The biological level of analysis

By Monday, September 1, 2014 No tags 0

If you are starting teaching your Y1 psychology course this September, it is a fair chance that you are starting with the biological level of analysis.  Though, of course, you have the flexibility to begin where you like.

It is important that students realise that psychologists working in neuroscience do not necessarily take a reductionist approach and declare that it is “All in our genes”.  The current argument is that there is an interaction between our biology, our cognition and the environment that results in certain behaviour.

There are some excellent short videos that can help explain this to students.  I use examples from twin studies and positive correlations for certain behaviour; mirror neurons and how phantom limb pain can be treated cognitively, even though it is a biological phenomenon; neuroplasticity and the example of juggling increasing neuronal connections in the brain.

Twin studies:  correlational twin studies are used a lot at the biological level of analysis.  Twins are clones of  each other and have an identical DNA make up.  Therefore, if after being raised in different environments they both develop a certain mental disorder, or they both share the identical IQ measurement, this is an indication that this is inherited. (Of course, we all know that there are certain procedural and ethical problems with these studies, but at this stage, to demonstrate the interaction, we keep it simple).  However, no twins have 100% correlation for anything psychological, though they will have 100% correlation for hair and eye colour, for example.  Therefore this shows that some of their behaviour is environmentally shaped – it is not all inherited.

For any students studying HL biology, this links well with the topic of epigenetics.  Even if your students are not studying biology, this video helps to explain why some behaviour would show in one twin and not in another. (The presenter speaks very fast, so you may need to pause this from time to time to discuss it).

Mirror neurons:  these illustrate the interaction between cognition, biology and behaviour.  Mirror neurons are neurons that fire when a person (or animal) performs an action and also when s/he observes someone else doing an action. They have been linked to many behaviours and abilities, from empathy to learning by imitation. So if I see someone reach for a piece of chocolate and eat it, my own ‘eating chocolate’ neurons are firing. This works for all other behaviour. Brain imaging technology is the usual way to examine this relationship.

The neuroscientist Dr.Vilayanur Ramachandran has added a lot to our understanding of how our thoughts, actions and brain activity are related.  Here he shows how phantom limb pain is related to mirror neurons.


This ability of the brain to adapt to the environment is called neuroplasticity, or sometimes brain plasticity. Although localization of brain function occurs, the exact location of a certain function is not fixed for everyone and the area of brain dedicated to certain functions can be shifted according to environmental demands.

Juggling is a perfect example.  Draganski et al. (2004) found that an increase in volume in the two regions of the jugglers’ brains, which are associated with the retention of visually detected movement information rather than physical coordination.
Thus, the practice of watching balls moving through the air repetitively and learning to move in response to this has strengthened the connections between neurons in the parts of the brain responsible for this activity.

I hope this helps you explain biology/cognition/environment interaction to your students.

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