By Dominika Leitan (Bugle Team)
Psychology as we know it today has only been practiced for around 70 years, which is nothing compared to other scientific fields. In human terms, math is elderly; physics, chemistry and biology are middle-aged, and psychology is essentially a toddler. As a result, we are only now starting to make our first steps towards the ‘right’ approaches to studying the mind.
We have come a long way from Freud’s theories, through behaviorism and cognitive psychology, to the biological approach. Our focus shifted has from the psychology of the mind to the biology of the mind. Psychologists accepted materialism and realized that our thoughts, ideas and behaviors are controlled, if not caused by, the brain.
And so psychology has recently (that is, a couple of decades ago) immersed itself in the study of neurotransmitters, functions of different parts of the brain and anatomical abnormalities. But that kind of sounds familiar, because another area of research, classified to be independent from psychology, does exactly the same type of thing. This area is, of course, neuroscience.
Indeed, neuroscientists use biological measurements such as fMRI scans to establish the biological patterns that underlie cognition and behavior, which is exactly what psychologists came to do in the recent years. So, now that both sciences are basically doing the same thing, how and where do we draw the line between psychology and neuroscience, and is there even a line to draw?
Well, the truth is that there is no definitive answer. Some people believe that in the near future psychology and neuroscience will merge completely: they say that neuroscience has the answers to psychology’s questions.
And indeed, neuroscience can shine-or has already shone-some light on the origins and treatment of many psychological conditions (depression, anxiety, phobias etc.), as shown by a UCLA professor Michelle Craske in her recently published article on the importance of merging the two sciences in the field of mental health. Moreover, it provides psychology with the missing pieces for the puzzle of cognition, so cognitive psychology has already, quite successfully, been transformed into cognitive neuroscience. They say it is therefore logical to assume that it will soon find its way into other areas of psychology as well.
Others believe that some areas of psychology, like educational, sports and industrial organizational psychology, can never truly merge with neuroscience, as they do not rely on the biological study of the brain at all.
However, most scientists believe that the ‘right’ answer lies somewhere in the middle between those two opinions. It is true that the two fields are becoming increasingly intertwined. But their ultimate goals are different: neuroscience simply seeks to explore the biological bases for our behaviors and cognitions, whereas psychology is concerned with a more broad understanding of the mind: in a sense, psychology cannot afford to be as reductionist as neuroscience is, because it is primarily the study of the human complexity and individual differences. Simply put, neuroscience answers the question ‘what?’, and psychology tries to answer ‘why?’. The two can be extremely useful in helping each other our here and there, but could never become one.
Zen Faulkes (who has a Ph.D in biology), in response to a related question on Quora, illustrates psychology as “I remember where I parked my car”, and neuroscience as “the position of my car is encoded by firing patterns of place cells in my hippocampus”, making the point that one can never replace the other, though the two can work together.
Similarly, in their book “Inner Experience and Neuroscience: Merging Both Perspectives” Donald Price and James Barrell propose the development of methods of studying human experience through integrating psychology, neuroscience and philosophy, therefore showing how the sciences can come together and help each other in dealing with a very complex issue.
Brief summary of Michelle Craske’s article-
Overview of “Inner Experience and Neuroscience: Merging Both Perspectives”-