Sharon Cornet

Introduction to Psychology: PSY 101

Normal vs. Abnormal Psychological Processes

Professor Norman Rose

October 16, 2008

Psychological theories are numerous and sometimes conflicting, but the validity of the theories are ultimately based on an abundance of research and studies of psychological processes using the scientific method. Hypotheses are tested, research is carried out and analyzed, and then the results are communicated to other psychologists, therefore adding to the knowledge base – and hopefully adding new insight – to theoretical perspective. It is the understanding of the basic psychological processes, via experiments and the scientific method, which help determine what is considered “normal” vs. “abnormal” in the wide range of human psychological research.

Neuroscience, which is based on biology, gives us an inside view of the brain, its structure, functioning, and how it affects behavior via the nervous system. Neurons are considered “the basic elements of behavior” (Feldman, 2008, p. 59). Communication inside the body occurs both electrically and chemically, and combines the processes of both the nervous system as well as the endocrine system.

Neurotransmitters connect our nervous system with our behaviors. According to Feldman (p. 66) “a deficiency or an excess of a neurotransmitter can produce severe behavior disorders.” Examples of such neurotransmitters include Acetylcholine, which deals with cognitive and muscle functions, while memory is affected by Glutamate. Gamma-amino butyric acid affects the functions of eating, sleeping, and aggression in people. Mental or muscle disorders, and even Parkinsons disease is affected by the neurotransmitter Dopamine. Serotonin levels affect eating behaviors, mood, pain, and even how one sleeps and can be a cause of depression. Lastly, endorphins help suppress pain, act as a placebo effect, deals with appetite and gives a sense of euphoria or pleasure.

Abnormalities within these neurotransmitters can cause serious problems, and even death, depending on the individual problem(s) and severity. Scientific and medical testing can determine whether these neurotransmitters are within “normal” (average) range, or not (i.e., “abnormal”), so that behaviors affected by changes within a person’s biochemistry can be regulated or treated.

Our senses include sight, sound, taste, touch, and hearing. It is through the senses that we absorb the information from our world, and colors our perceptions. “A series of principles that describe how we organize bits and pieces of information into meaningful wholes,” is the description of Gestalt laws of organization (p. 127). Gestalts are patterns, and are typical of the visual and auditory senses. The organizing of these gestalts/patterns within our brains includes: closure, proximity, similarity, and simplicity (p. 128). What gestalts show is that perception is sometimes deceptive, because our brains tend to simplify what we see or hear. Alternatively, perception is also affected by feature analysis, due to the “reaction of specific neurons to the individual elements that make up the stimulus” (p. 129).

Where these views of perception of “the whole” (gestalts) vs. “the parts” (feature analysis) are contributory to psychological research, it is Anne Treisman who suggested that our perceptions of things are processed in two stages: the preattentive stage - noticing physical features of objects - and the focused-attention stage, where we hone in on the particulars of objects (p. 129). Also, there is Top-down processing (a form of deduction) where our previous knowledge kicks in regarding our perception of things, and Bottom-up processing (like induction), where perception moves from the focused-attention stage to noticing the whole of an object. Coupled with things like perceptual constancy (which can distort our view of reality), and depth and motion perceptions, illusions, and even subliminal perception (suggesting we perceive/pick up on information of things we aren’t even aware of) such as ESP or psi, it is obvious that peoples’ perceptions – although following basic ‘rules’ of these psychological theories – are highly subjective in their interpretation by the individual, and the psychologists who test them. Since more testing needs to occur, especially concerning subliminal perceptions, there is a great deal of work that needs to be done before one could label what is “normal” vs. “abnormal” in these categories.

In my own life, I’ve experienced “psychic knowings” from about people without speaking to them (having it confirmed later through others, or the people themselves), or have picked up on things that I absolutely could not have possibly known, such as the very moment my husband was nearly crushed by a semi-truck against a guardrail on a bridge, from which he barely escaped with his life by a mere split-second! I “knew” this while sitting in my house, quietly reading my book, 100 or so miles away from the near fatality. I also knew I could not call him on the cell phone right then because of the severity of the situation, and that it might actually cause his death by distracting him from the need to drive and get out of the situation. I waited, and when we spoke shortly thereafter, he told me that’s indeed what had happened. How do you test for such things if they occur spontaneously, and randomly, and even rarely? Surely, this is a new frontier for psychological research, and there are few “experts” in the field who have been able to test for it, let alone explain it. These things do occur, despite peoples’ (including psychologists’) belief in them, or not. It raises questions about what consciousness is within the human brain/mind, and whether the term “spirit” comes into play, and just what that may mean.

