Images of an MRI brain scan

Seven ways of seeing how the brain works

Approaches can be psychological or neuroscientific, animal or human – or a mix

1. Psychological studies

Assessing people’s behaviour or responses under controlled experimental circumstances.

Example: Experiments exploring our approach to risk.

2. Functional imaging (eg functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI)

Measuring brain activity during particular tasks.

Example: Revealing which areas are active when we read and comprehend language.

3. EEG (electroencephalography)

Recording brain waves through the scalp, which give clues as to the timing, locality and type of brain function.

Example: Monitoring brain activity during sleep.

4. Neuropsychiatry

Assessing the impact of damage to specific parts of the brain.

Example: Damage to Broca’s area removes the ability to speak.

5. Electrophysiology

Studying the firing patterns of neurons and their response to different chemicals.

Example: Understanding the role of neurotransmitters in memory.

6. Animal studies

Studying links between genes, neurons, brain and behaviour in animals that can be genetically engineered.

Examples: Studying neuron function in the sea slug, or neural pathways controlling sexuality in the fruit fly.

7. Modelling

Using computers to model the behaviour of neurons acting together.

Example: Modelling neural networks mimicking brain activity leading to epileptic seizures.

Lead image:

David Foltz/Flickr CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Neuroscience, Psychology, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development