Page 1 - Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior Study Guide for the MCAT

General Information

Psychological, social, and biological questions require you to be familiar with the many theories and basic concepts in psychological areas of study. It will also be necessary to be able to connect these theories with their possible impact on health issues.

This section assesses your knowledge about five of the ten Foundational Concepts tested on the MCAT. These five concepts are quoted here, directly from the test producer. Then, under each, you will find the basic terms and ideas that are included in the test. You are encouraged to seek additional resources for more information about each of these and to further your expertise in them.

Foundational Concept 6: Biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors influence the ways that individuals perceive, think about, and react to the world.

All people are influenced by cognition, perceptual processes, emotion, and stress. The study of these would be included in introductory psychology and biology courses and generally concerns the manner in which we gather information from all of our senses. The factors discussed can have bearing on a person’s health and illness.

Sensory Processing

Sensory processing refers to how we interpret the information our brain receives; how our sensory receptors convert the physical stimulus to cellular signals for the nervous system. This response then follows a sensory pathway (receptors-ganglia-CNS). A stimulus must reach an absolute threshold in order for us to acknowledge it or to have a sensory experience in response.

Of course, observers of a given stimulus differ. This is where signal detection theory comes into play—an approach to dealing with this response bias. It is also important to note that, while we can determine a threshold for the awareness of a certain stimulus, our senses respond less after being exposed to a stimulus for a prolonged period of time (sensory adaption). This study of the relationship between stimulus and mental response is called psychophysics.

threshold, Weber’s Law, signal detection theory, sensory adaptation, psychophysics, sensory pathways, sensory receptor types


Vision is considered to be the most important, and most complex, sense for humans and animals alike. The eye is the main sensory organ of the visual system and is responsible for enabling us to see our physical environment. It comprises three main layers: the sclera (cornea), the choroid (pupil, iris, and lens) and the retina (receptor cells). When we look at an object, we must break it down into its component features—color, form, and motion—to be able to make sense of it. This process is called feature detection.

eye structure and function, visual pathways, parallel processing, feature detection


While vision is better for identifying an object, hearing is often what alerts us to look at an object in the first place. In order to hear, we rely on the presence of sound waves, which are a direct result of actions that cause vibrations, pushing molecules of medium back and forth, therefore causing changes in pressure. Auditory processing allows us to distinguish between these sounds.

ear structure and function, auditory processing, sensory reception

Other Senses

While vision and hearing are the most studied senses, our other senses include smell, taste, as well as vestibular and kinesthetic senses. Our vestibular sense tells us how our body is orientated, in relation to gravity. This sense contributes to balance and is stimulated by tiny hairs in the inner ear that bend when fluid in the ear presses against them. Our kinesthetic sense is our movement sense. This sense provides constant sensory feedback of what our muscles are doing during movement.

somatosensation, taste, smell (olfactory cells/chemoreceptors, pheromones, olfactory pathways), kinesthetic and vestibular sense


All of these senses would confuse and disorientate us if not for perceptual organization. Perceptual organization puts all of our sensory information together so that it is comprehensive and coherent for us to perceive. Gestalt psychologists developed a set of principles that are now most often referred to as the laws of perceptual organization. The basis of these laws is that a whole is different from the sum of its parts; it can only be understood when viewed as a structured, organized whole. For example, often when we see a row of flashing Christmas lights that appear to be moving. According to Gestalt psychology, this is because one’s mind fills in the gaps to see the lights as a whole.

bottom-up/top-down processing, perceptual organization, Gestalt principles


Attention is the ability to focus or concentrate on a task. Attention is a limited resource, and we often tend to divide our attention, for example watching tv and studying at the same time. When we try to do two things at once, we are often actually focusing on only one thing but switching rapidly between them. Selective attention is when we attend to one task over another, while divided attention references trying to pay attention to two stimuli at once and making multiple responses.

selective and divided attention


Cognition is the study of critical mental processes including consciousness, cognitive development, problem-solving and decision making, intelligence, memory, and language. The foundations of cognitive psychology were formed by the Gestalt psychologists, as well as Jean Piaget, who studied the intellectual development of children. Piaget’s cognitive development theory proposed four stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and the formal operational period.

information-processing model, cognitive development (Piaget, influence of culture, heredity, and environment), biological factors, problem-solving and decision making, intellectual functioning


Consciousness refers to the awareness you have of both yourself and your environment. Sleep and dreaming are just other types of consciousness that we experience, themselves made of different states of consciousness. We can alter consciousness through hypnosis, meditation, and certain drugs. Consciousness-altering drugs can impact sensory experience, perception, mood, and behavior.

states of consciousness (alertness, sleep, dreaming, hypnosis, meditation), consciousness-altering drugs


Memory is the process of how information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. Information, from sensory input, is first encoded, i.e. changed into a form that our memory system can cope with (visual, acoustic or semantic). When encoded, information is then stored in either our Short-Term Memory (STM) or Long-Term Memory (LTM). Memory retrieval refers then to extracting this information from storage, either from STM or LTM, if for example we were part of an experiment and asked to recall a list of words we had just read, we would extract this information from our STM. However, if we are asked to recall an event or experience from 1 year ago, that information would be retrieved from our LTM.

encoding, storage, retrieval, forgetting, changes in synaptic connections


Language is our system of meaningful symbols and rules that allow us to communicate. This cognition truly makes us human. There are different theories of language development; some researchers put language learning down to language acquisition while others feel biological influences have the greater impact.

theories of language development, influence of language on cognition, brain areas that control language and speech


Emotion can be considered a subjective, conscious experience or response by an organism. It involves physical arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience. Universally, there are six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. However, emotion is always influenced by culture, for example the same situation may evoke different emotions in different cultures. Emotion activates the two major areas of the nervous system: the brain and autonomic nervous system.

components of emotion (cognitive, physiological, behavioral), universal emotions, adaptive role of emotion, theories of emotion, biological processes in perceiving emotion


Stress is a subjective reaction to a stimulus: the experience of being threatened by difficult circumstances. Everyone experiences stress differently. Stress depends on how people appraise a specific environmental event. Something that is psychologically or physically demanding can be labeled a stressor. There are three main types of stressors: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. There are also different coping strategies for dealing with stress, some of which include: exercise, social support, relaxation, therapy or self-indulgent behaviors such as alcohol and drugs.

stress appraisal, types of stressors, effects of stress, stress outcomes/responses, managing stress


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