Consciousness comes in many stages, levels, and classifications. From waking awareness, to dreaming (with its own stages of sleep, including REM (Rapid Eye Movement)), circadian rhythms (predictable 24-hr-based biological processes – a “biological clock”), and even daydreaming, it is apparent that consciousness is reliant on different systems in order for us to function both biologically/physically, and psychologically. Hypnosis is a alteration of a person’s “normal” awareness, so that their state of mind becomes what hypnotists, like my friend Derrel Sims (a Master NLP Practitioner, Master Hypthotherapist and Registered Hypnotic Anesthesiologist) refers to as nothing more than “focused attention.” This is closely related to meditation, where one basically can alter the perceptions of one’s mind via self-hypnosis (even daydreaming may fall into this category). Consciousness altering drugs (both prescription, and illegal drugs (e.g., cocaine, heroine, or marijuana), as well as hallucination-inducing items found in nature – such certain mushrooms, or even peyote, which is a ceremonial herb used by Native Americans) have been commonly used for decades, and even millennia.

There is a question in some peoples’ minds (including my own) just how much the seemingly innately human desire for altering consciousness has had any possible evolutionary effects (via genetic mutations possibly caused by excessive use of such conscious-altering drugs) on the ability to experience subliminal perceptions (mentioned earlier as ESP, or psychic abilities, among other terms) that certain people within the human race universally claim to experience around the globe. Daniel Pinchbeck called the more natural forms as “psychedelic – ‘mind-manifesting’” and that although suppressed in Western cultures, have been “revered in tribal societies throughout the world.” Used for spiritual purposes, to gain meaningful insight, and sometimes for herbal/medicinal, musical, or other purposes, he adds that the “study of psychedelic shamanism encompasses a vast number of areas, from botany to chemistry, from cultural history to mysticism” and that it is “highly subjective,” not excluding his own experiences with these consciousness-altering drugs (Pinchbeck, 2002, p. 1,6).

Perhaps, cross-cultural studies taking into account familial memories/stories of “psychic” ancestors, written documents, archaeological and paleoanthropological evidences of prehistoric use of mind-altering drugs, including any common genetic markers found within racial/ethnic family lines, etc. would provide more clues to whether the “spiritual” abilities of humans has evolved, and is “normal,” or whether it is “abnormal” to claim such things, let alone have them actually occur. A scientifically supported differentiation must be found between what is true, and what is claimed to be true (but is actually just a perceptional self-created illusion). Are spiritual and altered consciousness events testable? Are they measureable? Are the beliefs people have about such things truly there, or are they fabrications, or merely “belief systems” based on conditioning?

Classical conditioning involves both “stimulus generalization” and “stimulus discrimination” (Feldman, p. 188). The former behavior is where similar stimuli produces a conditioned response, whereas the latter causes a distinction between stimuli that are different from each other. Operant conditioning is when good or bad consequential experiences produce a voluntary and personal response. Thorndike’s Law of Effect shows that good consequences produce a higher likelihood of a behavior to be repeated. This brings us to behavior modification, using positive and negative reinforcers, and punishment, to alter the behavior of a person to what is more desirable. However, what is considered more desirable in one culture, may be the opposite of desirable in a different culture. This begs the question of the day, as to what is considered “normal” behavior, or “abnormal” behavior to begin with?

Cultural anthropologists know all too well about the concept of cultural relativism, and the emic (inside) view vs. the etic (outside) view of a culture’s norms, influences, gender roles, beliefs, ethics, etc. Just because one has a certain behavior is it “normal”? The answer, always, is… it depends! What is the gender and culture and genetic predispositions of the person producing the particular behavior? In what context does it occur? Even in our own society we’ve had a change since the United States became a nation, in regards to our beliefs and expectations of women (to be “in their place” concerning rearing children, keeping house, working, etc.) as well as girls (as to when they are expected to marry and/or have children). Women didn’t even have a chance at voting or holding a higher position in the workplace until this last century also (although there is still a gap in the pay scale between genders).

A mere 50 years ago a black/white mixed man, with multi-ethnic background would have NEVER even been “allowed” to run for President (e.g., Barack Obama), let alone vote, get a college education, or use anything other than segregated bathrooms, buses, and drinking fountains, which were the “norm.” What are “normal” or “abnormal” behaviors then, considering continuously changing cultural influences within a society? What has changed our attitudes and beliefs over time? What motivated these changes? What memories do people have of what it was like when they were young, compared to today?

