No mind reading! – A glimpse of modern psychology

by Tan Li Li and Chooi Weng-Tink

At a glance

The modern field of psychology includes the following key research areas (and many more):

  1. Cognitive psychology – the study of mental processes collectively known as cognition, which covers perception, attention, memory, language, problem-solving, etc.
  2. Social psychology – the study of the effects that social environments have on human behaviour.
  3. Developmental psychology – the study of the changes that occur in humans as they age and grow, particularly in language acquisition, perception, motor skills, and reasoning.
  4. Psychological disorders – the study of a range of mental disorders including depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa, etc.

Illustration by Kong Yink Hea

Illustration by Kong Yink Heay

The modern field of psychology is a relatively new but rapidly developing science, generally aimed at understanding human behaviour and its underlying processes. Unfortunately, many myths and misconceptions have obscured the contributions and breakthroughs that psychologists have made. Almost every student of psychology will have been asked the question: ‘Can you read minds?’ (Answer: no).

In this piece, the common myths that still surround psychology today will be explored and refuted. To complete the picture, an overview of some of the major subdivisions within modern scientific psychology will also be presented. The hope is to show that psychology can and should be taken seriously as a science.

The myths

Psychology has some roots in the legacy of Freudian psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud was interested in discovering new methods for treating mental disorders like phobias, anxiety, and obsessions. One of his main suggestions was that these disorders, or neuroses, occur as a result of the unconscious repression of problems such as feelings of resentment or guilt. Thus, he thought that neuroses could be cured by uncovering these repressed feelings. To achieve this, he developed various methods including dream analysis and free verbal expression of the patient’s thoughts. He also proposed extensive theories about psychosexual development and the human psyche.

Freud’s theories have come under heavy criticism [1] for its lack of scientific evidence. He relied heavily on individual case studies of his patients, which do not constitute good evidence because they cannot be generalised to the wider population. In addition, the treatment of his patients were marred by his own preconceptions about how their experiences should be interpreted in order to fit his theories. Despite this, Freud’s ideas have persisted, possibly due to the sensational nature of his work. Psychology is still commonly thought to revolve around reading minds, treating neuroses, and analysing the significance of dreams, thoughts, and other behaviours, although it has long since moved on from this Freudian legacy.

Having looked at what psychology is not, we can move on to explore some of the main areas of research that make up psychology today. This list is certainly not exhaustive, as the field continues to develop.

Cognitive psychology

This area focuses on the experimental study of mental processes collectively known as cognition, which covers many aspects including perception, attention, memory, language, and problem solving. Generally, researchers in this area take an information-processing approach to cognition. They focus on finding out what kinds of inputs the brain collects and works with, and investigate how these inputs modulate behavioural responses and other processes.

Modern psychology is just as reliant on rigorous experimentation and replication as any other well-established science

For example, Yeshurun and Rashal (2010) demonstrate how attention can help to increase accuracy in identifying the orientation of a target stimulus that is presented only for a short flash in peripheral vision [2]. They manipulated the attention of their participants by presenting a cue dot before the flash of the target stimulus. When the cue dot was in the same location as the target, the participants were more accurate in identifying the target’s orientation, compared to when the cue dot was in a different location than the target. This experiment is one of many that demonstrate that attention can influence our perceptual processes.

Social psychology

Social psychologists are interested in the effects that social environments have on human behaviour. This area has also relied on carefully manipulated experiments with highly controlled scenarios. Some have been carried out in the field, which refers to environments more natural than the laboratory such as the school, workplace or home, in order to better replicate real-life conditions. These experiments have looked at issues such as intergroup relations, conformity, stereotyping, prosocial behaviour, and cultural differences. Like all areas of psychology, social psychology is not independent. It has many links to cognitive and developmental psychology, as social environments have a large impact on how we think, feel, and grow.

Correll et al. (2002) demonstrates how stereotyping can be a rapid, automatic process [3]. Their participants were shown photographs of young men in various settings; half of the men were black and half were white, and additionally half of them were holding a gun while the other half were holding harmless objects. They had half a second to press a button to ‘shoot’ men who were armed, and to press ‘don’t shoot’ if the man was unarmed. The results showed that the participants were more likely to ‘shoot’ an armed man more quickly when he was black than when he was white, and also more likely to ‘don’t shoot’ an unarmed man more quickly when he was white than when he was black. This indicates the split-second use of a stereotype to guide decision-making, carried out at an automatic level. This would have important implications in law enforcement, where it is possible for police officers to find themselves in the very situation that Correll and co-workers have recreated in the lab.

