studies: While it is not okay to cut open the brains of living humans in any way shape or form, people tend to be more forgiving when the subjects in question are animals such as lab rats or mice. While there are still groups opposed to animal testing, this is one of the most useful ways for psychologists to see immediate effects. Of course they then also have to then make the assumption that the results would also apply to humans, which makes it unsuitable for particular kinds of studies.

Behaviour: Sometimes you don’t even need to see the brain directly in order to make some interesting inferences about the way it might have changed. Based on what we already know for instance, we can often assume that changes in behaviour are either the cause or the result for other types of behaviours.

For instance, if someone feels very stressed, then we can generally make the assumption that their brain is producing more cortisol, whereas if they’re very happy then we know that their brain is producing more serotonin. With this knowledge we can safely assume that certain behaviours lead to the release of particular hormones in the brain – though this can be tested in other ways using imaging techniques or even saliva samples to be certain. Similarly a behavioural study into the workings of the brain might challenge someone to go without sleep, or to alter their diet, and then to measure the results.

Drugs: Another thing that can alter the production of hormones, as well as the production and regulation of neurotransmitters is medication. Research into neurotransmitters and hormones has led to the creation of antidepressants and other important medications, and this can be accomplished through the simple use of drug trials – administering a dosage and then measuring the effects that the user reports/that can be measured.

Something important to account for here though is the ‘placebo effect’. This describes the fact that many people after taking a drug will ‘imagine’ results which then causes them to feel differently even without the drug acting. For instance, give someone a sugar pill (a pill containing nothing but sugar) and tell them that it is for mood boosting, and they will likely believe they are going to feel happier and thus feel happier as a result. Here, the placebo effect is working as what’s known as a ‘confounding variable’ – an unintentional element that might impact on the results of the test and thus skew the results. Even if you measure for hormones in the saliva, someone’s belief that they are happier could even cause their body to secrete more serotonin.

The way that psychologists get around this problem (and the problems caused by other placebos) is simply to have two groups – one group that takes an experimental medication, the other which takes a sugar pill (this latter group is called the ‘control group’). To truly eliminate any chance of the effects being biased, in some cases the examiners will not even know themselves which group is which (this is called a ‘double blind’ experiment). Only if the results of the non-placebo group are significantly more noticeable than the control group is the medication considered effective.

As you can see then, the brain is a highly complex thing to study. Fortunately psychologists have come up with a number of ingenious ways that are just as complex which they can use to get around this problem. Today we know a huge amount about the brain and thanks to science, though it’s still only the tip of the iceberg. Whether we’ll ever understand complex subjects such as consciousness and free will is something that remains to be seen…

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