An Introduction to the Major Psychological Theories in the Context of Modern Neuroscience

By on May 6, 2018

Often on this site, we have explored how you can get better use from your brain by looking at its biology. But what is also fascinating to me as a psychology graduate, is how understanding can be linked to older psychological theories; and how this can then be used to give context to more modern approaches.

From Freud to CBT, our view of the psychology has evolved over time – but many of the techniques that these theories employed were effective in improving mental health. Let’s take another look at everything we’ve learned through this lens and see if it can shed new light on how…

A Brief History of Your Brain

The study of psychology really began with Sigmund Freud and psychodynamic theory. Of course, there was interest in the subject before then, but Freud pretty much brought us the first approach to therapy, the first ‘talking cures’ and the first attempt to really dissect why we think and behave the way we do.

Psychodynamic Theory

Psychodynamic theory was highly popular and influential at the time but it has since fallen out of vogue. The central concept was that we have unconscious thoughts (not ‘subconscious’, which is a misnomer and a term never actually used by Freud) and motives. We might do something for reasons that we are unaware of, while psychoses will often have underlying ‘unconscious’ causes.

These unconscious thoughts often came from suppressed (hidden) aspects of our personality like the Id (our child-like, base impulses), or from buried traumas deep in our past. The purpose of psychoanalysis was to talk through these issues and to help patients come to terms with every aspect of their personality, to prevent them coming out in destructive ways.

Sigmund Freud

The problem was that Freud linked almost every issue back to sex. Not only that, but there was no real evidence for the existence of ‘suppressed’ memories or desires. The biggest sin of all is that psychodynamic theory is completely unfalsifiable. The ideas can’t be disproven, meaning they can’t be subjected to the scientific method.

Let’s not write Freud off completely though – he made some fascinating insights and some aspects of his theories are still relevant today. He was the first to even suggest that we might have motivations that we aren’t fully aware of and if you substitute the word ‘sex’ for ‘desire’ then many of his theories become a little less jarring.

The defence mechanisms seem to have at least some truth behind them. And forensic psychology relies on several of his ideas. We can also liken to the ID to ideas about our ‘lizard brain’ and evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology also kind of links many things back to sex…  (More on that in a moment.)

Behaviorism

Anyway, perhaps in a backlash to this, we got behaviorism. Behaviorism looked at the subjective human experience as being an entirely learned one, accomplished through conditioning. Conditioning and reinforcement meant that the brain would learn to associate two things if they consistently occurred together. So, if you consistently experienced being punched every time someone gives you a grape, you’d learn to cringe at the sight of grapes.

The most famous experiment demonstrating how classical conditioning could work, was Pavlov’s dog experiment. Here, he managed to train dogs to drool at the sound of a bell.

Ivan Pavlov

So how might complex human behavior arise from such a basic premise? It would occur through layering these different experiences on top of each other. As infants, we might reach blindly and find that something gets passed to us. In doing so, we learn to associate reaching with reward and learn the basis for communication. Further interactions with caregivers and others might help us to develop more complex patterns of behavior and communication.

Likewise, we could learn to walk simply by repeatedly stumbling and falling. We thereby learn to fear certain sensations and to gravitate toward others.

Pavlov's dogs

The study was actually pretty cruel, which is partly what has made it so infamous

Behaviorists admitted that a particularly traumatic single event could much more rapidly increase this learning process. So, a phobia might be learned either by repeat reinforcement to create an association between a stimulus and a negative consequence, or it might be learned through one traumatic event. But the fact remains that it was learned and the behaviorist approach to treating this condition would be to help the patient ‘unlearn’ that link through ‘re-association’ or ‘disassociation’.

A phobia might be learned either by repeat reinforcement to create an association between a stimulus and a negative consequence, or it might be learned through one traumatic event

Behaviorism is an appealing theory because it is simple (satisfying the rules of ‘Occam’s Razor’) and because it provides tangible results that are easy to repeat. Behavioral therapy techniques are still used today to treat phobias and other conditions. And thanks to brain plasticity and long-term potentiation, we now have a feasible biological basis for how this all might work: neurons that fire together, wire together.

