Biological psychology (also known as biopsychology or behavioral neuroscience) is the study of the biological and physiological foundations of our emotional, mental and behavioral systems.
Biological psychologists study the nervous system at the cellular and structural level to find correlations between our biological and psychological processes. This is an attempt to isolate our “nature” (our biology and genetic make-up) from our “nurture” (our environmental conditioning) so that we can better understand the roles that nature and nurture each play in the formation of our behavioral patterns.
Biological psychologists conduct scientific research to formulate theories about these interrelationships that might aid in the development of new treatments for psychological and physiological disorders. Common subjects of study include:
- The simultaneous development of the nervous system and behavior over a person’s lifespan
- The coordination of movement and actions
- The correlations between sleep and biological rhythms
- Sensory and perceptual processes
- Language and cognition
- The recovery of a person’s functions after an injury to the nervous system
- The neural mechanisms of memory and learning
Biological psychologists use more animals than humans for test subjects, partly because animal subjects are much easier and cheaper to obtain and partly because researchers can perform experiments on animals that they can’t legally perform on humans, like the removal of sections of a brain for study.
Related: Becoming a Behavioral Psychologist
Mice and rats are the most common subjects for experiments, followed by humans and monkeys, but other animals are also used. In the past couple of decades, the laws regarding the use of animals in experiments have become stricter and more humane.
Types of Degrees
For students of biological psychology, a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree is preferred over a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree because of the extra lab classes it provides. The recommended majors are biopsychology or neuroscience, but there are a limited number of schools who offer those majors. Another option is to major in experimental or general psychology and to minor in biology or a similar subject.
A typical program for a major in biopsychology would include coursework in many of the following subjects:
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Experimental psychology
- Physiological psychology
- Abnormal psychology
- Neurodevelopmental disorders
- Behavioral genetics
- Cognitive processes
- Behavioral psychology
- Developmental psychology
- Human heredity and development
- Psychological research
A bachelor’s degree is only adequate for landing a few types of entry-level jobs in the field of biological psychology. Research assistants usually are required to get a master’s degree, preferably in biological psychology or behavioral neuroscience.
Full-fledged researchers normally are required to get a doctorate, usually a PhD degree because it offers more lab courses than a PsyD degree. Some students choose to get a master’s degree before proceeding to get a doctorate, while others enroll in programs that combine the master’s and doctorate’s degrees into one program.
Depending upon state regulations, many PhD graduates also need to enlist in a research fellowship placement for a year or two before they can become a certified researcher.
The most common jobs in biological psychology are in research, with teaching jobs coming in second; many biological psychologists who work in universities do both jobs. Universities, hospitals, governmental agencies, pharmaceutical companies and other private companies are the most common employers for researchers.
Research assistants do much of the hands-on work in a laboratory, under the supervision of a full-fledged researcher.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics website says that, as of 2012, the median annual wage for biological psychologists (listed under “psychologists, other”) was $88,400 and the mean hourly wage was $42.50.