Biological Bases of Behavior

Imagine wanting to take apart a computer system to better understand how it works internally. There are so many different components that are necessary for the computer to work properly, such as the central processing unit or motherboard. Imagine, now, the internal processes of the body, and how they equate to behaviors that we experience. 

Biological Bases of Behavior Biological Bases of Behavior

Create learning materials about Biological Bases of Behavior with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    The biological processes of the brain can explain human behaviors and have been studied as such for centuries. Biological psychology is the study of the link between biological functions and psychological functions. Let's begin with a look at the communicators of the brain, the neurons.

    • What are neurotransmissions?
    • How do neurons communicate?
    • What are the key parts of the central nervous system?


    Neural communication is the information system that helps connect our biological process to our psychological process as an information highway. Nerve cells are at the very basis of this communication. Each neuron consists of a cell body with extended branches. These branches are called dendrites, and they receive information to then carry it back to the cell body.

    At this point, the long arm of the cell body, the axon, takes the message to the other neurons. This is kind of like the game you may have played as a child, the telephone game.

    A zoomed-in image of a neuron. StudySmarterA zoomed-in image of a neuron.

    Dendrite - a bushy branch-like extension from the cell body that reaches to gather communication and bring it back to the cell body.

    Axon - the long arm of the cell body that passes the message to the other neurons.

    Neural Communication

    Think of neural communication as a huge telephone system. The meeting point between each neuron, or telephone, is called a synapse. Do all the neurons touch at the synapse or meeting point? No, they don't; this is called a synaptic gap. The synaptic clefts come incredibly close to each other, but they do not come in contact.

    Fun fact! There was a Spanish anatomist by the name of Santiago Ramón y Cajal who named the synaptic gap "protoplasmic kisses".

    At the synaptic gap, there is a booming release of chemicals! This is called a neurotransmitter. The neurotransmitter allows for the absorption of the chemical that was released in the action. Once the sending neuron has a moment to reabsorb the excess or extra neurotransmitters, it becomes a moment of reuptake.

    Why are these factors important to that of behavior? Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are in charge of certain aspects and behaviors for humans. For example, when a neurotransmitter releases dopamine into our system, there is a change in our emotions. It also influences our attention.

    The Nervous and Endocrine System

    The nervous system has a lot of key players in the performance of our day-to-day living. There is the taking in mass amounts of information, the making of decisions, and then conveying that to the many areas of our body.

    Who are the key players in all this information processing?

    The Nervous System

    The brain and the spinal cord are the decision-makers of the central nervous system (CNS); you can think of them collectively as the team captain. The assistant to the captain is the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which takes the messages from the central nervous system and shares it with the rest of the body or team members. Nerves are the links between the muscles, glands, and sensory receptors of the body. For example, the olfactory nerve of the body is in charge of smell. The nervous system information travels to three different types of neurons; sensory neurons, motor neurons, and interneurons. The sensory neurons are the message carriers from the sensory receptors to the brain and spinal cord. The motor neurons take messages and instructions from the central nervous system to the glands and muscles. Those messages are then processed by the brain by the interneurons, or the body's internal way of communicating.

    The Peripheral Nervous System

    The peripheral nervous system has both the somatic and autonomic components that make it one large system. The somatic nervous system is responsible for our skeletal muscles. Our organs also have someone calling the shots; our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS controls our glands and inner organ muscles and such functions as our heartbeat. Because this system is autonomic, you can consciously make it stop (hold your breath as you finish this sentence), but it will operate on its own, naturally.

    The autonomic system has two major functions under its command, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Imagine that you are about to take a major exam. You notice that your breathing becomes a bit faster, and your heart beats quickly. This is your sympathetic nervous system kicking in. Once you realize that you are prepared, your parasympathetic nervous system will kick in, essentially doing the opposite of the sympathetic system. Your heart rate slows down!

    When you go for a run on an uneven trail, you may find yourself looking down intermittently. You hop over a stone or change your course. Even if you don't notice that you are doing so, this is an example of your somatic system sending messages to your skeletal system.

    The Central Nervous System

    The brain is at the head of a super network of information, creating and controlling even the smallest bodily actions and movements.

    With some 40 billion neurons, each connecting with roughly 10,000 other neurons, we end up with perhaps 400 trillion synapses—places where neurons meet and greet their neighbors. A grain-of-sand-sized speck of your brain contains some 100,000 neurons and 1 billion talkingsynapses (Myers, 2014).

    These neural networks are the reason why, we as humans, can have much deeper thought and reasoning in comparison to other species of animals. Each time we learn something or practice something new, such as a new language, we are creating and establishing stronger connections within this network.

    In the central nervous system is a smaller information highway with lots of traffic, the spinal cord. Here, there are messages of motor control, such as a reflex. A reflex is the body's automatic response to something; for example, a stimulus like heat. When you accidentally touch a hot stovetop, your body's natural response to the feeling of pain is to quickly remove your hand.

    Endocrine System

    Another form of information processing is done through the endocrine system of the body. This is a slower form of communication through the glands of the body, which release chemicals such as hormones that travel through our bloodstream. Hormones are the endocrine system's mail carriers (much slower than the superhighway of the neurotransmitters) that influence our needs for food and aggression. Because the endocrine system relies on the bloodstream to carry its messages, the effects can last longer (which may be why you stay angry longer because of a disagreement).

