Where Does "Biological Psychology" Come From?

I recently realized that the label “biological psychology” is quite popular among some psychologists, including at my university.  For example, there are core courses, journals, and textbooks with that name.  “Biological psychology” is used as roughly synonymous with “behavioral neuroscience,” which is another label popular in the same circles and explicitly refers to a subset of neuroscience simpliciter.  In light of the received view in philosophy of mind (at least since the 1970s) that psychology is autonomous from and irreducible to neuroscience, I find it intriguing that some psychologists equate their discipline with (as subset of) neuroscience.

Question: does anyone know when, where, how, and why these labels (“biological psychology”, “behavioral neuroscience”) originated?


  1. It seems to me that both “biological psychology” and “behavioral neuroscience” are roughly synonymous with the earlier term “physiological psychology”. For example, see these old textbooks:

    McGraw-Hill, 1943

    D. Van Nostrand, 1948

    According to Freeman, “The term *physiological psychology was first used by Wundt to distinguish certain laboratory investigations of human activity from the more common armchair philosophising of his day.”

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    Thanks, Arnold.  I agree and would love to know whether there is historical continuity between “physiological psychology” and “biological psychology”/”behavioral neuroscience”.  Are the two latter labels replacements for the former?  If so, the reason for the shift might simply be to find terms that seem more palatable to modern psychologists (especially with the rise of “neuroscience”).  Still, I’d be curious to know more about who made this shift, when, and why.

  3. Hi Gualtiero,

    I think the rise of “neuroscience” had much to do with the shift in terminology. I think the shift to “behavioral neuroscience” was progressively more common after 1969 following the establishment of The Society for Neuroscience (SfNS). If you look at the membership lists you’ll see that many psychologists joined the SfNS in succeeding years.

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