“If the human mind was simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.”
So said Emerson Pugh, a pioneer in computer-memory technologies. Indeed, the brain is the most complex object in the universe – in fact, it would require a nuclear power plant to energise a computer the size of a city block to mimic your brain! And the fascinating job of discovering the secrets of this complicated, cryptic organ is that of the neuropsychologist.
What is neuropsychology?
A specialty in professional psychology, neuropsychology focuses on brain functioning, applying the principles of assessment and intervention to patients who display symptoms of brain injury or are suspected of having neurological disorders. The field is underpinned by a knowledge of brain structure, function and dysfunction, and the effects of multiple factors on cognitive, behavioural and emotional functioning. In clinical neuropsychology, brain function is evaluated by testing, among other things, memory and thinking skills, which is the role of the neuropsychologist, who will then diagnose and make recommendations for treatment, or even provide treatment him- or herself.
What does a neuropsychologist do?
Essentially, neuropsychologists are psychologists who have specialist training in the neurobiological causes of brain disorders and who focus on diagnosing and treating these illnesses by using a predominantly medical (as opposed to psychoanalytical) approach. The “brain detectives” of the psych world, they can have a number of different job functions, from uncovering the effects of traumatic brain injuries on a person’s mood, behaviour and ability to think, to discovering effective treatments for individuals whose brain functioning has been diminished. They work with people of all ages, dealing with patients who have had traumatic brain injuries, strokes, toxic and metabolic disorders, tumours and neurodegenerative diseases, among other things.
Where do neuropsychologists work?
Many neuropsychologists work in clinical settings such as hospitals and rehabilitation centres, providing assessment, training and support for people who have sustained brain injuries, or who have other neurological problems. Here, they will be responsible for carrying out tests of certain mental faculties, such as recall and recognition, ability to follow directions, concentration, mood, personality, and language or mathematical skills. They might also oversee testing that uses sophisticated brain-scanning equipment, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Some neuropsychologists work in the research sector, both government-run and private, spending much of their time in the lab developing experiments to answer questions about the brain’s structures and functions. They may devise experimental treatments for specific brain injuries, and track the progress of participants receiving the treatment. In this environment, the neuropsychologist’s work is focused on data collection and analysis – pursuits that will advance the field’s understanding of brain-based conditions.
How to become a neuropsychologist?
It goes without saying that to be a Sherlock Holmes of the brain, you need to be naturally very curious. But you also need to be caring. In fact, to be a neuropsychologist, you must first be a good psychologist. This will allow you to build a good rapport with your clients, enabling them to perform to their best ability on the tests you give them and feel comfortable talking about their lives and how their neurological symptoms have affected them. In addition, neuropsychologists require not only general clinical skills and knowledge of the broad range of mental-health problems, but also a substantial degree of specialist knowledge in the neurosciences.
The path to becoming a neuropsychologist begins with obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree, preferably with a major in Psychology, followed by an Honours Degree in Psychology. Alternatively, you could do a four-year Bachelor of Psychology Degree (which has a “built-in” Honours equivalent). After completing your undergraduate studies, you must then go on to get a Master’s degree in neuropsychology, neuroscience or a very closely related field. Master’s degree programmes focus on more advanced studies in the field of neuropsychology and include internship requirements in which students must conduct research and clinical work.
While the journey to becoming a neuropsychologist may be a long one, salaries and job prospects in this field are good. What’s more, you’ll be entering a field that promises to provide infinite fascination and a whole new world of discovery.
If a career in psychology appeals to you, why not consider studying at SACAP? In addition to being an accredited private higher educational provider, the South African College of Applied Psychology offers a range of vocational, academic and professional courses in the subject, and is widely acknowledged as the country’s leading provider of higher education and training in the field of applied psychology. For more information, enquire today.