Re: What Is Psychology?

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sat Nov 01 1997 - 18:18:12 GMT

> From: Elizabeth Cole <>
> The most often given definition of psychology is "the scientific study
> of beheviour and mental processes". Essentially psychology is the
> study of the mind. However, as the mind is a non-physical entity, in
> order to try and understand it the products of the mind such as the
> actions and feelings of humans and animals must be studied and also the
> brain.

That's all fine, except the part about "the mind is a non-physical
entity." That might or might not be true. The dualists think it is, the
monists think it isn't (and most psychologists and brain scientists are

Fortunately, as psychologists we need not really take a stand on this
metaphysical question about whether there are really two kinds of "stuff,"
one mental and one physical. If you're interested, see:

What is true and uncontroversial, though, is that the mind, unlike
behaviour and brain function, is not observable. So it has to be studied
indirectly, through the study of behaviour and brain function.

> to effectively
> study the mind, the functioning of the brain must also be understood.

It can't hurt to study the brain along with behaviour, but it's not clear
whether the answers will come from studying and modeling the brain, or
from studying and modeling our behavioural capacities.

> Psychology lies within the field of Science as nothing is proved in
> psychology. It is merely a collection of evidence which support
> particular theories. However, unlike in maths , these theories can be
> contradicted.

That's right.

> Roth says "scientific research methods are always
> unbiased and objective" but this cannot always be the case in
> psychology. For example, Roth carries on to say that research
> techniques depending on introspection techniques such as interviewing
> are hichly subjective, as although the subject may say they feel
> something you can't be sure if this is really the case.

Have a look at the past discussions of introspection in the Skywriting
Archives for PY106 and PY104, for example:

> This also
> brings up the case of free will as in theory the participent can choose
> how to react to particular things. Therefore, as the subjects of study
> are supposedly unpredictable, repeated experiments under the same
> conditions may not produce the same results unlike in other sciences.

The real problem of free will is a philosophic one. See:

The variability of human subjects may or may not be a problem. It depends
on what you are trying to do. If you are trying to explain how the mind
works, then what you want to model is what all or most people can do
(like, see, hear, write, read, speak, hear, understand, etc.); then you
are searching for what is INVARIANT across all the individual variations
from person to person.

But even a clinical understanding of human psychological problems is
based on looking for traits that vary from person to person, but have
enough common to allow some general conclusions to be drawn.

If people really were all that variable, than no conclusions could be
drawn from experimental evidence, as you say. But the fact is that there
is enough that is invariant from Subject to Subject to make it possible
to generalise for experimental data after all.

> The issue of ethics is also much more important in psychology than in
> other sciences as the subjects are living beings. Therefore research
> must be carried out in a way that won't damage the patients physical or
> psychological state. For example the old technique of brain lesioning
> to learn more about the brain is being reduced in favour of
> non-intrusive techniques such as EEGs and the artificial activation of
> nerve cells in the brain.

This is a bit muddled: No psychologist ever produced brain lesions in
people to study them! If some accident has befallen someone's brain,
then the neuropsychologist tests to see what functions have been
damaged, and from that we have learned some things about the brain.
But this was never an invasive technique.

The invasive techniques are used on animals; that IS an ethical issue and
I'm afraid the "non-intrusive" methods, both old (EEG) and new (brain
imaging) will not put an end to animal research.

(I'm a vegetarian and I have considerable concern about animal
research; but the most immediate and by far the biggest ethical problem
with animals is not their use in intrusive experiments but something
a good deal more intrusive: their slaughter for consumption as food.)

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