Easy Explanations: key terms in Psychology & Neuroscience

Here are easy explanations and definitions for key concepts and terms in psychology and neuroscience. These will help you understand psychology articles better. You can also use this as an introduction to what psychology offers. Consider these as your Explain Like I’m 5 (ELI5) definitions.

Mental health


Stress occurs when the demands on the body and mind are too high for smooth functioning. It appears when the capacity to solve problems, pay attention, and handle difficult events is not enough to adapt to a situation. Stress can be triggered by the environment (traffic), emotions (difficult conversations), or workload (studying for an exam). Tension and strain are common substitute words for stress. Example: The amount of work you have to complete in a week is much higher than what you are used to comfortably. Stress affects our overall functioning, and too much of it deteriorates the body and brain.


Anxiety occurs when the body and brain feel threatened, whether or not there is an immediate, real threat. It puts the body in fight, flight, or freeze state, which creates physical symptoms like raised heart rate, sweaty palms, and heaviness in the chest. Since anxiety is a perceived threat, it often comes from realizing there is uncertainty, which causes worry, nervousness, and unease. Anxiety can take specific forms like relationship anxiety – worrying about an uncertain future, health anxiety – worrying about personal health, and fear of abandonment – worrying about being alone.


Conflict occurs when 2 or more people or ideas don’t fit together well. As a result, there may be arguments, fights, or other coping mechanisms to reduce conflict. When conflict is unresolved, it causes stress and anxiety. When 2 ideas don’t sit together well, it is called “cognitive dissonance”.

Coping mechanism

Coping mechanism is how the body and mind respond to stress to reduce it and feel more relaxed/adjusted. For example, people often cope by talking to others, listening to music, gaming, exercising, binge-watching, short video/tweet entertainment, sleeping, etc. But, people sometimes use unhealthy coping mechanisms like shouting and yelling, excessive drinking, or physical violence.


Therapy, or psychotherapy, is the process of overcoming mental health problems by talking to a professional therapist, who guides the process in helpful ways. It involves exploring emotions, making sense of life events, learning relaxation techniques, developing skills, changing thought processes, and continuous feedback to reach an objective like reduced stress or negative thoughts. People often seek therapy when they feel unable to handle difficulties alone.

Emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is a set of skills and self-awareness about managing, processing, and maintaining one’s emotional state. Some emotional regulation skills are effortful, like meditation. And some are automatic, like getting distracted to avoid dealing with a problem. Nevertheless, healthy emotional regulation is a fundamental way to manage one’s mental health.


Mindfulness is an attentive, non-judgmental state of mind that focuses on the present instead of the past or future. It is amplified attention to one’s current experience for what it is without trying to reason or evaluate it and accept it the way it is.



Cognition refers to thoughts, perceptions, and knowledge. The processes that govern and generate them are called cognitive processes. When these processes are applied to real-world contexts, they are called cognitive functions. For example, attention, memory, decision-making, etc., are cognitive functions we use to navigate the day and solve problems. The brain choosing the best words and forming sentences in your mind to use in a text message is a cognitive process; paying attention to your ongoing conversation is a cognitive function.

Cognitive capacity

Cognitive capacity is the total ability and limitation of how much cognitive work the brain can do. For cognitive processes like attention and memory, there are biological limitations. For example, one can pay attention only to 1 thing at a time. However, cognitive capacity can be trained and improved. E.g., the ability to quickly shift attention to many details (multi-tasking) and remember items in a long list.


Perception is how the mind interprets raw information coming from our senses, including meaningful, holistic information like language, music, and visual scenery. Perception occurs when the brain makes sense of sensory information. Example: Seeing a car on the road; listening to a person speak.


Metacognition refers to thoughts about thoughts or cognition about cognition. E.g., Thinking about what you studied and learned today.

Working memory

Working memory is a temporary store of memory in which you can manipulate information and hold it for a short duration ranging from seconds to 30 minutes. It can typically carry 4 chunks of information at a time. You can operate on that information by bringing information from your senses or long-term memory. Example: calculating a 20% tip while paying a bill, and trying to figure out how much cash you have remaining in your bank.

Associative memory network

Associated memory networks are interrelated units of memory (called nodes) in a large network where closely related memory units are close to each other. Activating one node typically activates its neighbor nodes, such as thinking of milk can quickly activate the node for cows or cereal.


Imagery is what the mind creates in the absence of direct sensory input. Imagery can occur for all senses, not just visual. So perceiving a taste, a smell, a musical sequence, a feeling of movement, a visual scene, etc., is imagery. Imagination is active imagery. The best way to understand imagery is noticing what you can see when your eyes are closed just before sleeping. They are called Hypnagogic hallucinations.


Consciousness does not have a standard or accepted definition. Still, researchers typically use the word to describe our ability to monitor ourselves and reflect on our experiences, show autonomy in decision-making and movement, respond to the environment, and have a subjective experience. On the other hand, being unconscious is an absence of autonomy (independence) with dramatically decreased self-reflection, movement, self-monitoring, and inability to respond to the environment. Researchers are currently exploring the degree to which an unconscious person has an internal mental state and a subjective experience.


Awareness describes the extent to which we actively monitor and decode our environment and internal processes in a meaningful way. Perceiving something and knowing you perceive it is awareness. E.g., if you hold a pen and look at it, you can perceive its structure and weight and then know that you are actively thinking about the pen. That is awareness. A person can be awake but unaware (doing a mindless habit like shaking a leg or scratching the head) and also aware but asleep (responding to a late-night doorbell).

