Great Accomplishments in Psychology

Scientist and author Lyall Watson once remarked: “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so that simple we couldn't.”

The chaotic networks of billions of electrically pulsating neurons in our skulls have perplexed scientists for centuries, yet in the last 10 years, our understanding of this mysterious organ has exploded.

Prodigious advances in diagnostic and molecular techniques have laid bare some of the brain’s complexity, and scientists are just beginning to find out how these revelations translate into everyday behavior, let alone disease.

“I feel really sorry for the people who retired five years ago,” says Michael Stryker, a neuroscientist at the University of California.

Neuroscience now is a completely different world from how it used to be. Here are some of the most interesting contributions (at least, according to us!) that have been made in various sub-specialties of psychology.

Advances in Therapy

A spate of therapeutic techniques that target the mind–body connection have gained traction in the past decade, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy that examines how one’s thoughts and feelings influence behavior and then introduces strategies to nix those maladaptive beliefs.

When CBT first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, it was mainly used to treat phobias and anxiety disorders, says Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist based in Maryland.

Yet in the decades since, CBT has expanded to encompass a wide range of maladies: a 2012 meta-analysis of over 100 studies found CBT to be a scientifically sound strategy for combating not only anxiety disorders but also bulimia, anger, stress and mental illnesses that cause pain.

Other behavioral techniques that have grown in popularity include mindfulness meditation, which encourages practitioners to be in tune with the present moment, as well as dialectical behavior therapy.

This latter treatment is grounded in CBT but adds new strategies to address serious mental health issues, such as suicidal thoughts, by emphasizing emotional regulation and other coping methods.

Alvord hopes that these therapies may one day be as effective as pharmaceuticals, which “don’t change your lifestyle or teach you how to get along better with other people,” Alvord says. “[These therapies] are giving people hope.”


To diagnose neurological disorders just two decades ago, doctors performed costly or intrusive procedures such as brain scans, spinal taps and biopsies

The parent and guardians often worried whether they would pass the same genetic abnormality onto their next child, but today, many such evaluations—including those of select degenerative disorders, epilepsies and movement disorders—can be performed with a quick and simple blood test.

These assessments were made possible by the Human Genome Project (HGP), which sequenced and mapped our genes in the early 2000s.

In its wake, a flood of new sequencing technologies allowed scientists to boost understanding regarding the genetic pathways that spawn neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Other research has not yet yielded diagnostic tests, but is nonetheless turning up much-needed insight into several challenging conditions, and scientists have homed in on bits of genetic material that swirl in the blood of patients with schizophreniaAlzheimer’s diseasedepression and autism, among other disorders.

The quick identification of clusters of disease-related genes will likely transform the way we identify and treat brain disorders in the near future.

Brain Mapping

Philanthropist Paul Allen gathered experts in the early 2000s with the goal of understanding how the human brain works.

After the completed HGP, they formed the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2003. This Seattle-based organization began mapping regions of gene activity in the mouse brain and pooling results into online databases, or atlases, which now also include data on human and nonhuman primates.

Free, comprehensive maps of genetic activity helped researchers engineer mice that express specific cell types or discover genes relevant to certain diseases or behaviors.

Today the institute continues to build atlases and it recently launched a 10-year plan to examine not only where specific genes are active, but how these genetic circuits process the vast flow of information that reaches the brain.

As a major participant in the White House BRAIN Initiative announced by Pres. Barack Obama, the National Institutes of Health just granted the project $8.7 million to plot the trillions of neural connections in mouse and human brains, which has the ultimate goal of revamping the way we approach brain diseases and disorders.

The Malleable Brain

Scientists long viewed the adult brain as a relatively static organ, says Stryker. As recently as 15 years ago, they believed that the brain was highly malleable in infancy and early childhood, but resistant to change afterward.

Although the brain is the most pliable early in life, “what’s really new this decade is the widespread appreciation, realization and exploitation of adult plasticity,” Stryker says.

Brain training software developed by companies such as Lumosity and games such as Nintendo’s Big Brain Academy Wii Degree have penetrated popular culture.

R. Douglas Fields, a senior investigator at the NIH, credits the emergence of better imaging techniques and new ways to label cells to make them fluorescent for the progress. They have made it possible to observe the brain as it learns new information. “The ability to see brain cells operate live inside the brain of an experimental animal is what has revealed the mechanisms of plasticity,” he says.

Funny Things with Memory

One of the great mysteries of the brain is that we still cannot pin down exactly what a memory is—how neural circuitry stores a given recollection.

Yet in the last decade we have learned a lot about memory’s limitations: memories are not necessarily written into our brains like ink on paper—think of them instead as inscribed in clay, suggests André Fenton, a neuroscientist at New York University’s Center for Neural Science.

Every time you access a memory, the message can get smudged, just as a clay tablet might if you were to pick it up and run your fingers over its surface; ongoing biochemical processes cause memories to shift over time.

Furthermore, our mind sets and emotions can influence what we pay attention to and therefore remember. Scientists are tinkering with experimental chemicals that—when injected—can interfere with memory-forming proteins and erase certain types of maladaptive feelings, like an addict’s desire for drugs.

Researchers have even managed to make mice form entirely false memories. Memory formation and recollection is an evolving, active and plastic process that involves many different working parts of the brain—and scientists are just beginning to piece together how they coalesce into such a complex machine.

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Ben Ambridge: Ten myths about disassembled psychology. How much of what do you think about the brain is wrong? In this quick tour of discredited science, Ben Ambridge walks through ten popular ideas related to psychology that have proven to be wrong.

Rising incarceration rates, returning veterans, interest in personal development and changes in health-care reform all point to the need for more psychologists in the U.S. Businesses are now looking to Industrial-Organizational Psychologists to improve the productivity of their operations, and everyone is now more accepting of the need for individuals and organizations to take more responsibility for their own mental well-being and health.

Society is increasingly turning towards prevention as a solution to wellness. The Affordable Care Act signals a response to this trend. The Prevention and Public Health Fund has already set up programs to fight obesity and smoking, for example.

Economic pressures have also fueled changes in the way employers view applicants. Psychologists need to demonstrate a high level of competence and education to even be considered for a job, as well as internships and hands-on experience, and the PsyD provides just that.

The rising costs of university education in the U.S. also means that there is a larger budget for the employment of PHDs and PsyDs to teach in university establishments, more money for research, and the quickening pace of changes in the demands on society - increased stress levels, reliance on medications and the incidence of mental health disorders, etc., have led to a greater need for psychology commentary and inevitably, solutions to these changes.

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