But there is a fair bit missing. Behaviorism boils all of the human experience to simple learned behaviors, learned through nothing but repetition. This suggests that there is nothing more to a human than the ability to simply rote learn skills and behaviors. That our awareness is an illusion or a mere emergent property. And that our personalities are completely malleable.

Most of us would object and say that we have some kind of internal experience. And behaviorism would need something to that effect if it was going to explain why someone might have a phobia of a snake without ever seeing a snake, or how factors like our memories or context would impact on our behavior.

Cognitive Behavioral Psychology

Enter cognitive psychology, or to use its full title, cognitive behavioral psychology. This school of thought takes behaviorism and then it layers on top a ‘cognitive’ element – an inner experience. In other words, it explains that our thoughts and that our emotions can actually end up influencing our perception of events and also creating new associations of their own.

So, if you continually tell yourself you are going to get laughed at if you try speaking in public, then you can actually cause yourself to learn to fear public speaking… even without actually having a bad experience of any kind!

CBT might approach a phobia by using reassociation methods then, but it would also look at the cognitive element – by looking at how someone might think about a stimulus or a situation (using mindfulness) and then teaching them to deconstruct those beliefs and to assume more constructive and helpful narratives. This can also be useful for addressing things like depression, low confidence and more.

To achieve this, a cognitive behavioral therapist would teach you to use ‘cognitive restructuring’. This is a combination of tools that employs things like ‘thought challenging’ and ‘hypothesis testing’ to change your beliefs and remove ‘cognitive distortions’. I will be coming back to this topic in future, as it has helped me and many others I know. Not only that, but I believe it can potentially be used to improve performance in sports, productive endeavors and more.

CBT is incredibly powerful because it has been shown to get tangible results without even requiring one-to-one meetings between a therapist and a patient

CBT is incredibly powerful because it has been shown to get tangible results without even requiring one-to-one meetings between a therapist and a patient. They can accomplish wonders themselves simply by following written instructions! I’m going to be discussing this in much more detail very soon.

The Biological Element

Alongside all of this development was increasing understanding of the human brain and how it operated in a physical sense.

With Darwin’s theory of evolution came an evolutionary perspective on psychology – the understanding that all behavior must have evolved and must therefore be adaptive to our survival. This is very apparent when it comes to our motivation and our desire for food, sex and shelter but even more complex behaviors can be seen as directly aiding our survival or being a by-product of an adaptive trait.

If you’ve read this site for a while, then you will know by now about neurons and neurotransmitters. As I explained: the connectome (web of neurons) and brain plasticity can be seen as perfect physical representations of behaviorism in action. Neurons that fire together, wire together. So when Pavlov repeatedly rang that bell while serving up food, the dogs learned to associate the bell with food because they created new neuronal connections and then strengthened those connections.

And we can even explain how some interactions might more rapidly lead to those connections forming – because highly traumatic, exciting or subjectively important events will trigger the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and cortisol and these strengthen new connections and increase their likelihood of forming in the first place. This is what gives rise to the phenomenon of the ‘flash-bulb memory’. This is an incredily vivid memory of a very important, exciting or traumatic event: such as a death in the family, or even breaking news. Many of us remember where we were when we saw the news of 9/11.

This is what gives rise to the phenomenon of the ‘flash-bulb memory’

We can also explain how you might learn by watching (called vicarious reinforcement) – thanks to the role of ‘mirror neurons’ which fire when we see something else happening.

But what is the biological basis of cognitive psychology? What is actually happening in the brain when you visualize? Or when you ruminate?

Embodied Cognition

The fascinating thing that we now know, is that you actually cause areas of your brain to light up as though you were engaging in that activity. If you visualize going running, then your brain lights up as though you are running. Thus you can actually trigger reinforcement through your ruminations and your thoughts. You can thereby learn and even alter your personality, simply by changing the course and the nature of your thoughts. And therein lies our power to heal ourselves and to hack our brains for even greater cognition.

