What Is Psychology?: The human brain

Since the beginning of time, people have been intrigued with the human mind. Why do we act the way we do? Why do we experience emotions? Why do relationships fail? Why do we fall in love? All of these questions and more were on the forefront of the minds of scientists when psychology came to be. Psychology is the study of mental processes and brain function that influence behavior and emotions.

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What Is Psychology?

Psychology is a field of science that studies the mind and behavior. Including emotions, feelings, and unconscious forces, psychology explores mental processes such as brain function, cognition, attention, memory, perception, intelligence, and interpersonal relationships. A central focus is how the mind drives one’s actions. It pertains to both human and animal species.

Who Founded Psychology?

The study of psychology has roots in ancient China, Greece, and Egypt. The latter found evidence of disorders like depression, and Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle hypothesized the origin of mental disorders have a physical cause. However, psychology as its recognized today originated in the 1870s when psychologist Wilhelm Wundt established the first laboratory for experimental psychology. Other prominent names in psychology added on to Wundt’s views. The concepts of structuralism and functionalism divided the mind into conscious experiences and proposed that the functions of the mind influence behavior.

Uses for Psychology?

Mental health is a significant use for psychology. Upon mentioning the subject, most assume psychology is used to diagnose and treat mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and psychosis. While psychology does address psychological disturbances, it has many other applications. For example, psychology provides the ability to create educational programs, increases productivity in businesses, and teaches about child development.

Uses for psychology include but are not limited to:

  • Education
  • Mental and psychical health
  • Ergonomics and/or business
  • Media
  • Sports
  • Self-help
  • Child-development
  • Enhancing relationships with friends and family
  • Finances
  • Forensic/law

Common Branches of Psychology

Various theories and beliefs are incorporated into psychology. With such diversity, the study is categorized into several branches depending on its purpose.  

Abnormal Psychology

Humans tend to behave according to a societal norm. Behavior that is widely accepted is considered “normal” behavior. Abnormal psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with abnormal behavior— unusual traits and actions that go against what is normal for current cultural and society patterns. Abnormal behavior is thought to result in psychological distress, which is why abnormal psychology also studies mental disorders. A prime example of psychopathology in abnormal psychology is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Those with obsessive compulsive disorder have compulsions and behaviors that deviate from societal expectations.  

Behavioral Psychology

As its name implies, behavioral psychology is the study of behavior. It seeks to understand the connection between the mind and behavior, as well as why we act in the ways that we do. This form of psychology stems from behaviorism—the belief that the environment shapes behavior. A behavioral psychologist observes behavioral patterns.

Behavioral psychology is related to two important types of learning:

  • Classical conditioning—Two stimuli are repeatedly paired with an automatic, unconscious response
  • Operant conditioning—An association is made through consequences (i.e. rewards and punishments) for a behavior

Conditioning in behavioral psychology creates behavior and explains their reasoning behind certain actions.  

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is the service of mental health care. It combines knowledge and skill to research and address psychopathology in a clinical setting. According to the American Psychological Association, a clinical psychologist provides mental health interventions to individuals and families of all ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They are equipped to treat psychopathologies.  To accomplish these goals, clinical psychologists engage in current scientific research, consult with health professionals, and they are capable of diagnostic testing to diagnose mental disorders.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology studies how the mind processes information. As information is received from the environment, the brain uses a set of basic cognitive skills that allow us to learn, interact with others, and make decisions. The cognitive skills of attention, memory, perception, processing, problem solving, language, creativity, and reasoning are crucial skills in cognitive psychology.

Development of the practice occurred after behavioralism. While behaviorists did not study the mind because it lacked objectively measured data, cognitive psychologists consider the mind essential to how mental processes influence behavior.

Cognitive psychology values human experiments and is applied to the other divisions of psychology.

Counseling Psychology

Counseling psychology is very similar to clinical psychology; however, counseling psychology is centered on people without severe, serious psychopathologies. The science of counseling psychology studies emotional, social, academic, and relationship concerns from all background and throughout all stages of life from childhood to older age.

A counseling psychologist specializes in stress management. They offer coping skills to deal with negative life events and help with problems maintaining healthy relationships. As people adjust to new environments in work and school, they are there to assist in navigating those changes. Additionally, counseling psychologists confront issues associated with physical and mental disabilities. They are qualified in crisis intervention, education, psychotherapy, and research.

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology studies how humans evolve throughout the stages of life. It studies the patterns originating in infancy to childhood, from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood.

