In this article, you will find clear information that will help you grasp the boundaries of these two disciplines. You will have a better understanding of how to use the insights from the two fields of study in different areas of your life.
The basics of psychology vs. neuroscience
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If you have taken a psychology class in high school, you might be already vaguely familiar with what psychology does. In short, this discipline studies the science of behaviour and the mind with the primary aim of contributing to the existing knowledge in this area. But psychology did not start as science from the beginning: in fact, the first “psychologists” were Thales and Aristotle, who approached it purely from a philosophical standpoint. Needless to say that their methods were based on primary observations of the human behaviour, since there were no research tools at that time.
In the meantime, psychology evolved into a discipline that uses experimental research to understand human behaviour, but the method of observation is still widely used. One major difference to the psychology research done in its early days is that nowadays this is conducted in controlled environments. Overall, psychology has offered tremendous insights into emotions, behaviour, cognition, development, cognition, intelligence, and human development. Yet none of these areas provide a clear explanation of how the brain works on an anatomical level.
And this is where neuroscience comes in. This discipline is relatively new in research and has evolved thanks to development in brain imaging techniques, such as fMRI, EEG, TMS, etc. These tools allow a direct observation of what happens in the brain when certain behaviours are performed or mental processes occur, although their functionality are not limited to this. Neuroscience is the missing piece in psychological research – since it is based on biological data, it offers researchers more confidence in their findings.
Just like psychology has many branches of study (i.e. developmental, biological, cognitive psychology), neuroscience is also split in various sub-fields. For example, cognitive neuroscience is particularly concerned with the study of how brain structures influence the way we think, process information, and use other cognitive functions. On the other hand, affective neuroscience aims to understand the biological basis of emotions. For example, if you are interested in finding out what brain areas are involved when you experience intense fear, affective neuroscience is the field most likely to provide the most accurate answers.
What are the two disciplines best used for?
Given the differences between the two disciplines, you might now wonder where they can be used. While neuroscience is based on more advanced research tools than psychology, this does not mean that the former discipline does not have its place in healthcare, mental health treatments, and research.
Psychology and social behaviour
When it comes to understanding human behaviour at a larger scale, psychology can offer tremendous insights. For example, it can help us understand how people are influenced by group dynamics, social interactions, and environmental factors. But it goes way further than that. Psychology can help answers many questions, such as:
While many of the data obtained from this type of research questions is subject to interpretation and research design flaws, it nevertheless helps us better understand the psychology behind social behaviour.
Intelligence and personality
Personality psychology is one of the largest branches of psychology. This field aims to understand how personality develops and how it leads us to behave, think, and feel in various circumstances. It also tries to assess, diagnose, and treat various personality disorders. Gordon Allport and Hans Eysenck were two of the most popular contributors to the study of personality and individual differences.
Psychology is also used to study intelligence, which is a trait that allows people to extract information from their environment, learn, adapt, and use key cognitive processes like thought and reason.
Neuroscience – a closer look at the brain
While psychology can tell us a lot about human nature and behaviour, it doesn’t quite reveal what happens in the brain. On the other hand, neuroscience shows exactly how the brain changes as a result of the interaction with different stimuli. For example, it shows what happens when we hear some exciting news, when we are in love, or when we sleep. Understanding these neurobiological changes makes it easier for healthcare professionals to design treatments and intervention based on evidence.
Besides, neuroscience is particularly effective for the study of brain injuries and mental disorders. It works by combining insights from psychology (such as the behavioural manifestations of various diseases) with visual data about brain areas affected by a disease or injury. Psychology is insufficient if we want to understand how to treat these issues because it cannot pinpoint exactly what brain regions need to be targeted.
The take-away differences:
Do we still need psychology if we have neuroscience?
Given that neuroscience is based on more advanced science, you may be tempted to assume that psychology becomes inefficient at offering information about human behaviour.
In a sense, neuroscience does seem to be more equipped with advanced technology tools than psychology. This allows it to gain more accurate and novel information about the human brain and behaviour. Perhaps this explains the exponential growth of research articles that include at least one brain imaging technique. Yet, as revolutionary as neuroscience is, it has one notable limitation: as researchers Schwatz et al (2016) have argued in their article, human behaviour cannot be all reduced to brain processes. Of course, neurobiology is the core aspects behind all our thoughts, actions, and emotions — but it is not everything we are. In this respect, psychology is able to encompass wider aspects of the human nature, such as personality, intelligence, and social functioning.
The growth of interest in neuroscience, therefore, should not mean the end of psychology. In fact, the two disciplines should work together to produce greater understanding into how we operate — and not compete against each other. But there are already promising times ahead for the merging of psychology with neuroscience: many studies are already using a combination of experimental psychology and neuroscience and drawing on theories from both disciplines. Besides, both areas of study also put ethics above anything else, and realise that, while gaining insight into the human brain can be revolutionary, it shouldn’t be done with the price of harm.
If you have been confused by the blurred boundaries between psychology and neuroscience, this is because there is a significant overlap between these two disciplines. There’s only one thing you should remember about the intersection of psychology and neuroscience: they are both dedicated to studying the human brain, even if they use a slightly different approach. While psychology uses measures of behaviour (such as self-reports, clinical scales, etc), neuroscience comes with advanced brain imaging techniques (like fMRI, EEG, MEG) that capture brain processes in real time.
For this reason, we should not aim to compare the two disciplines against each other, as they have equally important insights to contribute to the existing research. Even if the word “neuro” seems highly popular and brings credibility to research claims, this should not make experimental psychology less valuable. In fact, the developments in psychological research have allowed the growth of neuroscience. Therefore, we should view these two fields of study as complementary.
Almada, L. F., Pereira, A. Carrara-Augustenberg, C. (2013). “What affective neuroscience means for the science of consciousness”. Mens Sana Monograohs 11(1), 253-273
Schwartz, S.J., Lilienfeld, S.O., Meca, A. (2015). “The role of neuroscience within psychology: A call for inclusiveness over exclusiveness”. American Psychologist.
Fernandez-Duque, D., Evans, J., Christian, C., Hodges, S. “Superfluous neuroscience information makes explanations of psychological phenomena more appealing.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27(5), 1-19
Barlow, D. (2014). “The neuroscience of psychological treatments”. Behaviour research and therapy 62
Ludden, D. (2017) “Is neuroscience the future or the end of psychology?” Available at
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