Psychology and neuroscience are such rapidly growing fields of research, it’s easy to get confused. Is a school psychologist the same as an educational psychologist? What’s the deal with neuroethics? Is nutritional neuroscience an actual area of research? What’s the difference between neuroinformatics and computational neuroscience? If you’ve sometimes been scratching your head trying to figure out who does what, this guide is for you. We will cover 40 major fields of psychology and neuroscience using plain language explanations.
But first, let’s start with some basic definitions. What’s the difference between psychology and neuroscience?
- Psychology studies the human mind through observation of behavioral and mental processes, including cognition, perception, attention, and emotion.
- Neuroscience studies the human brain through observation (and simulation) of the structure and function of the nervous system. Sometimes—but not always—neuroscience may look at the biological processes underpinning the behavioral and mental processes studied in psychology.
You may ask: what about psychiatry? In essence, psychiatry is a medical specialty. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, whereas a psychologist is not. (psychologists may call themselves “doctor” if they have a PhD in psychology, but they are not medical doctors)
Now that we have the basics covered, let’s take a deep dive and explore the wonderful and complex fields of psychology and neuroscience.
How to use this guide
This guide is not intended to be read in one go. Rather, look up areas of psychology and neuroscience research you find interesting, and jump to the definition of interest. You can bookmark this page to come back to it and read it in chunks. If you are a Ness Labs member, you can also download an ebook version to read later or upload to your Kindle:Download PDF and EPUB
Table of contents
- Abnormal psychology
- Behavioral psychology & Behavioral neuroscience
- Clinical psychology & Clinical neuroscience
- Cognitive psychology & Cognitive neuroscience
- Community psychology
- Computational neuroscience & Neuroinformatics
- Counselling psychology
- Comparative psychology
- Cultural psychology & Cross-cultural psychology
- Developmental psychology & Developmental neuroscience
- Educational psychology & Educational neuroscience
- Engineering psychology
- Environmental psychology
- Evolutionary psychology
- Experimental psychology
- Forensic psychology & Legal psychology
- Health psychology
- Industrial-organizational psychology
- Molecular and cellular neuroscience
- Neuropsychology & Neuropsychiatry
- Nutritional neuroscience
- Perceptual psychology & Sensory neuroscience
- Personality psychology
- Psycholinguistics & Neurolinguistics
- Psychopharmacology & Neuropharmacology
- Quantitative psychology
- Rehabilitation psychology
- School psychology
- Social psychology
- Sports psychology & Sports psychiatry
- Systems neuroscience
1. Abnormal psychology
Abnormal psychology is the study of unusual patterns of behavior, thoughts, or emotions. While older traditions defined “deviant behavior”, modern abnormal psychology uses concepts such as statistical abnormality and psychometric abnormality to determine whether a pattern is truly abnormal. These patterns are deemed “maladaptive”, and are mostly studied in a clinical context as they may constitute early symptoms of a mental disorder.
2. Behavioral psychology & Behavioral neuroscience
Behavioral psychology studies and analyses observable behavior of humans and animal species. It’s one of the oldest branches of psychology, seeking to understand why we behave the way we do, and to predict what we will do next. While behavioral psychology has practical applications and experimental support, many modern scientists find its determinism too simplistic to describe and predict human behavior.
Behavioral neuroscience—sometimes called biopsychology or psychobiology—applies the principles of neuroscience to the study of mechanisms of how humans and other animals behave. In most studies, the nervous system of the organism is permanently or temporarily altered. That’s why, while humans sometimes participate in behavioral neuroscience experiments, the majority of the experimental literature in behavioral neuroscience comes from the study of non-human species, such as rats, mice, and monkeys.
3. Clinical psychology & Clinical neuroscience
In the early days, psychology was mainly focused on psychological assessment, with little attention given to treatment. In contrast, the goal of clinical psychology is to reduce the distress and improve the psychological well-being of patients. More recently, clinical neuroscience seeks to study the fundamental mechanisms that underlie diseases and disorders of the brain and central nervous system in order to ultimately develop new treatments.
