Study notes

IB Psychology (BLOA): Animal Research May Inform Our Understanding of Human Behaviour

  • Levels: IB
  • Exam boards: IB

The biological approach to psychological research relies on three key assumptions.

  • Patterns of behaviour can be inherited, which means that we don’t only inherit our hair and eye colour from our parents and grandparents, but also our attitudes and behaviours.
  • Animal research may inform our understanding of human behaviour, because many animals have brains and nervous systems that are similar to humans.
  • Cognitions, emotions and behaviours are products of the anatomy and physiology of our nervous and endocrine systems. In other words, the structure and processes of our brain and nervous system govern how we feel and think.

These key assumptions are the principles underpinning all psychological research carried out within the biological approach.

Key Question: Outline the key assumptions of the biological approach.

The biological approach does just what you would think from the name: it assumes that our behaviour is the product of our physiology, that it can be researched by investigating our physiology (or even animal physiology) and that behaviour patterns are also inherited from our ancestors, both recent and distant.

2. Animal Research May Inform Our Understanding of Human Behaviour

This belief arises from the evidence that the nervous system, including the brain, of some animals is similar to that of humans. Psychologists from the biological approach therefore assume similar functions from these similar structures. For example, while the time scale of brain development is considerably different, the sequence of brain development is largely the same between humans and rats.

There is some evidence to suggest that research using rats is applicable to humans, as the study by Fadda et al. (1996) below shows, but remember that 40% of the human brain motor cortex is given over to visual stimuli, while over 30% of the rat’s motor cortex is used to process “whisker stimuli”, so there are some significant differences.

We should always be aware that the brain processes that are investigated are usually triggered environmentally, and thus critical thinking demands that we remain aware of the constant interaction between genetic inheritance and environmental factors.

Key Study 2: Fadda et al. (1996)

Aim: To investigate the role of acetylcholine(ACh) in anticipation of a memory task and in spatial memory.

Method: Two groups of rats - one group trained to run a T-maze, alternating the starting arms, until the rats were successful in reaching the food in 9 out of 11 trials. The control group was not trained.

All rats were placed for 20 minutes in a waiting cage before completing the task. They then ran the maze to find the food, and were placed back in their home cage afterwards. Levels of ACh were measured by a specially implanted probe, before, during and for 30 minutes after the task.

Results: The trained rats (experimental group) had significantly higher levels of ACh in their hippocampus when awaiting the task. Both groups had high levels in the first ten minutes of maze-running, but then the ACh levels in the brains of the control group rats dropped back to their base level, while those in the experimental group remained high until they dropped slowly back to normal by 30 minutes after the task.

Conclusion: These results suggest that acetylcholine is important in the processes of arousal, attention and memory, and not just in spatial memory as previously demonstrated in research.


The main point of evaluation is whether these findings can be generalised to humans. The degeneration of acetylcholine-releasing neurons has long been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, which is a loss initially of declarative memory and then of procedural memory.

Gais and Born (2004) showed that acetylcholine is important in declarative memory (of events - as opposed to spatial memory, which is procedural). Low levels of acetylcholine were vital during slow-wave sleep (SWS) for the consolidation of memories. Increasing acetylcholine uptake during SWS resulted in a loss of declarativememories, but had no effect on procedural memories. While not directly arisen from Fadda et al’s research, this does show the strange and complex relationship between acetylcholine and memory.

Critical Thinking

Types of memory can we really separate arousal, attention, learning, spatial memory, declarative memory and procedural memory so clearly and definitely in the brain that we can measure the effects of acetylcholine on them?

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