The Psychology of the Brain and Behavior

Brain-behavior relationship: are we our brains?

The Psychology of the Brain and Behavior

The relationship between brain and behavior seems to be the successor of the famous Cartesian mind-body dualism, where the brain is the physical or biological component and behavior the mental or psychological aspect.

Despite its ancient origin, the body-mind dichotomy continues to be an unresolved problem nowadays. Both concepts have been kept apart as if they were separate and distinct.

However, the idea that the mind and body function separately turns out to be an impediment to scientific progress, since mind and body are related in a more complex way than one might imagine.

Why do we behave in a certain way? Is the brain in charge of our actions?

Try to answer the following question:

What is our brain’s ultimate goal?

Many people will respond:”to perceive, think, reason, or learn.”Even if it is true that the brain performs such tasks, all of them serve as the basis for an ultimate purpose: to direct behavior. For example, through our perception we can know what is happening in our environment, thereby triggering more useful and adaptive behaviors.

The goal, then, is to relate specific brain events to certain behaviors. However, everything is not so simple. For example, the same behavior can be triggered by different physiological mechanisms: we can drink a beer because we are thirsty or because we feel stressed and want to take advantage of its intoxicating effect.

Are we our brain?

Now, try to answer the following questions:

If you could transplant Einstein’s brain into your body, would you think and talk him? Would you behave exactly him? Would you have won the Nobel Prize in Physics?

What if Mozart’s brain was transplanted into your body? Would have you composed the same number of pieces as he did?

The first thing we tend to think is that if we had the brain of a genius, we would be the genius, since we think the brain is responsible for our behavior. However, this matter becomes increasingly complicated.

We must not forget that the brain is flexible and has the ability to change. This organ evolves throughout life and adapts to the changing environment. Thus, the relationship between brain and behavior is modulated by different factors:

  • The environment: our environmental surroundings influence our brain and behavior. For example, the environment modulates the development of different skills. Therefore, language acquisition can vary for a child coming from a rural area to another from an urban area (because the verbal stimulation that each one receives is different).

Another example is that of enrichedenvironments. It is scientifically proven that individuals raised in enriched environments have a greater number of synaptic connections among neurons (since an enriched environment providesindividuals with possibilities for action and increases cognitive and sensory stimulation) than those in impoverished environments.

Additionally, there are environmental factors that can influence the development of the nervous system. One example is malnutrition in early life.

Therefore, it is demonstrated that our brain can undergo changes due to the environment, therefore influencing future behaviors.

  • Sociocultural and historical aspects: returning to the example mentioned earlier on brain transplant, our behaviors might have been very different from those of geniuses in their time. We would have quickly adapted to our socio-cultural and historical context, undoubtedly different from that of Einstein and Mozart.
  • Phylogeny: the human brain has a phylogenetic history, that is, inherited species characteristics. Thus, in the human brain, three distinct layers can be distinguished: a deep or reptilian layer (the oldest phylogenetic layer), an intermediate or limbic layer, and an outer or neocortex layer (which distinguishes humans from other animals). Thus, as we evolve as a species, the brain undergoes changes to meet the specific demands of the environment.
  • Genetics:the development of our brain is governed by gene expression. To a certain degree, it can create variations such as different sensitivities to reward, different probabilities of emitting behaviors, etc. On the other hand, if there is a mutation in the genes, the process will vary and may cause different disorders.
  • Ontogeny: refers to the development of the individual and to what we have learned throughout life. Our current behavior is determined by past experiences. These are stored in our memory and serve as a guide to emit certain behaviors and not others. One example is that, if we have experienced pleasure with an activity in the past, we tend to repeat it.

Another aspect that reinforces the brain-behavior relationship is the behavioral changes observed after brain injury.

In fact, neuroscience is responsible for seeking links between specific brain structures and certain behaviors, mainly through the observation of brain-injured individuals.

Thus, neuro imaging techniques are used to determine the lesion site and the neuropsychological profile of the individual is examined. If the pattern is repeated in a large number of patients, it can be said that a specific brain area is associated with the impaired function.

In short, all this indicates that there is a complex and interdependent relationship between the brain and behavior. The brain receives information and internal and external influences that enable the most appropriate behaviors to be triggered at any time.

In addition, our behavior has environmental consequences, which can be experienced as positive or negative for us. These consequences make us learn and reduce the lihood that that behavior will occur again in the future.

Such learning out come send up producing brain changes, in particular in brain synaptic connections.


– Carlson, N.R. (2006). Fisiología de la conducta 8ª Ed. Madrid: Pearson. pp: 2-3.

