Why Psych Majors Need Neuroscience

The field of psychology is crucial to ongoing efforts to advance our knowledge of psychiatric disorders and the various treatments needed to combat them. Psychoanalysis and statistics-driven psychological studies, though critical aspects of a complete education in psychology, are often not enough to understand the biological roots of many disorders that affect the human mind. Therefore, having more than just a working knowledge of the hard medical sciences, such as neuroscience, is key to ensuring you have the necessary educational background to further your psychiatric career in the 21st century.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the human nervous system – its history reaches all the way back to Ancient Egypt. Unlike psychology in and of itself, which is a more abstract scientific study of human behavior and mental function, neuroscience delves deeper into the human mind by scientifically observing the various biological and chemical processes that make the brain and nervous system function.  Because these two fields complement each other by providing both a conceptual and concrete basis for the study of mental processes, having an in-depth understanding of both neuroscience and psychology is important for psychology majors who wish to obtain a well-rounded education and who want to improve their career prospects post-graduation.

How Psychology and Neuroscience Go Hand in Hand

The combined study of psychology and neuroscience—also known as neuropsychology—has its known roots in Ancient Egypt circa 3500 BC. It was during this time that the high priest, Imhotep, became one of the first individuals to begin a scientific study of the brain, as opposed to one that was steeped in abstract rituals and magic. Since then, the scientific study of human behavior and mental disorders began focusing more on the physical brain and nervous system. More abstract methods of diagnosing such disorders also developed and evolved into the communicative psychological approaches brought to global significance by historically prominent psychiatrists, such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung.

Since the days of Imhotep, several breakthroughs in the fields of neuroscience and psychology have worked hand-in-hand to shape our understanding of the human mind and nervous system. The dichotomy between neuroscience and psychology, which in Greek literally means “study of the soul,” was investigated by the great 17th century French philosopher René Descartes, who hoped to come to terms with the “dualistic” nature of the mind and body. As a result, it became apparent that a comprehensive study of the mind could not be complete without an understanding of the biology that contains and fuels our ability to function.

Prior to the late 19th century, advances in neuroscience had yet to disprove the then widely-accepted hypothesis that the size of the human skull determined the level of an individual’s intelligence. By applying his own neuroscientific knowledge to the psychological implications of speech, French physician Jean-Baptiste Bouillaud found that specific regions of the human brain were responsible for various functions of human intelligence and not the size of the skull itself. As a result, Bouillaud found that speech—the very foundation of human communication—was, in fact, created and understood by various parts of the brain working together, and not merely an abstract mental function with a singular origin.

Since then, the study of neuroscience has grown to become a critical component of a well-rounded education in the field of psychology. By having a continuously evolving familiarity with neuroscience, understanding various mental afflictions such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia would be primitive at best. Without a foundational understanding of the biological and scientific causes of mental disorders, the field of psychology might still subscribe to ridiculous notions, such as the size of the skull determining intelligence, or at worst, the infamous diagnosis of “hysteria” in women as being caused by the uterus moving throughout various regions of the body.

In the advanced scientific era we currently live in, it is easy to see that a grounding in neuroscience is all but mandatory in making sure psychology majors have the necessary tools and knowledge to succeed in their field. The American Psychological Association states that, now more than ever, neuroscience is becoming a crucial component for current and prospective psychologists who wish to expand their career options in the field. Psychologists with a background in neuroscience are highly sought after in public agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control, as well as private pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms.

With all the benefits that come from having a foundational background in neuroscience, psychology students today should seriously consider incorporating an in-depth study of the field into their overall academic plan. Because the academic scope of neuroscience itself is so broad, students can choose to specialize in more specific aspects of the field, such as cognitive neuroscience, which draws heavily upon the student’s background in psychology. Moreover, because the combined fields of neuroscience and psychology are constantly evolving, psychology students with a strong background in neuroscience can easily transition into research-based, as well as practice-based career roles.

Kickstart Your Studies in Neuroscience Online

Today, with the mass availability of online educational courses and resources for individuals looking to expand their knowledge into other fields, learning the basics of neuroscience is something that can now be done in the comfort of one’s own home. While many of these courses cannot take the place of actual classroom and lab study, many of them can help students get an idea of what serious study in the field of neuroscience entails, as well as some valuable foundational knowledge that can be applied in both study and in practice.

The Massachusetts Institute of Science and Technology (MIT) is currently leading the way in offering bona-fide university courses in neuroscience online at no cost. While many of the available courses have yet to fully offer a robust selection of online content to explore, many of them do provide several resources, such as lecture notes, video presentations, assignments and exams. Taking some time to investigate the information provided for these courses online can help psychology students get the background they need to take their knowledge of neuroscience to the next level.

Coursera is also a major up-and-coming resource for students who wish to augment their education with free courses offered online. Of the many courses available for students to complete at their leisure, Coursera offers neuroscience-specific courses such as Medical Neuroscience and Drugs and the Brain, which focuses on how neuroscientific breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals have impacted the study of psychological disorders in recent history.

While making the decision to begin studying something as rigorous and complex as neuroscience should not be taken lightly, rest assured knowing that students of psychology today are specially equipped with the skills and wherewithal to develop a foundational background in neuroscience. Not only will doing so help expand the student’s career options in the field of psychology upon graduation, but it will provide a unique, science-based skill set researchers and practitioners of psychology can use to become all the more successful at what they do. In the end, because of the interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience and our limited knowledge on the nature and function of the human brain, familiarizing one’s self with the ins-and-outs of neuroscience is something everyone can benefit from.