4. Cognitive psychology & Cognitive neuroscience
Cognitive psychology studies mental processes. Where behavioral psychology focuses on observable behavior, cognitive psychology defines the mind as an information processor, and explores these underlying processes such as attention, thinking, memory, perception, problem solving, and creativity. Cognitive neuroscience seeks to understand the biological processes that underlie these cognitive functions, exploring the relationship between brain structures, activity, and cognition.
5. Community psychology
Psychology is not only an individual matter. Community psychology studies the psychological impact of an individual’s context within a community and a wider society. In particular, it seeks to understand and improve the quality of life of individuals within groups, communities, institutions, and society at large.
Community psychology looks at research areas such as interdependence, succession, and adaptation, and promotes the implementation of second-order changes to positively impact communities. (instead of helping one individual, improve the community so all individuals are positively impacted)
6. Computational neuroscience & Neuroinformatics
Instead of looking at actual brains, computational neuroscience uses computational simulations. Mathematical models are created to study the principles that regulate the structure, physiology and cognitive functions of the brain and the nervous system through theoretical analysis. The goal of computational neuroscience is to capture the key features of the biological system at multiple scales, from the biological level—such as neural and network modeling—up to the psychological level—such as memory and attention. Neuroinformatics, sometimes called cognitive informatics or neurocomputing, focuses on the archival and retrieval of the massive amount of neuroscientific data generated by clinical research, clinical reports, and dedicated databases. Both computational neuroscience and neuroinformatics are often taught in combination.
7. Counselling psychology & Psychotherapy
Did you know that the word “counselling” was coined by Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research, who, ironically, was prevented from calling his work “psychotherapy” because he lacked a medical qualification?
Both counselling psychology and psychotherapy focus on interpersonal relationships, person–environment interactions, educational and career development, and more. Both aim to assist patients in improving their lives. They can help navigate marriage, grief, addictions, and substance abuse. Generally, counselling tends to be shorter and focused on symptoms, while psychotherapy tends to be longer and focused on addressing the root causes.
8. Comparative psychology
Instead of focusing on one species, comparative psychology is the study of behaviors across species. Comparative psychologists ask questions such as: how common is the behavior across species? How does the behavior contribute to the reproductive success of the individuals with that behavior? What mechanisms are involved in the behavior? How do individuals across species acquire that behavior?
Some common behaviors across species include play, nesting, personal grooming, imitation, and learning. The goal of comparative psychology is to understand the ultimate causes of these fundamental behaviors.
9. Cultural psychology & Cross-cultural psychology
Cultural psychology asks: what’s the impact of culture on our psychology? Some psychological constructs accepted as universal are not as invariant as previously assumed. Cross-cultural psychology asks: how does it vary or stay the same across culture? While comparative psychology studies observable behaviors across species, cross-cultural psychology looks at human behavior and mental processes across diverse cultural conditions.
10. Developmental psychology & Developmental neuroscience
Developmental psychology seeks to understand how human beings change over the course of their life. Originally focused on infants and children, the field has expanded to include the entire lifespan across adolescence, adult development, and aging. It looks at cognitive development, emotional development, and related areas such as language acquisition, moral understanding, social interactions, and identity formation.
Developmental neuroscience studies how brain cells and molecules function in the context of a developing organism, covering all stages of invertebrate, vertebrate, and human brain development. Its goal is to understand how complex cellular and molecular mechanisms lead to the emergence of the brain and the nervous system. More recently, developmental cognitive neuroscience has become interested in the role of genes in development, tackling the complicated question of nature versus nurture.
11. Educational psychology & Educational neuroscience
Educational psychology combines behavioral, cognitive, and social psychology to create evidence-based educational strategies in the classroom setting. It involves the study of learning, memory, and instructional design.
Also called neuroeducation, educational neuroscience is an emerging research area which aims to bridge the gap between neuroscientists in the lab and educators in the real world. Key research questions include: how can teachers use neuroscience principles to teach better? How can students use these same principles to learn better? How can complex scientific findings be translated into something actually usable in the classroom?
Both educational psychology and educational neuroscience are interdisciplinary fields, where researchers collaborate with educators, school psychologists, counsellors, social workers, speech and language therapists, and more to design evidence-based educational programs.
