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David S. Olton Program in Behavioral Biology

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About the Program       


The David S. Olton Behavioral Biology Program is an interdepartmental, interdivisional area major for those wishing to study the natural and social sciences in relation to human and animal behavior.  The program begins with the fundamental concepts of both the natural sciences and the social sciences.  Then the interface between these two areas is explored through specialized courses and electives, and through additional study emphasizing a particular subject.  Courses provide a broadly based yet integrated education, focused in the field of behavioral biology.

         The interaction between behavior and biology takes place in both directions.  On the one hand, biology influences behavior.  For example, psychopharmacology has demonstrated the importance of neurochemical substances in the brain, and sociobiology has emphasized the role of genetic factors in behavior.  On the other hand, behavior also influences biology.  An individual’s perception and reaction to life events can have substantial effects on hormonal and physiological functions.  In recognizing both of these interactions, behavioral biology seeks to establish a greater understanding of them through its interdisciplinary organization.  The interdisciplinary characteristics of behavioral biology provide excellent preparation for post-graduate work.  For those interested in the health professions, behavioral biology can be integrated into a premedical curriculum and should provide a broad, humanistic perspective.  For those who wish to pursue scientific careers in the neurosciences, especially psychopharmacology or behavioral neuroscience/ physiological psychology, the program provides the appropriate preparation.  It is also a major that students interested in the fields of organismal or integrative biology should consider.

Program goals

By the completion of their course of study, Behavioral Biology majors are expected to:

  • Be able to understand and apply principles of data analysis using statistical methods.
  • Obtain a basic understanding of animal behavior.
  • Obtain a basic understanding of neural systems that mediate behavior.
  • Obtain a basic understanding of human behavior in the context of both the biological and social sciences.
  • Develop basic competence in scientific communication – oral and written.
  • Explore and prepare for careers, including those in basic science and medical/veterinary fields.

Behavioral Biology and Neuroscience

         Many students ask about the similarities and differences between the Behavioral Biology Program and the major in Neuroscience.  The Neuroscience major is similar to the Behavioral Biology major in that it is also an interdepartmental program.  Students majoring in Neuroscience can concentrate in one of three areas of specialization: Cellular & Molecular, Systems, or Cognitive Neuroscience.  The Systems Neuroscience concentration is the one that most closely resembles the Behavioral Biology major.  Many of the courses required for Systems Neuroscience majors are also required of Behavioral Biology majors.  There was a discussion about merging the Behavioral Biology major with the Neuroscience major, however it was decided to keep the programs separate to maintain choices for students interested in the biological and behavioral sciences.  Behavioral Biology majors can explore many aspects of the biology of behavior, including the mechanisms of behavior, but also evolutionary, ecological, and social aspects of behavior.  Therefore, the Behavioral Biology major maintains an identity independent of the Neuroscience major, despite obvious overlaps.  Furthermore, the Behavioral Biology major has fairly liberal course requirements so that students can explore more choices in their liberal arts education.


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