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What is Neuropsychology?

Learn about the field of neuropsychology


The brain’s complex mysteries have fueled debate, controversy, and intrigue among scientific professionals for centuries, but only over the past few decades have these mysteries started to become understandable. The field of neuropsychology is one field significantly contributing to our knowledge and understanding of the great spellbinder called the brain.

Fueled by advancements in imaging technology, neuropsychological thinking started to gather momentum during the 1950s and 1960s. It was during this era when research and findings from cognitive psychology and brain physiology were integrated into a new field of study.

Plainly stated, neuropsychologists seek an understanding of how psychological processes relate to the brain’s structures and systems. This work is predicated on the notion that cognition and physiology are intricately interrelated and inseparable.

From its earliest stages, the field of Neuropsychology set itself apart – often with great debate and controversy - from the other brain sciences by using single-patient empirical studies rather than studies of “groups” of patients.

This methodological constraint, however, is unavoidable in a field where case studies can’t be created or replicated in a laboratory. In addition, the complicated and personal nature of brain injuries makes finding a large group of patients with exactly the same symptoms - even from similar brain injuries - nearly impossible.


Subjects in neuropsychological studies are individuals with brain injuries resulting from war, accidents, or conditions such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease. In addition, some subjects have developmental disorders that prevent normal brain functioning, often interfering with learning or other behaviors.

Two areas of neuropsychology specialty

Most informational sources on neuropsychology define the field as comprised of two main areas: clinical neuropsychology and cognitive neuropsychology. This delineation provides a framework that helps explain the two distinct specialties; however, it should be noted that overlap does exist as one specialty area complements and adds to the knowledge of the other area.

  • Clinical neuropsychology - Clinical neuropsychologists work in healthcare settings, assessing and treating patients in cases of head injury, stroke, or other neurological disorders. Most professionals in this field receive certification by the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology (ABCN) or the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology (AACN). (See article on clinical neuropsychology.)
  • Cognitive neuropsychology - Cognitive neuropsychologists work for public and private research institutions conducting empirical studies on those with brain function deficits. While they interact with patients, they do not treat or provide interventions for patients. (See article on cognitive neuropsychology.)

The genesis of neuropsychology

Theorizing about the brain-behavior relationship began as far back as Classical Greece, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century when researchers started systematically observing behaviors that resulted from brain injuries. Researchers attempted to localize areas of the brain that were injured, tracing certain behaviors to specific areas of the brain – or areas they theorized controlled those behaviors.

To an extent, that theorizing continues today, but the technology used by modern neuropsychologists has led to scientific advances that expand on earlier beliefs and models of brain functioning.

Neuropsychologists today study if brain functions are strictly localized to one area of the brain, or whether regions or centers of the brain are interconnected, making localization less relevant than earlier researchers thought. In addition, the discovery of complex neural networks within the brain and their relation to specific thinking and behavioral processes increases the difficulty of linking individual brain centers or areas with only certain cognitive tasks.

Today, most neuropsychologists believe that the brain coordinates many cognitive functions between several brain regions and biochemical processes. They base this belief and their theories on results from some of the most exciting studies being conducted in the history of brain science – studies utilizing neuroimaging.

Neuroimaging includes a variety of imaging techniques that visually portray brain structure (see Brain Structure) and function in living subjects. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), computerized tomography (CT or CAT), and positron emission tomography (PET) exemplify some of the more commonly used imaging techniques.

Using these imaging devices, researchers are able to non-invasively study the human brain as it performs certain tasks. Some current research uses the technology also to map the brain’s responses to emotions, such as sadness, happiness, fear and anger – complicated processes that were once thought nearly impossible to measure. (For more information, see neuroimaging.)

Areas of Neuropsychology Expertise

Here are some of the more common areas of clinical specialty and cognitive research for today’s neuropsychologists:

Psychology of Critical Thinking

psychology critical thinking

Far-reaching disasters, such as the collapse of the 2007 U.S. housing market, the Wall Street crisis a year later, and BP PLC’s massive Gulf Oil spill in 2010, all point to the need for government and corporate leaders to possess critical-thinking skills, skills that respond appropriately to crises, solving tough, complex problems as well as circumventing them in the future.

But what exactly comprises critical-thinking skills, what do they look and sound like, and can they be taught and measured? (Read the rest of this article - Teaching Critical Thinking)

  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Head injuries from sports concussions
  • Autism
  • Alcoholism and addiction
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Developmental Disorders
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • The effect of AIDs on cognition
  • Learning disabilities
  • Social and emotional disorders

Those with degrees in neuropsychology also consult for educational systems, and teach at the university level. Most positions in neuropsychology require a PhD.

If you are interested in the field of Neuropsychology, in applying brain assessments as a clinical neuropsychologist to help treat individuals suffering from brain dysfunctions, or in using these testing tools in a neuropsychology research field, contact schools offering degrees in psychology. Also, learn more about the licensing requirements for a psychology career at Psychology Career Licensure.

Careers in Neuropsychology

  • Clinical Neuropsychologist
  • Cognitive Neuropsychologist
  • Development Cognitive Neuropsychologist
  • University teaching and research
  • School Neuropsychology Consultation
  • Neuropsychology researcher for public and private organizations
  • Neurogenetics Psychologist
  • Neuropathology Specialist
  • Behavioral Neuropsychologist
  • Forensic Neuropsychologist
  • Rehabilitation Neuropsychologist
  • Dementia Neuropsychologist

The ‘neurons’ of neuro-psychology

Today, scientists know that the brain holds approximately 10 billion neurons – also called nerve cells - that connect with other neurons. One neuron can connect to either 1,000 or 10,000 neurons, providing up to 10 trillion connections. These connections send and process information by electrical and chemical signaling; each new thought or memory instigates a new brain connection.

In the 2009 article “How Neuropsychology Informs Our Understanding of Developmental Disorders,” professor and researcher Bruce F. Pennington wrote that today’s clinical neuropsychologists, unlike those of a few decades ago, think in terms of “interacting neural systems.”

In the laboratory, neuropsychology researchers have matched patterns of firing activity and behavioral functions among certain groups – or systems – of neurons. These neural systems form the core of all human behaviors.

Pennington, a professor of Clinical Child, Cognitive and Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Denver, stated in his article that “the application of neuropsychology to adult and child psychopathology has expanded the scope of neuropsychological theory to include domains like affective decision-making, inhibition, social cognition, imitation, emotion regulation, source-monitoring of thoughts and actions, and even the self.”

In other words, the brain literally defines who we are – our self-hood. The brain regulates our emotions, perceptions, reasoning, perceiving, memorizing, intuiting, learning – it is literally the control center of life.

Because of the brain’s all-encompassing structure for determining the way that every individual thinks and acts, the field of Neuropsychology offers numerous opportunities for specialization, clinical practice, and research. And because of the impact of technology on the field, neuropsychology is one of today’s fastest growing areas of psychological study, and career growth.

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