When a psychological condition is the result of irregular brain structures or neurotransmitter imbalances we say the condition has a neurobiological basis; this is analogous to the classic Nature in the Nature vs Nurture discussion.

What is the term for a condition which does not have this sort of (apparent) neurobiological basis? This would be a condition caused by Nurture effects such as psychologically traumatic events.

Is there a distinction? Technically both would induce physical changes in the brain, but I often see "neurobiological basis" used as if there were a different sort of basis for a condition.

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    $\begingroup$ I got the impression people wrote 'neurobiological basis' not to mean that there is ANOTHER basis, but to distinguish it from the (many) cases where you have a statistical macro-level theory which has not yet found a micro-level (neurobiological) justification. Such a justification has to exist, but the reduction is not apparent at the time of publication, so you can't talk about a neurogiological basis. $\endgroup$ Jan 31, 2012 at 4:11
  • $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev true, there's always a neurobiological basis (if you're a proper reductionist) but I still wonder if there's a term to differentiate when you do only have that macro-level theory. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Brocka
    Jan 31, 2012 at 14:19

3 Answers 3


psychological sequelae might be a word you're looking for if you forgive that it's somehow still neurobiological; it is however, not genetic or developmental or something somebody was born with:

Chronic kidney disease, for example, is sometimes a sequela of diabetes, 
and neck pain is a common sequela of whiplash or other trauma to the cervical 
vertebrae. Post-traumatic stress disorder may be a **psychological sequela** of rape.

Of course, this is a specific kind of pathological condition (a clinical one that requires attention!), not a general term for "psychological effect".


As Artem pointed out, you will have a hard time separating neurobiology from psychological effects if you want to maintain a reasonable/empirical/scientific approach.

Epigenetic is the word for "an addition to" genetics, so you can find out a lot with that search term. Particularly, behavioral epigenetics might be what you're interested in (note that it's still a molecular basis, just not genetic):


Environmental influences, as opposed to intrinsic influences (but still somehow neurobiological, as the biological system has to detect, interpret and respond to external stimuli for them to be significant) have many different names and are a large part of psychology in general. Richard Wilkinson has an excellent talk on how income disparity leads to unhappiness through the psychological conditions it imposes on the poor (another example of Sequelae):


  • $\begingroup$ Epigenetic is pretty close to what I was thinking of, and certainly a term I had forgotten! $\endgroup$
    – Ben Brocka
    Jun 12, 2012 at 14:20

As I alluded in the comments, I think your question is underpinned by a more fundamental worry of the "best level of description" for psychological phenomena. If you a reductionist then you believe that all of psychology is best explained in terms of the activity of neurons (or systems of neurons if you are of the system perspective; note that some do not consider this reductionist. However, it does reduce to the physical basis).

On the other hand, Putnam and Fodor (and I suspect most proponents of strong AI) argue for multiple realizability: mental states and psychology can be implemented in various physical substrates, not just biological neurons. If you subscribe to this view, then it is natural to expect the best level of description of psychology to be independent of the specifics of a physical implementation (think algorithm-analysis in theoretical computer science). Since brains are physical things that implement minds, you would believe that a neurobiological basis does exist, but its details are irrelevant to your theory. Note that many theories in psychology can be viewed at the macro- or behaviorist level and as I suggested earlier: many theories in cognitive science lack a solid neuronal grounding.

If you have a physics background, then the weak analogy I would make is thermodynamics versus statistical mechanics. Thermodynamics is a macro-level theory that can exist without micro-level detail. However, eventually thermodynamics found a micro-level grounding in statistical mechanics. Does that mean we abandon thermodynamics and only study stat mech?

As for your nature vs. nurture distinction, if we accept mutliple realizability then we can use the above ideas to try to formalize the terminology. We can think of nature features as ones that are best described at the level of the specific implementation of the human brain, and nurture features as ones that are best described on a macro-level that would apply to any reasonable implementation. I don't know if this idea has been deeply studied or if it has any interesting bearing on the nature vs. nurture debate.

  • $\begingroup$ Multiple realizability is not incompatible with reductionism. Dualists will often exploit this fact to say that physicalism (your "reduces to the physical basis") implies panpsychism. Not sure that you meant to imply that, but "on the other hand" gave that impression. $\endgroup$ Jun 12, 2012 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Xurtio I didn't mean to imply that multiple realizability is incompatible with reductionism in general, In my first paragraph I was referring to a strong stance on reductionism that "all psychology is best explained by neurons". As a sort of hard-line version of this, think of Paul Churchland. Do you have any suggestions on how to make this more obvious in my answer? $\endgroup$ Jun 12, 2012 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ perhaps "some argue this allows for". In neural systems, at least, we've actually shown this to be true on the functional level. There, it's called degeneracy. Eve Marder is known for her work that demonstrates how several different permutations of the same system can produce the expected result: ((((Marder E, Taylor AL. Multiple models to capture the variability in biological neurons and networks. Nat Neurosci. 2011 Feb;14(2):133-8. [abstract])))). Of course, this doesn't imply AI right away, but I'm sure it can be appreciated by AI proponents. $\endgroup$ Jun 12, 2012 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @caseyr547 read the answer, 'the idea' is using multiple realizability as a way to categorize certain properties as nature vs nurture. That is not google-able, although if you could find a reference to people looking at nature vs. nurture from that perspective, I would be interested. $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2014 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ scholar.google.com/… @ArtemKaznatcheev $\endgroup$
    – user3832
    Feb 1, 2014 at 22:42

This is my own conjecture:

I would think a Nature/neurobiological/genetic disorder would be classified as some sort of "Structural Disorder." Maybe the Nurture side would be something like "Processing Disorder"? (this is assuming we're talking maladaptive effects)

Is our science even to a point where we can differentiate between a neurobiological disorder and a severe psychological disorder though? Maybe some neurobiological disorders start as unchecked psychological disorders. Or maybe our metacognitive capabilities are such that we can self-regulate ourselves (most likely with professional help) out of a neurobiological condition. Maybe it's all somewhere in between.


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