Welcome to Psychology, 2019

Dear Psychology Students,

Welcome to psychology, a study which is rich in intriguing human stories and challenging questions about who we are and how we became that way.

As you know, psychology can be defined as the scientific study of behaviour, thoughts and feelings. On this blog page, you can read an explanation of this definition.

Scientists know much more about the brain than 30 years ago, yet this organ is yet to reveal all its secrets.

The study of psychology is constantly evolving as a result of advances in biological knowledge and new techniques in scanning technology. For instance, our understanding of the human genome continues to grow. As scientists work towards creating a computer model of the human brain’s “genetic landscape”, we are learning more and more about the factors that influence human behaviour.

With each scientific discovery and technological advance, paradoxically, the study becomes more complex. For instance, scientists have so far identified 360 genes that appear to contribute to the development of schizophrenia, yet how these genes work and how they may lead to actual symptoms is still unclear. The more we learn about our genome and our brains, the more we need to learn.

New technologies have changed not just the methodology of biological sciences, but also the way in which humans interact, view themselves and engage with the social world.

There are also changes in psychology as a result of social and cultural developments. For instance, how we define “normal” and “abnormal” — and therefore what we classify as a “mental disorder” — has shifted dramatically in the past five decades. Another change is the digitalisation of human communication ( including even this modest blog), which has led to a transformation in how we interact with one another, how we work and how we learn. For reasons such as these, psychology is a continuously developing discipline.

I hope that you will learn something about yourselves as well as about psychology.

I hope that you will enjoy studying this vast and absorbing subject in 2019 and that you will gain new insights into yourselves and others.

Kind regards,

Ms Green

Extra Reading and Materials

Online Activities

A Rat’s History of Psychology – Part 1

Part 1 – Rat feeding time

Your teachers may seem knowledgeable about psychology, but if you want to hear from someone who has experienced the subject from the inside, ask a rat.

Like me, for instance. I can tell you, I’ve run mazes with the best of them. Pressed levers too. I was lucky that they left me out of the brain surgery group. Fortunately, my hypothalamus is still intact. If it weren’t, I’d be in no shape to be the mascot of this blog.

Psychology is a relatively young science. Luckily for us rats. It wasn’t really until the nineteenth century that people began to study human behaviour using the kind of scientific approach that modern psychologists like to imagine they bring to their work.* Of course, there had been philosophers long before that time who had ruminated on the nature of consciousness. But the people who began to study human thought and behaviour scientifically, using a systematic method that could be repeated by others and written up in dusty journals, emerged only in the nineteenth century.

This history is not about Wilhelm WundtWilliam James, Sigmund Freud or even Jean Piaget. Forget about Hermann Ebbinghaus. This is a rat’s history.

You may be shocked to learn of the cruel exploitation of rats in the history of psychology. If you’re sensitive, don’t read on.

For example, we rats were part of a study in 1943 that showed how vital the hypothalamus is to the experience of hunger. Rats with a lesion (in this case an injury caused by surgery) in one part of this tiny structure in the brain showed little or no interest in eating. They had to be fed intravenously; otherwise, they would have died. When a different part of the hypothalamus was cut or lesioned, the affected rats couldn’t stop eating. They no longer knew when they’d had enough. The first kind of rat became emaciated, the second obese (Brobeck, Tepperman and Long, 1943).

I feel great compassion for the rat comrades who were subjects in that experiment. Is that kind of suffering ever justified? 

That study provided all sorts of information about the role of our hypothalamus. The human hypothalamus is similarly important. It’s about the size of a kidney bean but it is vital to the regulation of basic biological needs. One of its key functions is to control the autonomic nervous system. It is consequently vital in regulating the so-called four f’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding and mating.

So, you see, that experiment provided insight into many topics that you will encounter in your years of psychology study:

*The brain (view 3D pictures of the brain online at the Genes to Cognition website)
*The hypothalamus
*The autonomic nervous system
*The regulation of hunger and other biological needs
*The fight-or-flight response
*Sex, arousal and so on

I need hardly say that as a rat I feel torn. On the one hand, we have contributed to the development of human knowledge. On the other, we have suffered for it.

Kind regards,

The Rat

*Wilhelm Wundt established the first formal laboratory for research in psychology at the University of Leipzig in 1879 and the first scientific journal in 1881. He viewed psychology as the scientific study of conscious experience and he founded a new science that drew from both philosophy and physiology but modelled itself, at least in theory, on the scientific method of fields such as physics and chemistry.