An even more exciting theory that explains this further is something called ‘embodied cognition’. Embodied cognition effectively explains how we think, how we understand language and what makes us human.

So, let’s imagine you’re reading something in English. Of course, you understand this text, but what does it mean to understand text? What does it mean to interpret information?

Psychologists once explained this away by making the assumption that language or thought would be translated into some kind of ‘base’ code for the brain, some kind of innate language that the brain understood. They gave this the name mentalese, but made no attempt to explain what this might look like or how it might work.

Embodied cognition however suggests that this essentially amounts to visualization. So, when you read something, you light up areas in your brain to experience what is being said. So, if you read a story, you picture the characters. If someone explains a concept to you, then you use your experience of the world to build a representation of it – by simulating that thing happening in your mind’s eye. This has actually been shown to be precisely how our brains work in several brain imaging studies. In short, if someone tells you a story about walking through the woods and you listen while in a scanner, your brain will light up as though it were really you walking through the world. And this appears to take place inside the premotor cortex in particular, which is the part of our brain that readies us for movement.

If someone explains a concept to you, then you use your experience of the world to build a representation of it

This is how we learn. When we go to execute a movement, we first anticipate what that movement will look and feel like using our premotor cortex among other brain regions. We then attempt to perform the movement using the motor cortex, the supplementary motor cortex, the cerebellum and other areas. If the movement was correct, then the neural connections that provided the movement will be reinforced via a release of neurochemicals known to support plasticity (BDNF, dopamine, endorphins). If the movement is incorrect however, then the pattern won’t be reinforced and we’ll try again slightly differently next time.

This also explains how we can learn by observing others. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire when we observe the behavior of others. Studies have looked at monkeys observing humans or other monkeys feeding themselves and during this experience, their brains lit up as though they were doing that thing. We understand others thanks to mirror neurons that allow our brains’ activation patterns to mimic those of the people we observe. This is the neurological basis for empathy but also skill acquisition from observational learning.

(And this is also why it’s possible for us to ‘practice’ something like a dance routine by visualization those movements in our brains. The same neurons are lighting up and what fires together, wires together… Nevermind that you aren’t actually performing the movement!)

Even something abstract like math is only possible for us to understand because we have interacted with the world around us and because we have experience of counting objects, of visualizing quantities. In fact, some people with synaesthesia will even see visual representations of numbers as they perform the math. And it should come as no surprise that the maths areas of our brain are situated closely to those associated with movement and spatial awareness.

More exciting still, is the fact that our brains have recently been shown to have their own internal ‘physics engine’, which again is developed through the process of prediction and experience; through countless interactions with the world around us. This is then what allows us to predict and plan, among other things.

This further explains how the world informs our psychology and how our psychology informs the plasticity of our brains. We understand things by visualizing them and experiencing them – even the things that people are saying to us and this then causes plasticity and causes classical conditioning. That’s why someone who keeps insulting you can eventually damage your confidence and why visualizing your golf swing can improve your game.

Marrying All These Ideas

When you combine ideas from behavioral therapy and embodied cognition, it can be used to explain cognitive behavioral therapy. It shows how thinking something enough can actually reinforce beliefs and networks in just the same way as experiencing something. By imagining people will laugh at you when you speak in person, your brain experiences people laughing at you when you talk in person. You reinforce those beliefs through LTP and and thus you develop the phobia. Throw in a pinch of evolutionary psychology to explain why we have universal fears – and why the brain chooses certain things to view as more important – and we can paint a fairly complete picture of our psychology that may even help us to improve our performance.

In short: behaviorism can be roughly explained by brain plasticity. Layering embodied cognition on top of that helps us to better understand the cognitive aspect, while evolutionary psychology (and to a small extent Freudian ideas) shows us why certain connections are more likely to form. Stay tuned for more on the practical applications of CBT for self-help AND becoming ‘better than well’.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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