Memory affects how we think and act. Sensory memory lasts about 1 second, short-term memory lasts about 15-20 seconds, and long-term memory can last a lifetime if the storage of it is not damaged, and retrieving it is not a problem. (Feldman, p. 220) Memory can be affected by a number of interferences and dysfunctions. Short term and long term memory is affected by factors such as stress, and even permanent memory delay/disappearance can be caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Stimulus generalization, for instance (as covered earlier), can cause a woman to relate a new and possibly dangerous situation to an old experience where such a thing happened before. In my own case, I was kidnapped and raped at age 13, which affected my confidence and ability to go out in public for a long time thereafter. The memory of that traumatic event affected my future, and my future decisions regarding men and strangers.

Drugs can also influence memory (overuse can actually cause brain cells to die, in some cases), and memories of using drugs can influence behavior (a bad experience might stop a person from duplicating the behavior, or a good experience might encourage the behavior), and our motivations on whether we use those drugs again. My own grandmother was on her deathbed, at one point, because of the excessive prescription drugs (with side effects that worked against each other) that she was taking, and her memory and cognitive abilities, as well as hallucinations were all caused by the drugs. My uncle took her off the drugs and all of the memory problems, hallucinations, etc. went away and she got better and lived a good many more years. She also found herself feeling more “normal” and could remember things, have an intelligent conversation, and her will (motivation) to live improved.

Sigmund Freud helped his patients by developing ideas about personality (Id, Ego, Superego) and attempted to explain the underlying (and hidden) unconscious causes of psychological problems via the psychosexual stages, and by using psychotherapy. Some psychologists did not agree with Freud’s assessments of personality and rejected some of the views, but still held on to some of his methods, such as psychotherapy, which is still used today. These psychologists are called Neo-Freudians, one of which was Carl Jung who pioneered the idea of a universal collective unconscious (common feelings, symbols, images, etc. to humans) that is inherited by ancestors and through the evolutionary line (which would be considered “normal”). Karen Horney was considered to be one of the first feminism-related thinkers in psychology and focused on cultural and womens’ issues. Alfred Adler considered abnormal behavior such as the inferiority complex, which is a concept that is true for me, since I’ve experienced it the way he described it, except that my work in improving society has, so far, not helped the complex go away.

Trait theory, being “a model of personality” and traits being “characteristics and behaviors displayed” (p. 463) have helped psychologists describe personality, but it isn’t testable for showing what is considering ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ in the end. Trait theorists include Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, and Hans Eysenck. A commonly used trait system is called the “Big Five,” which show degrees in openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (p. 465). Major theoretical approaches to personality also include behaviorist/learning views by B.F. Skinner and the social cognitive approach via observational learning suggested by Bandura. Auke Tellegen suggested biological/evolutionary approaches to personality and behavior, while Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow focused on self-actualization in the humanistic approach, which is the only approach that covers both nature AND nurture, but still does not explain everything about personality completely.

Cognitive learning theory “focuses on the thought processes that underlie learning” while latent learning is a new behavior, but stays hidden until an “incentive is provided for displaying it” (p. 207). Similarly, observational learning (imitation) also seems to require no apparent reinforcement beforehand. Learning styles, such as relational (more right-brained), and analytical learning (more left-brained) also deal with how people acquire new knowledge and abilities. Bringing up observational learning, again, would bring into question what is deviant or abnormal behavior due to its extrinsic quality. For instance, children copy other children and sometimes learn what western culture terms as ‘bad behavior’ so that a mother shames their child by saying, “Well, if Petey jumped off a bridge would you do it too?” as an example of some of the possible negative side effects of observational learning.

As stated earlier, however, ultimately it is the understanding of the basic psychological processes, via experiments and the scientific method, which help determine what is considered “normal” vs. “abnormal” in the wide range of human psychological research. No matter what a person’s personality is, or what their learning style is, what is considered normal or abnormal is dependent upon the cultures and societies that frame such behaviors with labels according to their own customs, beliefs, and “norms” that are set by that society. There is, so far, no universal “normal” and no universally accepted “abnormal” (including cannibalism, since in some societies it is perfectly acceptable behavior, and murder is acceptable in nearly every society if it is during times of war), with the exception, perhaps, of certain behaviors such as incest. Incest is considered to be a universal no-no, mostly due to the genetic consequences in the accidental offspring and increasing mutations (in subsequent generations) that follow such behavior. But again, it is using the scientific method that helps us understand the psychological processes behind such behaviors.


Feldman, R. (2008). Understanding Psychology (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Pinchbeck, D. (2002). Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books