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Understanding the Human Mind and Behaviour: Psychological and Related Perspectives
Why do people think and act the way they do? We provide a glimpse of some interesting observations and possible explanations from psychological and related perspectives.
by George D BISHOP

ur understanding of the human mind and behaviour requires multiple approaches and involves a variety of academic disciplines. The articles in this cover story come mainly from psychology and associated disciplines with approaches ranging from the biological and genetic to the social and cultural. Each has something to offer our understanding, and none in itself is complete. Rather, we get the best understanding of mind and behaviour by looking at different approaches together.

The contents in this section give a brief glimpse of psychologically oriented studies contributing to our understanding of the human mind and behaviour. The exploration begins with the evolution of mind. Although we are often aware of how thinking and behaviour develop from childhood through adulthood and into old age, we seldom think of evolutionary forces' influence on mind and behaviour. John Elliott's article introduces us to evolutionary psychology and some insights that can be gleaned from examining how behaviour and thought have evolved with mankind.

Evolutionary psychology focuses on genetic relatedness and its relationship to behaviour but generally does not examine individual genes. However, with rapid progress in the field of genetics, we are now able to examine the role of specific genes as they influence personality and psychological processes. Redford William's discussion of current work investigating gene-environment interaction provides a good background for the manner in which specific genes interact with aspects of environment to influence personality, emotion, and health risk, with a specific focus on genes involved with serotonin. Scientists know that this neurotransmitter plays an important role in mood regulation and in such psychological problems as depression. Genes do not operate in isolation, but their effects vary in different environments.

One aspect of our environment that plays an important role is what we eat. We've known for a long time that our diet plays an important role in such diseases as cancer and heart disease. However the work of Joseph James provides evidence coming from the intersection of nutrition with neuroscience that points to the potential importance of specific fruits and vegetables in our diet for maintaining healthy brain function as we age.

Steven Graham continues exploration of the biology of mind and behaviour with the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques to observe how the brain orchestrates the various mental processes involved in the ability to formulate goals and strategies. Such studies tell us about what happens in the brain during various kinds of mental processes, and they can, among other things, help us understand such puzzling phenomena as the mental changes associated with schizophrenia, a debilitating mental disorder. (See also the articles in this issue on brain function for further elaboration of this approach.)

Although mental processes hold our interest in their own right, current research in the area of health psychology is discovering ways in which mental processes influence not just mental health but physical health as well. The article on emotions and health focuses on how emotions can affect health via physiological responses to various environmental events. Such negative emotions as fear and anger can damage health whereas positive emotions such as optimism have protective effects. A recent Singapore workshop showed the importance of these relationships: teaching people skills for dealing with upsetting situations and building stronger relationships with others can help reduce negative emotions, increase positive emotions, and decrease physiological responses to stress -- effects that can lead to improvement in physical health.

Language plays a central role in human experience, and recognising language processes is critical to understanding mind and behaviour. A great deal of research has been done on understanding the workings of language and how we learn such important skills as reading and spelling. Winston Goh's article describes some current work being done in the perception and understanding of speech, examining the different attributes of words that contribute to the understanding. Susan Rickard Liow then looks at how language use in the home influences literary development in children, pointing out some of the challenges faced by different groups of children in acquiring reading and spelling skills.

Finally, social attitudes and perceptions shape mental processes and behaviour. How people think about things plays a critical role in their approach to problems and their overall well-being. In his article on innovation, Robert Sternberg points out that creativity is, in large part, a decision that people make. He studies the thinking processes that distinguish creative people and highlights attitudes that help spark creativity and stimulate innovation.

Along similar lines, David Myers explores the question of what makes for happiness. It is interesting that having money seems to play a relatively minor role. Rather, finding meaning in our lives and work and the development of strong interpersonal relationships foster happiness, our individual traits and genetic makeup notwithstanding. In the final article Kalyani Mehta notes the aspects in which the elderly perceive independence and disability, the ways these perceptions differ by culture, and the implications for improving their lives.

This section is by no means comprehensive in addressing every issue involved in understanding the human mind and behaviour, but it does seek to highlight the importance of taking into account multiple perspectives for getting a better appreciation of why humans think and behave the way they do.

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