INTRO TO PSYCHOLOGY
(Lectures 15, 16, 17 & 18)
1 Lecture 15
October 27 2009
A quick overview of health psychology by Dr. Blaine Ditto:
Health psychology is a growing field. A long past but a short history This is true for a lot of fields. It
applies to psychology in general. Philosophers have been discussing psychological ideas for many years.
The ideas surrounding health psychology have been around since antiquity. The idea that the mind can
affect the body for good or ill has been around for a long time. It was very clearly elaborated in early
Greek and Roman medicine.
There was this story about the early Greek Erasistratos, who sort of specialized in solving medical
mysteries. Erasistratos was asked to come in and solve this mysterious case of a prince laying in his bed
all the time. He wasnt lazy but quite close to death. He spent a lot of time talking to people; trying to use
good observation to know what was going on. There was some psychological cause to his illness. After
the successful diagnosis, the case was solved.
The idea that emotional influences on physiology had some impact on health for illnesses for mind and
body connections. They didn't believe that illness was caused by magical spirits, but there were concrete
reasons and sometimes it had to do with emotions. For example, Hippocrates noticed that there was a
connection between the physical injury and the psychological state of the person.
Galens (another father of medicine) opinion regarding the importance of understanding
psychological factors in terms of determining physical health. He was also called to diagnose another
mysterious illness and it turns out it must have been a serious problem that he eventually interpreted.
Why did these things escape the notice of earlier physicians attending the lady described above? They
are arrived at by ordinary deduction, if the physician has even a meager knowledge of medicine. Indeed, I
think it is because these physicians possess no clear conception of the ways the body tends to be
influenced by the state of the mind. Perhaps it is because they do not even know that the pulse becomes
turbulent because of strife and fears, which suddenly disturbs the mind Its a very contemporary way
So what happened? It is a course itself, but the thing is that the Middle Ages happened, with social
disruption, wars and diseases that affected scientific thinking. There was a
discouragement of any thought. It wasnt a good time for medicine in general, but
it was particularly a bad time to study mind-body interactions.
It took a long time for this notion to come back probably into the 1600s with
people like Descartes to put mind back into the body. Descartes was trying to
explain how a non-physical, spiritual mind could interact with the physical body.
There was some system for transmitting information about pain to the brain. It
wasnt the case in Descartes situation. It was making the decision to put the foot
2 The death of dualism didnt come until Charles Darwin. Darwin argued that not only are we descended
from animals, but that we are animals, experiencing many of the same emotions and physiological
reactions. Darwin sort of made the correct argument, but it took a long time for the wiring to be worked
out, to sort of figure out some of the details.
Walter Cannon and Hans Selye:
Two people to know are Walter Cannon and Hans Selye. These guys sort of followed in the Darwinian
tradition on how the brain influences physical activity. People already have a pretty decent sense of how
the brain sort of moved the voluntary muscles, but not how the brain influenced things like your heart,
your lungs and so forth. They focused on slightly different aspects of physiological control. They also
both strongly argued for the importance of these notions in illness.
Cannon focused on the autonomic nervous system. Selye focused on hormonal response to stress levels.
Cannon focused on the left boxes and Selye on the right boxes. The brain mostly seems to control
peripheral physiological activity by influencing hypoglamic activities or in the lower parts of the brain.
The ANS (autonomic nervous system) activity is divided into two sides: the sympathetic nervous
system, which is the accelerator of the peripheral physiology, and the parasympathetic nervous system,
which is a bit of the brake. There are some peripheral actions that are increased by sympathetic activity,
there are some that are decreased by sympathetic activity, but as a general rule when the sympathetic
nervous system gets active, things start going up. Your heart rate for example starts going up whereas
when the parasympathetic nervous system gets active, things start going down.
3 Anyways, Cannon did a really nice job
describing physiological nervous system
and arguing that this may be related in
some people to physical illness. Cannons
advice to fellow physicians: Taught to
deal with concrete and demonstrable bodily
changes, we are likely to minimize or
neglect the influence of an emotional upset,
or to call the patient who complains of it
neurotic, perhaps tell him to go home
and forget it, and then be indifferent to the
consequences. But emotional upsets have
concrete and demonstrable effects in the organism. Selye was more interested in hormonal links in
particular how the brain controlled the adrenal glands. He published this famous book called The Stress
So now were moving to the 60s. There was a small area of medicine called psychosomatic medicine,
but as a whole, there wasnt a lot of activity in the area. The term health psychology hadnt been there yet.
People werent sure that they could do anything about it. The main form of psychotherapy up to that time
was Freudian psychoanalysis (youll learn about that another time), which often took years to work, if at
Fortunately, at about the same time, there was a big revolution of a new behavior therapy. In particular,
one aspect seemed promising. Biofeedback came from operant conditioning of feedback which led to
development about feedback. Most of that came from Milner. Traditionally, people thought that the
physiological responses, whether its changes in heart rate, can only be controlled by classical
conditioning. Its not a voluntary response. Its like a reflex, which is now elicited by something else
other than the original stimulus. Theres another kind of learning as well which is typical: Ill do this if I
get a reward out of it. Much more applicable to human behavior. But it was not thought that at the time
that you can condition physiological responses like that. Milner thought he might be able to condition
physiological responses with operant conditioning procedures. I wont go into the details. There were
some elegant methodological details that he used. When he rewarded the animals for salivating, their
salivation increased. When he rewarded them for increasing their heart rate, they started to show more
and more elevated heart rate.
Biofeedback lead to the development of a new field behavioral medicine, now usually referred to as
health psychology, new societies, journals, treatments, etc.