Is there anything that can’t be measured by Psychologists?

Psychology has been described as the ‘scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context’- Oxford Dictionaries Online (http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/psychology).  My question is can we really scientifically study the mind? How can you study the mind scientifically when there is still some debate as to what and even where the mind is located? My understanding is that most experiments study behaviour, which is observable, in an attempt to understand the underlying processes that are happening in the mind.  

My reason for asking this question came after seeing a book written by Uttal called ‘The Immeasurable Mind’.  In his book he argues that the mind and its mental processes are in inaccessible.  What we can measure is the observable behaviour, but this is only an indication of what is happening in the mind.  This is a problem with many Psychological experiments, they measure behaviour but how can we know that this is a correct indicator or what we are thinking.  Many experiments suffer from demand characteristics, where the participants behaves in a way that they think the experimenter wants them to, not in a way that they themselves think they should.  So, taking this into context, measuring behaviour would not be a valid nor reliable method of inferring what the participant was thinking.  Many criticisms of Milgrams experiment argued that the participants knew what the experiment was investigating and were simply behaving in a way that they thought the experimenter wanted.

Another argument on this topic would be that biological investigation such as fMRI scans can show what people are thinking.  fMRI scanners highlight what areas of the brain are active when a person is experiencing a certain situation.  EEG studies also highlight the active areas of brain by using electrodes to measure the electrical current.  

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5 thoughts on “Is there anything that can’t be measured by Psychologists?

  1. An interesting blog! Gives you something to think about. You mentioned the fMRI, and the EEG studies, however ERP is also an interesting measure of brain activity, through scalp and the skull. The ERP detects the increase of the blood flow within the brain. Can we really be sure that the place where more oxygenated blood flows is responsible for e.g. language?

    • fMRI measures the increase of blood flow to different parts of the brain not ERP! fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is a modern twist on an MRI. It measures the BOLD (blood-oxygen-dependent-level), thus is able to assess where oxygenated blood in the brain is being directed (see: Logothetis, Pauls, Augath, Trinath & Oeltermann, 2001). The inference being that, if more blood is being sent there then there is more activity (although your original point as to whether this inference is correct still stands). ERP, on the other hand, stands for event related potential, and is based on EEG (electroencephalogram) recording. EEG recording involves taking measures of the electrical activity of the brain using electrodes placed on the scalp (Niedermeyer & da Silva, 2004). The difference between ERP and EEG is that ERP’s are temporally bound, that is, there is some event in time related to them (e.g., a stimulus displayed on a screen).

      Logothetis, N. K., Pauls, J., Augath, M., Trinath, T., & Oeltermann, A. (2001). Neurophysiological investigation of the basis of the fMRI signal. Nature, 412(6843), 150-157. Retrieved from
      http://hfac.gmu.edu/news/fMRIJournalClub/papers_spring_2011/Logothetis2001.pdf

      Niedermeyer E. and da Silva F.L. (2004). Electroencephalography: Basic Principles, Clinical Applications, and Related Fields. Lippincot Williams & Wilkins. Retrieved from
      http://students.washington.edu/zanos/literature/ECoG/EEG%20principles/EEG%205th%20Edn%20-%20Chapter%201%20-%20Historical%20aspects.pdf

  2. Pingback: Dear Shanti, here are the links to the comments I have made for this week: « kmusial

  3. I agree that one of the problems with the study of psychological constructs is that they may not be valid. When measuring something physical, you know whether you are measuring what you are intending to – for example, you know that taking someone’s blood pressure doesn’t tell you how tall they are, because the two variables (height and BP) are unrelated. When measuring something psychological, you can’t be certain that your measurement is valid – for example, if you want to measure how someone feels, you can’t measure a feeling because it doesn’t physically exist, so you measure something which is thought to be (herein lies the problem…) related to a particular feeling, such as high blood pressure indicating stress. The fact that there is no way to directly measure most variables in psychology results in a big validity problem – can we ever be certain that we are measuring what we intend to measure?

    The ‘Four Types of Validation’ section further argues this point that it is difficult to determine true cause/effect relationships of operational variables: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Cronbach/construct.htm

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