Next Post: Little Albert and the White Rat

A new science of the mind – lectures by Eric Kandel

Note: Click here to download the Student Work Outline for Memory

“I know what it’s like to be dead.”

– Clive Wearing, a man who suffers from devastating memory dysfunction.

Hmong woman
This old woman in Vietnam holds in her memory the details of a long life: personal memories, facts and names, and also the memories of how to do things - such as how to weave and how to ride a bike. Her ability to retrieve such memories and to create new ones allows her to form her own individual stream of consciousness and consequently an ongoing sense of her identity. And this skill, as Kandel showed, depends upon the activity in the synapses of her brain. He was able to trace the neural basis of memories. He found out that when we learn new things and commit them to memory, our brains change. If we learn something in a lasting way, or create a new long-term memory, our brains will be different afterwards. Even at this woman's age, her brain is creating new connections whenever she learns something new - a name, a technique, a piece of information or even a new way of donning her scarf.

Photo: Hmong woman by Mimi_K, flickr.com


Clive Wearing’s terrible words illustrate the link between the first area of study and the second in Unit 3 Psychology.

It is our ability to create and retrieve memories that allows us to experience what William James called the “stream of consciousness”. This awareness of our ongoing identity, which connects our personal past with our present, despite the physical changes of our existence, despite our moments of forgetfulness, despite altered states of consciousness including dreaming and sleeping, is central to the experience of being both human and alive.

Clive Wearing knows that he has lost something crucial to human life, because he can no longer form new memories. His horrifying loss is one of the case studies referred to by Eric Kandel in the lectures described below. Wearing’s consciousness is purely in the present. Even though he can play the piano with phenomenal skill, he cannot recall having done so a minute or two later. He can no longer connect his past with his present.

Kandel closes this series of lectures by referring to five principles that his lifework allows him to enunciate with the authority of a great scientist:

1. Mind and brain are inseparable.

2. Each mental function of the brain is carried out by separate neural circuits in different regions of the brain.

3. All neural circuits are made up of the same class of signalling units: nerve cells and their synapses.

4. The synapse serves a double function: it is the point of communication between nerve cells, and the site of memory storage.

5. The synapse is also a target for disease in both neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The videos below have been embedded from research.org’s channel on Youtube and provide the first and the last lectures in the four-lecture series. You may prefer to go to the website link below, where you can find links to all four lectures in the series, as presented by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The website link is:

http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/neuroscience/lectures.html

Another option is to download these lectures to your i-pod via i-Tunes. That way you can listen to Kandel and go for a walk as well! To do this, go to the link below and navigate to Podcasts 13 and 16, the neuroscience lectures, number 1 and number 4:

http://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/hhmis-holiday-lectures-on/id214106297?ign-mpt=uo%3D4

These videos will introduce you to the brilliant mind and fascinating discoveries of Kandel, who, through his studies of the Aplysia slug, was able to uncover what happens to neurons in the brain when we learn something new and commit that new knowledge to memory. Though they are in greater depth than you will require for the exam, watching the videos will provide you with an overview of the whole topic of human memory.

The first six videos below are all part of one lecture by Kandel on the history of memory research. These videos are a superb introduction to the topic. Part 1 mainly introduces Kandel; Parts 2-6 form the majority of his lecture. He is a very clear speaker who uses many examples that you will find aid your comprehension:

Part 2 considers the painful life of Clive Wearing and the research into which parts of the brain are involved in memory:

Part 3 touches on the work of Broca and Wernicke, thus providing excellent revision for your studies in first term.

Part 4 of Kandel’s video discusses the development of electrical stimulation of the brain and its use to identify parts of the brain that are involved in specific mental activities, such as facial recognition, sensation in specific parts of the body and memory.

Part 5 continues to consider the question of the localisation of memory within the brain. In this video Kandel describes the importance of the hippocampus in allowing short-term memories to be converted into long-term memories. In particular he discusses the ground-breaking research into the life and brain of HM, now known as Henry Molaison.

In Part 6 Kandel refers to the experiences of Henry Molaison and Clive Wearing, who both tragically suffered terrible memory deficiencies as a result of hippocampus damage. Clive Wearing describes his experience thus: “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Drawing on these two case studies, Kandel explains which kinds of memory are affected by hippocampus damage and which are not.

In the much longer video below, Kandel describes in some depth the studies with slugs and mice that underpin research into the physiological basis of memory. Once again, the depth of this lecture is much greater than you will need for your assessment, but watching the video will provide you with Kandel’s highly lucid explanation of his Nobel Prize winning research.