– Matute, E. y Roselli, M. (2010). Neuropsicología infantil: historia, conceptos y objetivos. En S. Viveros Fuentes. (Ed.), Neuropsicología del Desarrollo Infantil (pp. 3). México: El manual moderno.

– Tamayo, J. (2009). La relación cerebro-conducta ¿hacia una nueva dualidad? Revista Internacional de Psicología y Terapia Psicológica, 9(2), 285-293.


Cognition, Brain, and Behavior // Department of Psychology // University of Notre Dame

The Psychology of the Brain and Behavior

Faculty and students in the Cognition, Brain, and Behavior area study a broad range of human cognitive abilities and the factors that influence them. Traditional behavioral measures of human performance are coupled with eyetracking, computational modeling, virtual reality, measures of brain activity, pharmacological, and neuropsychological methods. 

These diverse interests and approaches result in natural collaborations with faculty in each of our psychology programs as well other departments including biology, computer science, and engineering.


(Brockmole, Carlson, Crowell, Gibson, Villano). Our research on attention broadly addresses the personal, environmental, and situational factors that influence what we attend to and what we ignore. Specific topics of study include:

  • Stimulus-driven and goal-directed attentional control
  • Object- and space-based allocation of attention
  • Selective, divided, and cross-modal attention
  • Temporal parameters of attention
  • Interface of attention, memory, and reasoning
  • Attention deficits in clinical diagnoses such as ADHD, depression, ASD, and dyslexia 


(Crowell, Eberhard, McNeil). Our research on learning focuses on the factors that affect the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills. Specific topics of study include:

  • Statistical and associative learning
  • First and second language comprehension
  • Development of mathematical concepts and numerical representation  
  • Efficacy of classroom learning methods and procedures


(Brockmole, Carlson, Gibson, Koen, McNeil, Payne, Radvansky, Rose, Valentino). Our research on memory focuses on the factors that determine how difficult it is to learn about and remember information.  Specific topics of study include:

  • Working memory representation
  • Long-term memory consolidation
  • Memory for objects, scenes, environments, and events
  • Influences of sleep, emotion, and stress on memory  
  • Autobiographical memory in typically and atypically developing children


(Carlson, Eberhard). Our research on language focuses on both the production and comprehension of speech. Specific interests include:

  • Development of grammatical competence in both children and second language learners
  • Coordination of face-to-face and remote conversations
  • Use of language to describe real, virtual, imagined, and remembered environments
  • Communication deficits that characterize neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder.

Visual and Spatial Cognition

(Brockmole, Carlson, Gibson, Payne). Our research on visual and spatial cognition focuses on the way attention and memory are used to construct mental representations of visual displays, including real-world environments. Specific interests include:

  • Factors affecting the deployment of attention through visual displays
  • Acquisition and retention of information about objects and scenes
  • Spatial language, reference frames, reasoning, and navigation
  • Visual representation in normal and abnormal development
  • The effect of emotions in constructing mental representations of visual environments
  • Imitation of perceived behavior in various action contexts
  • Embodied aspects of visual processing

Cognitive Development and Aging

(Brockmole, Carlson, Gibson, Koen, McNeil, Narvaez, Rose, Valentino). Our research on the developmental aspects of cognition covers the lifespan from infancy to old age. Specific topics of study include:

  • Development of language in infants and toddlers
  • Development of numerical competency
  • Changes in memory abilities as a result of normal aging
  • Cognitive weaknesses associated with clinical disorders
  • Influences of maltreatment on memory and executive function in children
  • Development of moral reasoning and moral intelligence

Emotion, Affect, and Cognition 

(Crowell, Narvaez Payne, Valentino, Villano). Our research on affective cognition ranges from the basic mechanisms of emotion to affective disorders. Specific topics of study include:

  • Physiology of emotion and effects of stress hormones on brain function and behavior
  • Relationship between emotion and learning
  • Processing of facial expressions, speech, language, and body movements
  • Development of computer systems that detect, respond to, and synthesize emotions
  • Child maltreatment and cognitive development
  • Parenting and the development of moral and social cognition

Applied Cognition

(Carlson, Crowell, Eberhard, Koen, Rose, Villano). Our research in applied aspects of cognitive research focuses on clinical and engineering applications of basic research.  Specific topics of interest include:

  • Artificial intelligence and intelligent tutoring systems
  • Speech recognition systems
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Human-robot interaction in clinical settings
  • Interactive gaming and robotic devices in stroke and brain trauma rehabilitation


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