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Integrating biological and social approaches

Peter Kinderman discusses both the strengths and weaknesses of the biological approaches to mental health and well-being.
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Obviously, all human behaviour depends on the functioning of the brain. But that, for me, doesn’t necessarily explain why there are differences between people in terms of their mental health or in terms of how they behave in particular situations. One of the neurological accounts that is frequently cited in the case of mental health is the functioning of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This transmitter seems to be intimately associated with mechanisms such as reward, motivation, and positive emotions such as happiness. What we do with a drug is just change the complement of active proteins in the cell that manage neurotransmitters. But we have endogenous ways of doing that as well. So things like cognitive behavioural therapy could do the same.
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It could get the body to control the levels of serotonin in the brain the same people would have to take drugs or normally take drugs because it’s simpler. And that’s how these changes in our brain chemistry in response to life events brings about changes in behaviour. Biological factors that the functioning of a healthy brain must underpin all forms of learning. That’s true when we learn to be anxious, and it’s true when we learn to be secure. So to take a crude example, if somebody has learned to associate their father with a sense of safety and security and pleasure and relaxation, when their father enters the room, they will have learned to have a particular emotional response.
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For somebody else, their father entering the room might be a trigger for feeling insecure or unhappy or frightened or in some other way distressed. Both of those individuals have used the same biological neurological system for learning. They have both made associations using the same biology, but with very different consequences. So for me, biological accounts are fundamentally important, and they’re important in determining how we learn and how our emotions work. But they’re not so good at explaining why there are differences between people in terms of their mental health.

A brief critique of the week’s discussions, and an introduction to next week’s material.

In this brief video, I discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of the biological approaches to mental health and well-being. The science and the logical arguments are both strong: we know that the functioning of our brains lies beneath all our behaviours, thoughts and emotions, and so biological approaches cannot be dismissed. And yet, many psychologists and social psychologists think that biological approaches alone cannot fully explain our experience of mental health problems. Next week, we will be looking at social perspectives on mental health. Your challenge, over the course as a whole, is to consider how these different approaches can be integrated. This week, your task is to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the biological component of the ‘biopsychosocial model’.

For those of you without a medical background, the ‘Simply Psychology’ site might give an idea of the biological complexities around the functioning of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, as well as the body’s biological response to stress. You might also want to read their comments on the so-called ‘medical model’. You might find some of the comments a little inflammatory, even biased. You might think they’ve got it entirely right! Personally, I wouldn’t phrase things this way, and I don’t agree with everything this site is saying… but I think it’s worth reading and discussing these issues… because these different perspectives do exist, and well-meaning people hold these contradictory and conflicting views.

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Psychology and Mental Health: Beyond Nature and Nurture

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