What is the Biological Approach?
The Biological Approach is based on the idea that we are how we are due to genetics and physiology (our bodily structures and features). It is the idea that we all behave differently due to the physical differences of our bodies. This also means that when we get ill (both physically and mentally), it’s because of changes to our physiology and/or genetic damage.
Although you will probably never meet a person who embraces this view fully, biopsychologists tend to be deterministic in their outlook on life - they believe that we don't really have free will since our behaviour is not only inherent in our genes (and so we have no control over how we react to external stimulus) but also because we cannot fully control the external stimuli we are exposed to throughout our lives.
The Case of Phineas Gage
Phineas Gage, not a psychologist or biologist at all, was an unfortunate railroad construction worker who in an unlikely event ended up with an iron rod being propelled (via an explosion meant to clear rocks for a new rail path) through and out of his head. Incredibly, Gage survived the attack and was walking within minutes. He was treated and although he became comatose after his wound was infected, he even managed to survive that and got back to his normal life.
However, due to the accident Phineas Gage’s personality underwent a reportedly remarkable transformation for the worse. His old job was no longer a possibility for him, since his employer thought him suddenly unfit for his old position. More importantly, he suddenly seemed disrespectful: swearing and being reckless towards his colleagues and their feelings. He also seemed indecisive and lost his inhibitions (he couldn't control his own actions). His change was so dramatic that his friends said that he was “no longer Gage”.
Thus, Gage is often cited as proof for the biological approach because a physical change (in this case damage) to his physiognomy resulted in different behaviour.
Paul Pierre Broca (1824-1880)
Broca’s Findings Concerning Speech
Using patients with speech disorders such as Tan-Tan (who could understand speech but not speak properly), he discovered that the destruction of only a 4x4cm area of the brain would result in speech impairment. Thus, he concluded that there was a specific part of the brain that was responsible for the production of speech. This area of the brain was known as Broca’s Area.
Biopsychologists later discovered the area of the brain responsible for the comprehension of speech, now known as "Wernicke’s area."
Tan-Tan's "Wenicke's area" was said to have remained unaffected in his faulty brain, explaining his apparent comprehension of language.
Broca's Tan-Tan is an example of Post Mortem Analysis at work.
Methods of the Biological Approach
The biological approach is all about the physical properties of the brain and therefore the entire theory is revolved around better understanding cortical localisation (meaning that the brain is split into different areas to carry out different functions).
In order to do this, a variety of scanning techniques are used:
MRI, fMRI and PET Scans
-fMRI scans show 4 images per second on-screen of which part of the brain blood is being supplied to (suggesting activity), creating a moving visualisation of where blood being transferred to. MRI scans produce still photos for analysis.
Post Mortem Analysis
Performing after-death surgery on people who had mental diseases when they were alive can give insights into which parts of the brain are and are not responsible for particular functions.
Live Brain Surgery
Performed on people who already need to have brain surgery (for example those who need a tumour removed), some biopsychologists have tested the various functions of the brain by stimulating them with electrical impulses. A famous example of this is Wilder Penfield who stimulated the cerebral cortex of patients who then had vivid memories of the past and 'unusual experiences'.
Strengths of the Biological Approach
- Scientific - the conclusions are from scientific theory and are based on empirical evidence.
- Development of drugs and breakdowns - It's used practically and successfully in real life.
- New Knowledge - It helps us to understand the role of the brain in higher mental functions like memory (whilst other approaches to not attempt to explain these).
- Identifies Features of Genetics - Shows us how evolution and genetics influence our behaviour as well as playing a role in child development.
- Does not explain specific behaviours – only deals with general emotions and does not include experience of humans.
- Reductionist – it reduces all behaviour to physical processes and neuron activity.
- It can (in the extreme) ignore influence of environment – it is on the side of nature side of the nature/nurture debate and ignores a lot of evidence for the opposing side.
- Gaps - does not really explain consciousness and self-consciousness (self-awareness).
- Simplistic - Simplistic view of human behaviour as no consideration or recognition of social factors (culture…society...).
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