Many wonder how it is even possible to study such a seemingly abstract and sophisticated subject as the mind. Psychology is the answer.
While often considered as intangible as the origins of its name (the Greek word “psyche” is loosely defined as “breath, spirit and soul”), psychology is indeed a complex and multifaceted discipline. The mind, after all, is an intricate and enigmatic organ, which leaves many wondering how it is even possible to study such a seemingly abstract and sophisticated subject.
In some ways, psychology lies at the crossroads of other disciplines, such as medicine, linguistics, sociology, biology, anthropology, sociology, and even history (neuropsychology, for example, looks at how different brain areas are involved in memory, language and emotions, and overlaps with biology and medicine).
Today, there exist several branches of psychological practice, all of which explore the study of “mind and behaviour”. These include:
Clinical psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the assessment and treatment of mental illness, abnormal behaviour, and psychiatric problems. This field integrates the science of psychology with the treatment of complex human problems, and combines science, theory, and practice. Clinical psychologists concentrate on the intellectual, emotional, biological, psychological, social, and behavioural aspects of human performance throughout a person’s life, across varying cultures and socio-economic levels. While they focus on the assessment and treatment of mental illness, many clinical psychologists also conduct research, teach, consult, develop programmes, provide forensic testimony, and offer advice for the development of mental health policies.
Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the mind as an information processor. Cognitive psychologists try to build up cognitive models of the information processing that goes on inside people’s minds, including perception, attention, language, memory, thinking and consciousness. At the centre of this branch of psychology is how human beings acquire, process and store information – some even call cognitive psychology “the study of intelligence”. Cognitive psychologists work at treatment facilities, like hospitals and mental health clinics, as well as in universities and research facilities.
Developmental psychology is the study of human growth and development. This may include physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, and social changes and milestones. By studying these developmental changes, psychologists can have a better understanding of how people change and grow during different stages of their lives. This branch of psychology researches any psychological factors that can be studied over the lifespan of a person, including motor skills, problem solving, moral understanding, language acquisition, emotions, personality, self-concept and identity formation. A developmental psychologist will usually specialise in a specific age or stage. A psychologist specialising in childhood development, for example, may evaluate children to determine whether or not they have developmental disabilities, while one who works with older adults may try to find ways that make it easier for elderly people to live more independently.
Evolutionary psychologists seek to reconstruct problems that our ancestors faced in their primitive environments, and the problem-solving behaviours they created to meet those particular challenges. From these reconstructed problem-solving adaptations, this branch of psychology then attempts to establish the common roots of our ancestral behaviour, and how those common behavioural roots are manifested today in the widely scattered cultures of the planet. Typically, evolutionary psychologists work with individuals and groups who seek to change unwanted behaviour and, for those who enter this field of psychology, research and education in related fields such as biology, lifespan development, and anthropology, form a significant role.
Applying psychology to criminal investigation and the law is the work of forensic psychologists, who evaluate criminals to learn what their mindset and motives were at the time of an offence, and gauge what threat, if any, the offender will be to the public in the future. Their evaluations, assessments and testimonies help inform the decisions of judges and juries. Forensic psychology involves a good understanding of criminal law in order to interact with judges, attorneys and other legal professionals and requires the ability to testify in court, to present psychological findings in legal language to the courtroom, and to provide data to legal professionals.
Also called behavioural medicine or medical psychology, this branch of psychology observes how behaviour, biology and social context influence illness and health. While a doctor treats the illness, the health psychologist will focus more on the person who has the illness, by finding out about their socio-economic status and background, behaviours that may have an impact on the disease, plus the biological reasons for the illness. The aim of the health psychologist is to improve the patient’s overall health by analysing disease in the context of bio-psychosocial (biological, psychological and social ) factors. Health psychologists generally work alongside other medical professionals in clinical settings.
This branch of psychology is concerned with how the brain and the rest of the nervous system influence a person’s cognition and behaviour. The main objective of neuropsychology is to understand specific psychological processes and behaviours from the perspective of the structure and functioning of the brain. Professionals in this branch of psychology often focus on how injuries or illnesses of the brain affect cognitive functions and behaviours. These psychologists help doctors understand how brain malfunctions occur, and what happens when they do. Neuropsychology is scientific in its approach and shares an information-processing view of the mind with cognitive psychology.
Also known as industrial or organisational psychology, occupational psychology studies the performance of people at work and in training, and develops an understanding of how organisations function and how people and groups behave in a work environment. Occupational psychologists use psychological principles and research methods to solve problems and improve the quality of life in the workplace. They study workplace productivity and management and employee working styles and they get a feel for the morale and personality of a company or organisation. Aiming to increase effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in the workplace, they collaborate with management to help plan employment policies, carry out screenings and training sessions, and develop a plan for the working in the future.
Put simply, social psychology studies the impact of social influences on human behaviour. Social psychology uses scientific methods to understand and explain how our feelings, behaviours and thoughts are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other people. A social psychologist will look at group behaviour, social perception, nonverbal behaviour, conformity, aggression, prejudice, and leadership, all of which are key to understanding social behaviour.
Are you fascinated by the workings of the mind? If so, you may be well suited to a career in one of the above fields of psychology. SACAP’s Bachelor of Applied Social Science degree is a comprehensive undergraduate psychology degree programme, providing a perfect springboard for those wishing to progress to Honours and Masters in order to become a psychologist. For more information, enquire now.