12. Engineering psychology & Human Factors psychology
A fairly new area of research, engineering psychology (sometimes called human factors psychology) studies both humans and machines in order to adapt the environment and equipment to people, based on their psychological abilities. Instead of changing the psychology of the user, engineering psychologists seek to change the design of the equipment. Ultimately, the goal is to design systems that are more performant and safer.
Engineering psychology takes into account ergonomics and human factors. For instance, engineering psychology research shows that graphic user interfaces are easier to use than character-based interfaces. Other areas where engineering psychologists were involved include the redesign of the mailbags used by letter carriers, and the design of optimal grocery checkout stations.
13. Environmental psychology
Environmental psychology explores the interplay between individuals and their surroundings. The word “environment” in environmental psychology is quite broad, including social settings, natural environments, built environments, and even learning environments. It studies the effect of environmental stress on human performance and navigation and orientation in complex settings. Because of climate change, there is an increased focus on the promotion of sustainable behavior towards our environment.
14. Evolutionary psychology
How did natural selection impact the way we currently think, feel, and behave? Evolutionary psychology aims to identify which psychological traits are evolved adaptations. It draws from comparative psychology and cross-cultural psychology to identify psychological traits that occur universally—which are good candidates for evolutionary adaptations. Because it’s hard to test, evolutionary psychology is considered by many a theoretical approach. Still, it has led to interesting discoveries in areas such as mating preferences.
15. Experimental psychology
While a lot of psychological research can be theoretical or hard to test, experimental psychology is concerned with testing psychological theories by conducting experiments and systematic observation. Experimental psychology employs human participants and animal subjects with methodologies based on empiricism, testability, determinism, and parsimony. Experimental psychologists will pay particular attention to the reliability and validity of their studies—how consistent and accurate an observation is.
16. Forensic psychology & Legal psychology
Forensic psychologists apply psychological theory to criminal investigation. Their goal is to understand psychological problems associated with criminal behavior, and to offer psychological treatment or support to those who have committed offences. Because of popular American TV shows, the common misconception is that forensic psychology is primarily used for criminal profiling. In reality, forensic psychologists spend most of their time offering evaluations, treatments, and consultations.
While forensic psychology is more focused on the criminal, legal psychology involves empirical, psychological research of the law and people who come into contact with the law in general. They perform research in areas such as jury decision-making, cognitive biases in investigations and interviewing, and eyewitness memory.
17. Health psychology
Health psychologists help people deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of health and illness. Not only do they support people who are chronically ill, but they also apply psychological research to promote healthier lifestyles. Health psychologists study psychological theories and interventions that may help people eat better, exercise more, manage their oral hygiene, improve communication between health professionals and patients, and regulate the impact of illness on individuals, families, and carers. They often work with doctors and nurses.
18. Industrial-organizational psychology
Also known as occupational psychology, industrial-organizational psychology applies psychological theories as they relate to work and the workplace. They look at areas of research such as individual performance, team effectiveness, motivation, leadership, organizational culture, innovation, job satisfaction, occupational safety, and well-being at work. The goal of industrial-organizational psychology is to provide evidence-based strategies to increase productive behavior and decrease counterproductive work behavior, which are often impacted by second-order factors such as well-being, commitment, and psychological safety.
19. Molecular and cellular neuroscience
Molecular neuroscience applies concepts of molecular biology to the study of the nervous system. Some research topics include the molecular basis for neuroplasticity and neurodegenerative diseases, and the mechanisms of molecular signaling in the nervous system. At a slightly higher level, cellular neuroscience is concerned with the study of neurons at a cellular level, including the morphology and physiological properties of single neurons. While they may sound like different disciplines, molecular and cellular neuroscience are usually studied in combination.
Neuroanatomy is the study of the structure and organization of the brain and the nervous system in humans and animals. Historically, much of neuroanatomy discoveries came from observing how lesions to specific brain areas affected neural functions. Today, researchers use modern techniques such as brain imaging and genetically encoded markers.
