Health and Medicine Question #114

Bertha Rodriguez, a 17 year old female from the Internet asks on November 29, 1999,

How is Chemistry involved in the field of Psychology?

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The answer

Barry Beyerstein answered on November 29, 1999

As a biological psychologist (one who studies how the brain produces conscious states and overt behaviours), I am very much convinced that chemistry plays a big part in psychological processes.

As you probably know, there are numerous chemical processes that go on within and between neurons, the nerve cells in our brains whose actions govern everything we do, think, or feel. That is also why psychotropic drugs affect consciousness and behaviour--they mimic or alter the normal functions of brain cells, which is why people use cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, etc. These are all chemical substances that alter brain function in ways people find enjoyable or useful. Similarly, both hereditary and environmental factors affect the concentrations of the brain's chemical neurotransmitters and neurohormones (which carry messages from cell to cell in the brain). This can affect mood, personality, arousal, sleep, dreams, etc. Learning is the name we put on permanent alterations in the connectivity among networks of nerve cells and this process of laying down new memory traces in the brain is a chemical process. In my opinion, most serious mental illnesses, e.g., schizophrenia or the affective disorders, are chemical imbalances in the brain--that is why antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs alleviate these symptoms. Even foods, which are collections of chemicals, can affect psychological processes. For example, eating large amounts of foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan can increase the amount of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, synthesized in the brain. This can have mild, but measurable affects on consciousness and behaviour. Some researchers in my field think that the day is in sight when people will be able to modify their basic personalities through chemical means. Whether or not you think that is an ethical thing to do, we should be discussing it, because it is now within the realm of scientific possibility. So, I think you can see why I believe understanding chemistry is a vital thing for someone interested in psychology. Everything we do is dependent on the correct working of chemically-controlled circuits in our brains. I don't think most psychologists today know as much about brain physiology and neurochemistry as they should.

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