Glossary of Key Terms in General Psychology -PSY 2012:

Mind: That which occurs in both conscious and unconscious experience that is only directly observed by the person who experiences it.

Mental: Of the mind, or having to do with the mind's functions or features.

Dualism: The view that the mind and the body are separate or separable subjects of study or experience.

Monism: The view that the mind and the body are one inseparable unit.

Physiological: Of the body, or its functions and features.

Psychology: The science that studies the mind, its behaviors and mental processes, as well as the art of applying this knowledge to help others.  The personal mental experience of leading one's life, including but not limited to one's subjective beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, emotions, moods, perceptions, sensations, memories, fantasies, and consciousness.

Psychological: Of the mind and the emotions, cognitions, experiences and behaviors the mind is involved in producing, modifying or inhibiting. Anything to do with the scientific study of the mind, etc.

Structuralism:  The view begun largely by the work of Wilhelm Wundt that was based in the effort to identify and describe all of the structures or components of the mind.

Functionalism:  The view put forth by William James that was based in the effort to identify the active, operating purposes of mental events.

Psychological Perspectives: One of the six or seven major theoretical viewpoints from and through which psychology is now studied in its depth and breadth.

Behavior: Actions -usually taken to mean objectively observable reactions to the environment.

Cognition: Thinking, knowing and remembering.

Affect: Emotion.

Mood: Relatively consistent emotional tendencies that influence and underlie affect.

States: Temporary emotional and cognitive experiences; they are transient, and are under great environmental influence, though they often reflect underlying traits as well.

Traits: Enduring predispositions toward having particular cognitive, affective and behaviorally expressed states.  The components of personality.

Character: The overall makeup of personality; the sum of one's traits and predispositions.  Traits and tendencies in personality that lead to consistent decision making and/or personal integrity.

Rationalism:  A strain of philosophical thought that suggests that truth can be obtained through careful reasoning.

Empiricism:  A strain of philosophical thought that suggests that truth can be obtained through gathering objective observable evidence.

Scientific method:  The organized progression of steps followed to move scientific knowledge forward.  Usually taken to include a cycle of theory, hypothesis, observation, and conclusions which are then used, in turn, to retain, revise or reject a theory.

Theory: An organized collection of knowledge, assumptions, beliefs, constructs, models, heuristics, and facts that are used to explain and understand a complex phenomenon.

Hypothesis: An educated guess about the likely outcome of a scientific study or experiment.

Observation:  A scientific observation in psychology is usually made through  experimentation, survey, naturalistic observation, achival analysis, meta-analysis, library research, or case study.

Support:  Evidence that goes in the direction of confirming some part of a theory or that was predicted by the hypotheses the theory generated.

Correlation:  A mathematically predictive relationship between two measured phenomena or events.

Prove:  To uncategorically, unconditionally demonstrate beyond all doubt.

Nervous System:  The complex web of interconnecting nerve cells that fill our skull (the brain), that extend down though our vertebrae (the spinal cord), and that extend in a huge, branching net throughout our tissues and all over the body.  Made up primarily of neurons and support cells.

Neuron: A nerve cell. Its main components are the dendrites, the cell body, the axon, the axon hillock, and the terminal bulbs. Neurons carry messages electrochemically and secrete neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters: The chemicals released across the synaptic gap by a neuron's terminal bulbs.  These chemicals carry messages from one cell to another.

Myelinization: The growth, over time, of fatty myelin sheathing around axons carrying neural messages.

Neocortex:  The surface or upper layer of neurons making up the cerebrum.  In humans the neocortex is an area of about three square feet, but wrinkled and folded to fit within the skull.  The structures and functions of the cerebrum lead some to refer to it as the essential human brain.

Limbic system:  A set of structures governing emotion, memory, sexual excitement, sensory transfer and many other functions located within the brain.  Often referred to as the essential mammalian brain.

Brainstem:  A set of structures connected to the spinal cord including the cerebellum, pons, medulla and reticular formation that govern basic life support functions of the body, and that operate most of the autonomic nervous system.  Often referred to as the essential lizard brain.

Sensation:  Activation of the nervous system by the environment.  Experience of the world through special receptors located in the various sensory organs -eyes, ears, skin, etc.

Transduction:  The transformation of energy in the environment into the neurochemical signals used by the nervous system.  For example, light energy is tranformed by the retina into the neural signals carried by the optic nerve.

Perception:  The organization and interpretation of sensory input into the meaningful information used to understand and respond to the environment.  A process of using sensory input for low level and high level mental processing, leading one to consciousness, memory, cognition, and reasoning.

Bottom-up:  The direction of activation of the nervous sytem caused or initiated by sensory input.

Top-down: Nervous system activation that has been caused or initiated by (or within) the brain's neocortex.

Consciousness:  A quality of the mind characterized as one or more of the following (depending upon the theoretical approach one takes to explaining it):
  a.  One's level of neurophysiological activity (ranging from the low of coma to the high of delirium -with normal states in between). Level and organization of brain activity permitting responsiveness to or awareness of the environment.
   b.  The highest level of personal awareness or thought; the contents of one's "upper" mind at a given moment.
   c.  Self awareness as organized through symbolic reasoning in general, and particularly through the use of language. In other words, consciousness is (usually) the experience of having words passing through one's mind --in order to get at the rest of one's mind. This gives us an apparently unified mental 'space' mostly organized through language, and that is associated with one's agency or sense of being oneself.


Please remember, a definition is not the be-all and end-all on a particular term. These are one person's (that's me) effort to define some of the terms we use in my General Psychology classes. They are not entirely comprehensive, nor are they entirely specific to psychology. They should allow the reader to get a foundation for class discussion, however. Check back occasionally. This list will grow and evolve. --Dr. McGuff

This page was last updated on September 29th, 2006   -RM