Neuroethics focuses on ethical issues raised by our increased and constantly improving understanding of the brain, as well as our ability to monitor and influence it. The term was coined by William Safire, who defined it as: “The examination of what is right and wrong, good and bad about the treatment of, perfection of, or unwelcome invasion of and worrisome manipulation of the human brain.”
The advent of new neurotechnologies has propelled neuroethics to the forefront of neuroscientific conversations. Is it ethical to use neurotechnologies to enhance one’s brain’s capacities and functioning? If so, how do we ensure fair access? Can the privacy of the mind be taken for granted? Who should be allowed to decode and store mental content, and to what extent? These are fundamental questions in neuroethics.
The nervous systems of individuals belonging to the same species are usually not identical. Neurogenetics use a range of molecular genetic tools to study the role of genetics in the development and function of the nervous system, with a focus on neurological diseases—even though behavior and personality can be studied as well.
A lot of neurogenetics research is performed on animals (model organisms that share similarities with the human nervous system), but human research is conducted as well, where participants are asked to provide samples such as blood or spinal fluid.
Neuroimaging is used in many areas of neuroscientific research, but it is a field of research in and of itself. It falls into two broad categories: structural imaging, which studies the structure of the nervous system, and functional imaging, which studies the activity of the nervous system. While structural imaging is most helpful to diagnose large scale disease such as tumors, functional imaging is most helpful to diagnose finer scale disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. Neuroimaging includes many techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, or magnetoencephalography. Cranial ultrasound is mostly only used for babies in order to avoid harmful radiations.
Neurology is a branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the nervous system. In a neurological examination, the neurologist tests the patient’s mental status and functional status of the cranial nerves, including reflexes and sensations. Sometimes, the neurologist will order additional diagnostic tests such as neuroimaging, neurophysiology, or genetic testing as part of the evaluation. Then, the neurologist will design a treatment plan, which may include medication, or referral to a physiotherapist (for example after a stroke) or a neurosurgeon. Neurologists are also often called to evaluate unresponsive patients on life support to confirm brain death.
Neurophysiology studies the central and peripheral nervous systems—such as the brain, spinal cord, and nerves in the limbs and muscles—through the recording of electrophysiological activity, whether it’s spontaneous or stimulated. In a medical setting, this is sometimes called electrodiagnostic medicine. It’s mostly used for diagnoses, as it can help find the precise location of the problem along with the type and degree of the lesion.
26. Neuropsychology & Neuropsychiatry
At the intersection of neuroscience and psychology, neuropsychology studies how the brain and the rest of the nervous system influence an individual’s behavior and cognition. It uses both experimental research (in laboratories, universities, and other research institutions) and clinical research (in hospitals and other medical settings), relying on standardized neuropsychological tests, neuroimaging, electrophysiology, and experimental tasks to better understand neuropsychological processes in health and disease. While neuropsychology has a broader scope, neuropsychiatry is strictly medical, with a focus on mental disorders that are attributable to diseases of the nervous system.
You may have noticed that a neurologist will not perform brain surgery on a patient: that’s the job of a neurosurgeon. Neurosurgery, also called neurological surgery, is the medical field concerned with the surgical treatment of diseases or lesions that affect any portion of the nervous system—including the brain, spinal cord, and cerebrovascular system.
Neurosurgery is one of the most competitive fields of neuroscience, requiring between 12 and 15 years of studies and practice in most countries. In the United States, neurosurgery comprises only 0.5% of all practicing physicians.
Neurosurgery is actually a very ancient practice! The Incas seem to have practiced a procedure known as trepanation since the late Stone Age, and in the Middle Ages, Arab-Andalusian physician, surgeon and chemist Al-Zahrawi performed surgical treatments of head injuries, spinal injuries, and skull fractures.
28. Nutritional neuroscience
With approximately 2% of the human body mass and 20–25% of the total energy expenditure, the human brain consumes an immense amount of energy in comparison to the rest of the body. Nutritional neuroscience studies the effects various components of the diet have on neurobiology, behavior, and cognition. The components include protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, vitamins, but also dietary supplements and food additives.