    Moments of possible danger trigger the adrenal glands to release the chemicals epinephrine (you may know it by the more common term adrenaline) and norepinephrine. These chemicals are the reason for our fight-or-flight response in potentially dangerous situations.

    The tiny structure of the pituitary gland is in charge of some very important events. One of its major jobs is to release the growth hormone (the reason for our physical development). Another chemical released by the pituitary glands is oxytocin. This is the chemical related to bonding and love.

    "Old Brain" Structures

    It can be difficult to realize, but our brain system has new portions as well as older structures. Through change and developments in humans, there have been newer functions added to the basis of fundamental brain structures that are called the "old brain".

    The Brainstem

    The brainstem is the oldest portion of the human brain. The lowest portion of the brainstem structure is the medulla. In the medulla are the controls for fundamental bodily functions such as our heartbeat. Above this sits the pons, which help us with coordination.

    Those who have brain damage and are considered to be in a vegetative state are still able to breathe and have a heartbeat because of the medulla of the brainstem.

    The Thalamus

    Above the brainstem is the thalamus, which is in charge of the brain's sensory control. The thalamus takes information from all of our senses (except smell) and sends these messages to the higher processing portions of our brains. Because it is a two-way system, the thalamus will also receive messages from the brain involving sight and touch, etc.

    The Reticular Formation

    The reticular formation is the crossing guard of information that comes from the spinal cord up through the thalamus. Arousal is the main function of the reticular formation of the body.

    The Cerebellum

    The cerebellum is considered to be the second brain in our system. The function of nonverbal learning and memory lies in this area. Amongst these functions is the ability to distinguish time, regulate our emotions, and be able to understand different sounds. It also is in charge of our voluntary movements.

    If there is damage in the cerebellum area of the brain, we would have difficulty walking or keeping balance.

    The Limbic System

    The Amygdala

    This almond-shaped area of the brain is in charge of our emotional responses like fear or rage. The amygdala also attaches emotions to memory, allowing it to be better remembered.

    The Hypothalamus

    At the center of the limbic system lies the hypothalamus. It is in charge of our feelings of hunger and sexuality and also regulates body temperature and the sleep cycle. It releases hormones. An example of an important hormone that is released in the hypothalamus is oxytocin or the love hormone. Lesions of the hypothalamus influence unconscious functions, and some motivated behaviors like combativeness and hunger. The lateral parts are involved with pleasure and rage. Lastly, the medial part is linked to aversions and displeasure.

    The Cerebral Cortex

    The cerebral cortex is made of two hemispheres that are covered in connecting neural cells. This area is considered the brain control center and is about 85 percent of the brain's overall weight.

    Motor Functions

    The cerebral cortex is responsible for behavior mechanics such as precise movements (in our fingers for example). We also now know that there is a cross-hemisphere function in the cerebral cortex. What that means is that the right side of the brain controls functions on the left side of the body, and the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body's functions.

    Sensory Functions

    If motor functions are the messages that are going out, where are the incoming messages processed in the cerebral cortex? The somatosensory cortex is the area that can process and understand these, as well as sensations of movement. For example, a sensitive area of the body such as the lips has a larger area devoted to it in the somatosensory cortex.

    Behavior Genetics

    Behavior genetics help us to explain and understand our personalities, behaviors, and individual differences in both psychological and biological terms. The biological basis for our behaviors lies in both the functions of our innermost bodily functions and, even more deeply, our genetic makeup.


    If a man is a professional baseball player, does that mean that his future child will be a professional baseball player as well? This is what interests those who study nature vs. nurture in the elements of human behavior. Geneticists and psychologists both look for DNA variations that could answer questions about who we are as individuals, and if these differences explain our behaviors and choices.


    We as humans have an amazing ability to adapt to our environment. Epigenetic studies try to understand molecular mechanisms and how they are affected by environmental factors. Although genes have a major effect on how we are and behave, it is understood that environmental factors can "turn them on and off". For example, stress, drugs, or our diets all can be major factors to consider.

    Biological Bases of Behavior - Key takeaways

    • Biological psychology is the study of the link between biological functions and psychological functions.
    • The brain and the spinal cord are the decision-makers of the central nervous system (CNS).
    • The assistant to the captain is the peripheral nervous system (PNS), who takes the messages from the central nervous system and shares it with the rest of the body or team members.
    • The autonomic system has two major functions under its command, the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system.
    • The cerebellum is considered to be the second brain in our system. In this area lie the functions of nonverbal learning and memory.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Biological Bases of Behavior

    What are the biological bases of behavior in psychology?

    The biological processes of the brain can explain human behaviors and have been studied for centuries. This study is simply called biological psychology.  

    Why is it important to study the biological basis of behavior?

    It is important to study the biological bases of behavior because helps us understand our behaviors through both biology and psychology. 

    What are biological factors in psychology?

    Biological factors in psychology are neurotransmissions, nervous system, endocrine system, central nervous system, limbic system, and behavior genetics. 

    What is the biological basis of being male or female?

    The biological bases of being male and female are DNA and genetics.

    Is behavior biological or psychological?

    Behavior is a mixture of all of biological and psychological components. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these is a stimulant?

    Alcohol is considered a hallucinogen. True or false?

    Which of these psychotropic drugs are considered depressants?


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Biological Bases of Behavior Teachers

    • 12 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App