A Branch of Psychology
Neuropsychology focuses on brain-behaviour relationships. Behaviours are observable reactions. We can look at how a person is behaving to understand how their brain is working. But it’s more than just behaviour. Many tests can measure psychological processes. That is, cognition and emotions also allow us to look at how the brain is functioning. Neuropsychology explores how psychology and behaviour relate to brain function, as well as what they can each tell us about the brain.
Now, before we go into more detail about what neuropsychology is, let’s look at what it is not. There are so many fields starting with ‘neuro’. Let’s discuss some general ones. Bear in mind that it’s not uncommon for these fields to overlap and work together. This just goes to show how complex the human brain is!
Neuroscience looks at biological processes in the central nervous system. The central nervous system is the brain and spinal cord. Neuroscientists explore the central nervous system to find underlying neural mechanisms. That is, when you read this post, have a headache, or can’t sleep – how are the neurons in your brain behaving?
Neuroscientists explore diseases of the nervous system. How does a disease relate to structural or functional disruptions in the nervous system? On the other hand, neuropsychologists may ask about spared and impaired brain functions. That is, what functions has the disease affected or not affected? To do this, they can assess cognition and behaviour.
Neurology focuses on diseases that affect the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Like neuroscientists, they look at biological processes. Neurologists differ because they are medical doctors. They completed a medical degree and specialised in neurology. They diagnose disorders and provide medical treatment. Neuropsychologists do not diagnose or prescribe medication.
Looking at the Mighty Brain
The brain is the command centre. The place where everything happens. Your thoughts, feelings, behaviours… your brain does all that stuff. Your brain may be powerful, but it’s not tough. It’s a squishy ball of jelly that is easily injured. The injured brain acts differently. We can’t directly see these brain changes, but we can observe behavioural changes. That’s where the neuropsychologist steps in.
Neuropsychologists are clinicians who have undergone clinical training. Usually they’ve complete at least a masters degree, and may have also completed research and doctoral degrees. They also tend to have a background or knowledge in clinical psychology. Their focus is to deal with brain function. This means that they’ll do an extensive assessment to understand what your brain is good and not-so-good at doing. Brain functions are things like intelligence, attention, memory, and visual-spatial skills – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! In fact, it can take a neuropsychologist several hours to conduct an entire assessment.
Neuropsychological assessments take a while. You have a lot of brain functions, so there’s going to be lots of tests. Even so, this won’t cover everything! After this assessment, the neuropsychologist gets a big list of test scores. How do scores help us understand the brain? There’s a couple of ways to answer this.
Firstly, it’s a good sign if your brain is functioning like the average brain. We’re all unique, but when it comes to your brain, you don’t want to stand out too much. Neuropsychologists can compare your scores from an assessment to a norm. Norms are standards or expectations and can differ across groups.
Secondly, who better to compare your scores with than yourself! That is, neuropsychologists can look at your history. It’s great if you’ve done an assessment before. Then, your current scores can be compared to your previous scores. There’s usually no concerns if your brain function hasn’t drastically changed. Why would we do this? Imagine you had a head injury. Comparing yourself to when you were injury-free can help understand which of your brain functions were affected by the injury.
Overall, neuropsychology focuses on psychological and behavioural processes. These may change after head injuries or with age. Neuropsychologists assess whether your brain is changing as expected. If it’s not, then this could signal a red flag for disease or injury.
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