What are the mechanisms involved in the transfer of energy from foods to neurons? How can insufficient intake of selected vitamins and minerals can affect cognitive processes? Can learning and memory be improved with diet changes? These questions and many more are central to the field of nutritional neuroscience.
29. Perceptual psychology & Sensory neuroscience
Perceptual psychology explores how information is acquired from the environment through sensory organs. It seeks to further our understanding of the conscious and unconscious processes behind human perception, and in particular how we regard, understand, and interpret objects and situations using our senses. Perceptual psychologists seek to answer these questions across the full spectrum of human senses: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. They also study cognitive errors and misinterpretations that arise from perception, such as incorrect visual or auditory representations. Researchers in the field of perceptual psychology often contribute to other disciplines, such as perceptual learning, environmental psychology, and psychotherapy.
Sensory neuroscience studies the anatomy and physiology of neurons that are part of the sensory system. Some research questions include: how is information about the outside world encoded inside the brain? Where exactly is sensory information processed? How are various stimuli combined together to form a combined multisensory integration? Sensory neuroscientists use tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography or electrophysiology to try to address these questions.
30. Personality psychology & Psychoanalysis
Personality psychology is the scientific study of personality and its variation among individuals. While many personality tests are not based on scientific evidence, personality psychology is empirically driven, using dimensional models based on multivariate statistics. It has evolved from early theories from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Carl Jung’s personality type theories towards more scientific methodologies. The study of personality psychology is often a prerequisite in clinical psychology and forensic psychology, but it’s still hard for the layperson to know the difference between actual personality psychology and pseudoscience.
31. Psycholinguistics & Neurolinguistics
To put it simply, psycholinguistics study the psychology of language. This field of research is concerned with the psychological mechanisms by which language is processed and represented in the mind. To take things further, have you ever asked yourself how and where our brains store our knowledge of the language we understand, speak, read, and write? Neurolinguistics aims to further our understanding of the neural mechanisms behind the acquisition, comprehension, and production of language.
32. Psychometrics & Measurement psychology
Psychometrics is concerned with the psychological testing, measurement, assessment of individuals. The goal of psychometricians is to design objective measurement tools for abilities, knowledge, skills, and educational achievement. Some of these tools include questionnaires, self-conducted tests, and interview templates.In big corporations and some governments, psychometricians may work as part of the human resources department. An emerging area of research, universal psychometrics, seeks to apply the same principles of human psychometrics to the study of machines’ abilities and traits.
Closely linked to abnormal psychology, psychopathology seeks to understand the disease process under an abnormal behavior. Psychopathologists look at the biological causes of abnormal unusual patterns of behavior in humans and animals. While abnormal psychology is considered a branch of psychology, psychopathology is usually considered a branch of psychiatry.
34. Psychopharmacology & Neuropharmacology
Coined in 1920 by pharmacologist David Macht, psychopharmacology is the study of the effects psychoactive drugs have on thinking, mood, sensations, and behavior. Psychopharmacology led to the use of lithium carbonate for mania, chlorpromazine for psychose, and the development of many antipsychotics and antidepressants. While psychopharmacology mostly focuses on observable effects, neuropharmacology studies how drugs affect cellular function in the nervous system. Finally, neuropsychopharmacology—what a mouthful!—studies the neural mechanisms that psychoactive drugs act upon to influence behavior.
35. Quantitative psychology
Quantitative psychology focuses on the mathematical modeling and statistical analysis of psychological processes across humans and animals. Quantitative psychologists work across social network analysis, human decision science, and educational statistics to analyze a wide variety of research methods and results, including those of psychometrics. They have to train in both social science and quantitative methodologies such as calculus, linear algebra, statistics, research methodologies, applied data analysis, and several programming languages. This area of research is considered a strong gateway to computational neuroscience.
36. Rehabilitation psychology
Focused on the rehabilitation of people with chronic disability due to injury or illness, rehabilitation psychology seeks to understand the impact of physical illness and disability on psychological functioning, study issues related to the rehabilitation and recovery of people with physical illness and disability, and evaluate the evidence around the effectiveness and psychological effect of rehabilitation programs. It seeks to maximize the independence, social participation and health of those people with disabilities and chronic health conditions.