Changes are assessed from the perspectives of physical, mental, and social development. The three concepts are divided into the below topics:

  • Motor skills—Predetermined movements coordinating muscles of the body
  • Executive functions—Mental skills such as memory, planning, organization, self-control, and more  
  • Language acquisition—The process of acquiring language to communicate
  • Personality—A combination of traits and characteristics
  • Emotional development—Expressing thoughts and feelings and understanding the emotions of others
  • Identity—The formation of oneself with goals, traits, and life success

The theory of nature VS. nurture is emphasized in developmental psychology (Nesterak, 2015). Nature VS. nurture argues whether traits and behavior are influenced primarily by genetic biological factors or the environment.

Educational Psychology

Educational psychology is the study of learning. The purpose of educational psychology is to identify the learning methods that allow humans to retain information. Every brain processes information in unique ways. Research related to educational psychology is implemented in academic environments for students to succeed in learning regardless of their learning styles. This branch of psychology revolves around teaching in a classroom setting, testing methods, and social problems that prevent learning.

An educational psychologist may target groups of students of a certain age such as pre-school or college level. They may also specialize in students with learning disabilities. For example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common condition amongst students that impacts learning.

What Is Psychology?: The human brain
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Experimental Psychology

Experimental psychology uses the scientific method to study the human mind. It integrates other theories of psychology like cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology, and personality psychology. Experimental psychologists form hypothesis regarding human and animal minds. They then collect data through research and experimental studies to either prove or disprove their hypothesis. Topics of the experiments pertain to the human mind: behavior, thoughts, memory, emotion, cognition.

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is a newer branch of psychology. It applies psychology to the law. The American Psychological Association states that practicing forensic psychology includes investigations, research studies, offering professional witness testimonies, and enforcing treatment programs for criminals. However, the fundamental contribution made by a forensic psychologist to a criminal case is providing psychological assessments to those in the legal system. They evaluate for child custody during divorce cases, determine the threat level of those who have committed crime, and give screening for law enforcement.

Health Psychology

Health psychology studies how psychological, biological, and environmental factors influence health and illness. Unlike doctors, health psychologists cannot perform surgery or prescribe medications to cure disease, but they can uncover the factors responsible for causing illness.

Health psychologists are an asset to hospitals because they contribute to healthcare policies. They ensure patients understand their diagnosis and abide by a treatment regimen. They assist with interventions for unhealthy habits that lead to disease. For example, health psychologists often participate in patient programs to stop smoking, drinking, and avoiding other unhealthy behaviors.

Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Also called occupational psychology, industrial-organization psychology is psychology applied to the workplace. A major goal for industrial-organizational psychologist is to improve work environments. For a business to be successful, employees must exemplify effective communication, conflict resolution, and organization. Industrial-organization psychology focuses on the employees. Employees are trained to interact with customers and colleagues. Industrial-organizational psychologists also interview potential employees fitting for the workplace.

Personality Psychology

Personality is a series of traits thoughts, feelings, values, attitudes, self-perceptions, and social interactions. Personality psychology is characterized by the study of personality, and how personality traits vary person to person. Examples of personality traits are irritability or generosity. While many traits are inherited and passed down from parent to offspring, environmental factors also effect personality. Personality psychologists investigate how and why specific traits are expressed. They are experts in the psychopathologies of personality disorders (i.e. borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependent and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder), defined as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that deviate from the societal norm.

Social Psychology

Social psychology is the scientific study of how the presence of others influences thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Social psychology confronts numerous social topics ranging from leadership to prejudice. It emphasizes the significance of social perception, as even implied impressions effect behavior. For example, if you assume someone you admire does not accept you, then you are more likely to think poorly of yourself and engage in destructive behaviors. Group behavior is a particular interest in social psychology. By recognizing group dynamics, social psychologists observe the attitudes that influence interpersonal relationships.

Sports Psychology

Sports psychology is the study of physical activity. This includes athletic performance and how participating in sports is beneficial to physical and mental wellbeing. Sports psychology is applicable to athletes and the traditional population. A sports psychologist counsels athletes in a clinical setting on issues that arise in athletics: eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, violence, identity crises, sexuality, and career transitions. They support individuals in creating attainable goals and facilitating optimal teamwork communication, which is conducive on and off of the field.

Why is Psychology Important?

Psychology is important because it protects people from harm. Life is rarely easy. On a daily basis, humans from across the globe experience family stressors, economic hardship, controversy in the workplace, political upheaval, medical struggles, and loss. If not properly processed, these struggles lead to our downfall —from low self-esteem and mental illness to the severing of precious relationships. Psychology lends insight into persevering despite daily obstacles. Through the use of psychology, people possess the knowledge to cope with stress to decrease the incidents of mental illness, as well as to improve relationships and succeed in their careers.


MacDonald, A. W. III, Goodman, S. H., & Watson, D. (2021). The Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science is the future of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology: An editorial. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 130(1), 1-2. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/abn0000665

Nesterak, E. (2015, July 10). The End of Nature Versus Nurture. Retrieved from https://behavioralscientist.org/the-end-of-nature-versus-nurture/

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