Developmental psychology

Photo: Hartwig HKD / Flickr (CC)

Photo: Hartwig HKD / Flickr (CC)

This area concentrates on the changes that occur in humans as they age and grow, particularly in language acquisition, perception, motor skills, and reasoning. A central question of developmental psychology is how genetic and environmental factors affect the development of a particular ability. These factors rarely work alone, and the interactions between them contribute to the diversity of skills and traits that we possess. There is also a focus on disorders that commonly have their onset in childhood, such as dyslexia and autism.

Developmental psychologists frequently study infants and children to understand the developmental path of certain abilities. For example, Swingley and Fernald (2002) found that at least by the age of 24 months, children no longer have to rely on visual cues to recognise familiar words [4]. They set up a visual display showing two pictures at once, and monitored the eye movements of seventy-two 24-month-old children. When the children heard a familiar word within a sentence that correctly labelled the picture on the display, they maintained their gaze; when they heard a familiar word that did not apply to the picture they were looking at, they quickly shifted their gaze to the alternative picture, even if it did not match the word they heard. So just by listening to the words, the children could recognise them, without relying on additional visual evidence.

Psychological disorders

Lastly, this area seeks to understand a range of mental disorders including depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa, and so on. Current research mainly focuses on uncovering the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to these illnesses, how these factors interact to increase the risk of developing them, and how each disorder manifests at a behavioural and cognitive level. A clear understanding of these issues is important, as it guides the development of effective treatments and therapies.

To determine if a disorder has a genetic basis, studies usually compare its occurrence among identical and non-identical twins. Identical twins share all of their genes, while non-identical twins share only 50% of them. Thus, any greater incidence of the disorder among identical twins, as compared to non-identical twins, can be attributed to their genetic similarity. Using this method, studies have found that genetic factors account for 30-40% of the variance in adult depression, as reported in a review by Lau and Eley (2010). Further research into the genetics of depression has focused on a polymorphic DNA region called 5-HTTLPR on the SLC6A4 gene – this gene affects the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in the central nervous system. The presence of a particular variant of 5-HTTLPR has been consistently linked to higher levels of depressive symptoms. This has informed the use of drug therapy, which typically help to improve mood by increasing serotonin levels.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the key research areas within psychology. Others, such as personality psychology, are equally important to paint a full picture of the field. However, it should be clear that there is a crucial difference between Freudian theories and the scientific approach to psychology. Psychoanalysis is concerned with the treatment of individuals on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand, experimental psychology involves building falsifiable hypotheses, gathering data through experiments, and carrying out statistical analyses to determine the significance of experimental results. Modern psychology is just as reliant on rigorous experimentation and replication as any other well-established science, and it is our hope that this has been adequately demonstrated. There is a lot of potential for psychology to grow in Malaysia, and students with a strong interest in biology and human behaviour should consider pursuing it.

References

[1] Wolpe, J. & Rachman, S. (1960). Psychoanalytic “evidence”: A critique based on Freud’s case of Little Hans. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 131:135 – 48.
[2] Yeshurun Y. & Rashal, E. (2010). Precueing attention to the target location diminishes crowding and reduces the critical distance. Journal of Vision, 10:1–12.
[3] Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M. & Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83:1314 – 1329.
[4] Swingley, D. & Fernald, A. (2002). Recognition of words referring to present and absent objects by 24-month-olds. Journal of Memory and Language, 46:39 – 56.
[5] Costa, P.T., Jr. & McCrae, R. R. (1985). The NEO Personality Inventory manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
[6] Lau, J. Y. F. & Eley, T. C. (2010). The genetics of mood disorders. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6:313 – 337.

About the Authors

TAN LI LI is currently a third year undergraduate student at the University of Oxford, studying Psychology and Philosophy. She is looking forward to pursuing a masters degree in Philosophy, with an interest in visual perception and consciousness. Find out more about Li Li by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian. com/members/lili

CHOOI WENG-TINK is a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia. She obtained her PhD in Experimental Psychology and BSc in Biomedical Engineering from Case Western Reserve, USA. Born and raised in Ipoh, Weng-Tink loves all the food her hometown has to offer and is proud of. She practices yoga weekly to stay fit but secretly wishes she has more time to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a competitive ballroom dancer. Find out more about Weng-Tink by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http:// www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/wengtink