37. School psychology
School psychologists are practitioners who help students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. By collaborating with parents and educators, the goal of school psychologists is to meet students’ psychological needs so they can maximize their well-being and performance at school. They offer psychological testing and counseling within an educational context. In addition, school psychologists often work with researchers in the fields of developmental psychology, educational psychology, and community psychology.
38. Social psychology
Bridging the gap between sociology and psychology, social psychology is the psychological investigation of how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by the presence of others—whether this presence is actual, imagined, or implied. Social psychologists usually explain human behavior as the result of the relationship between a mental state and a social situation. Famous social psychology experiments include the Stanford prison study, the Milgram experiment of obedience to authority, and the Asch conformity experiments. Social psychology has faced many ethical challenges as well as a replication crisis, leading scientists to ask for a reform of the field.
39. Sports psychology & Sports psychiatry
Sports psychology studies how psychological factors influence athletic performance and physical activity. Sports psychologists explore topics such as goal-setting, attention, motivation, team building, as well as the impact of mental well-being on performance.
While some focus on researching these topics to design better overall cognitive and behavioral strategies for athletes, others work directly with professional athletes. Some also work with non-professionals to help stick to an exercise program and learn how to enjoy sports.
On the other hand, sports psychiatrists seek to treat and prevent mental disorders in athletes—sports psychiatry is a medical specialty which draws from psychopathology and sports psychology.
40. Systems neuroscience
Systems neuroscience studies the structure and function of neural circuits and systems, looking in particular at networks of neurons as they are seen to function together. Focusing on these interactions between neural structures in networks, systems neuroscientists explore how patterns of neuronal connections and circuits give rise to patterns of neuronal activity. They are trying to understand some fundamental and extremely complex questions regarding the brain, such as how visual inputs are processed to create conscious perceptual information, and how these perceptions can then create new memories. It’s a broad area of research with an integrative perspective on neuroscience.
Emerging fields of psychology and neuroscience research
There are many more emerging areas of research in psychology and neuroscience, but some are either too small or too early to be included in this guide with confidence, or have been dismissed by the scientific community as pseudoscience. Here is a short overview of some of these areas of research that currently lack strong scientific evidence or that have probably been invented to sell more books:
- Neurogastronomy. Coined in 2015, neurogastronomy studies flavor perception and the ways it affects cognition and memory, such as taste preferences, how olfaction contributes to flavor, and what neurological factors can give rise to food addiction. While based on empirical research, some scientists think this field can be included within sensory neuroscience, without the need for a separate field of research.
- Neuroenology. While the case for neurogastronomy could be made, neuroenology sounds like a desperate attempt to add the prefix “neuro-” to any word. It was coined by Gordon Shepherd, the same neuroscientist who invented the word neurogastronomy. Again, how the brain creates the taste of wine is a fascinating topic, but does it need a whole dedicated field of research to itself, or could it be better folded under an existing neuroscientific field?
- Neuroleadership. This one was coined by David Rock in 2006 in the American publication Strategy+Business. It claims to bring neuroscientific knowledge into the areas of leadership development, consulting, and management training. Where can you learn more about neuroleadership? At the Neuroleadership Institute, founded by David Rock, which sells workshops in the thousands of dollars.
- Neuro-linguistic programming. A pseudoscientific method created in the 1970s which claims that using language to “reprogram” your brain can help treat problems such as depression, phobias, and learning disorders. There is zero evidence it works, yet many training and coaching programs make fortunes by selling its boggus promises.
- And more… There are too many pseudoscientific fields in psychology and neuroscience to include them all here, but I just want to mention a few more: neuromarketing, neurobusiness, graphology, are all pseudoscientific fields that seek to sell brain-based learning and other BS solutions. I highly recommend reading NeuroBollocks for some more entertaining examples.
Okay, that’s it! More than 40 (legit) fields of psychology and neuroscience—53 exactly if you count similar fields across psychology and neuroscience separately. If you are considering a career in psychology or neuroscience, the American Psychology Association has an excellent career guide with more information. Have fun learning about these fascinating areas of research!