Subconscious mind

The subconscious mind typically describes that part of the mind which facilitates automatic behaviors, long-term learning, and unprocessed thoughts which do not engage our attention fully. That is, they are psychological processes that occur without much awareness.



A trait is a stable tendency of behavior or tendency lasting months to years that does not currently depend on environmental or situational factors. E.g., A person with high trait anxiety will be generally anxious regardless of circumstances. Still, circumstances may amplify or lower that anxiety.


A state is a temporary experience of emotions or tendency of behaviors that largely depends on environmental and situational factors like stress. States last for a few minutes to days. E.g., A person in an angry state will not always be angry, but some event may have induced anger.

OCEAN model (also called the 5-factor model or the big 5)

The ocean model is a theory of 5 well-studied dimensions of personality. It is an acronym for personality dimensions.

  • Extroversion – Introversion: Extroversion is a tendency to prefer social events and talking to others for daily functioning. Extroverts are typically outgoing, talkative, and emotionally expressive people. Introversion is a tendency to prefer fewer social events and enjoy daily functioning without others. Introverts generally are not talkative and express little emotion when meeting people for the first time.
  • Openness to experience: Openness to experience describes the tendency to seek novel experiences and enjoy them, including art, culture, music, food, travel, and world views. They are generally intellectually curious and appreciate new experiences readily.
  • Neuroticism (relabelled as emotional stability): Neuroticism describes a fundamental tendency to focus on negative details, have pronounced emotional reactions, frequently worry, and mismanage negative emotions. High neuroticism is labeled as low emotional stability, and low neuroticism is labeled as high emotional stability.
  • Agreeableness: Agreeable people tend to get along with others and value social functioning. They are typically kind, compassionate, easily trusted, and easily trusting. They are likely to put a group’s needs ahead of their own and compromise.
  • Conscientiousness: Conscientious people are generally disciplined and organized and prefer to think and plan before making decisions.


Sensation-seeking is a core tendency to seek risks, sensory stimulation, novelty, and variety in everyday experiences. High sensation-seekers generally prefer thrilling experiences, loud/complex music, and intense movies.

Highly sensitive person

Sensory processing sensitivity describes the degree to which people get overwhelmed with sensory stimulation and experience pronounced emotions. Highly sensitive persons are high on the sensory processing sensitivity trait, so they get overwhelmed easily with strong sensations and typically avoid them.

Autotelic personality

Autotelic personality describes people who are intrinsically motivated to do most of their activities and believe the activity itself is the reward. So they don’t tend to chase the outcome of an activity. Autotelic people are more likely to experience the “flow state” than non-autotelic people.



All observable movements and changes shown by an organism or a group of organisms are called behaviors. For example, microexpressions, speaking, playing an instrument, individual responses, patterns of responses, and crowd chants are behaviors.


Any physical event in the environment that activates our senses is a stimulus (plural is stimuli). In psychology experiments, a stimulus is something that is expected to trigger a change in an organism. For example, sounds, pictures, conversations, rain, a car, etc., are different types of stimuli.


Responses are measurable changes in an organism that occur because of a stimulus or multiple stimuli. When someone says “Hey” and you respond with “Ssup,” you’ve displayed a response of “Ssup” to the stimuli “Hey.”


Reflexes are relatively instant and unplanned responses to specific stimuli. They are inherited and governed by the reflex arc, which follows a 5-step pathway: Sensor (detects stimuli), sensory neuron (signal is transmitted to the spinal cord and then brain), the control center (the brain is informed of the stimuli, and a return signal is transmitted), motor neuron (the return signal to complete the reflex is sent via the spinal cord), muscle (the body part performs the reflex). There are 2 types of reflexes:

  1. Somatic reflex (external stimuli trigger an external response), E.g., withdrawal reflex upon touching something hot, eye blink.
  2.  Autonomic reflex (internal stimuli trigger an internal response), E.g., changes in heart rate and sexual arousal.


An event or stimuli that produces a pleasant experience that is likely to increase the frequency of a particular behavior that is rewarded. E.g., Getting a like on Instagram is a reward for posting a photo.


Punishment is an event or stimulus that produces an unpleasant experience that is likely to reduce the frequency of a particular behavior that is punished. E.g., Getting yelled at for behaving poorly.


Conditioning is the strengthening or weakening of a stimulus-response pair. Classical conditioning occurs based on pairing one stimulus with another so that the response to the first stimulus is associated with the new stimulus. Instrumental conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is increased or decreased in frequency/intensity by using reinforcement like rewards (increases response) or punishment (decreases response).

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior has a pleasant consequence which acts as a reward to continue that behavior. E.g., If you hold the door open for someone, you get a thank you in return which makes you feel good, so you hold the door open again.

Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior leads to the removal of an unpleasant stimulus or experience, so the removal of something negative acts as a way to continue a behavior. E.g., You pay your bills on time to avoid late fees.



Like the word plastic (meaning changeable) suggests, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change its structure and activity pattern due to learning and other biological activity. Stable learning is defined as new neural activity using newly altered neural circuits.


The cortex is the brain’s outermost layer with folds called gyri and grooves called sulci. The cortex is responsible for most of our higher-order cognitive processing, like decision-making, reasoning, language, and music, and it represents memory and learning. Different parts of the brain’s outermost layer thematically govern specific types of information processing. For example, the motor cortex governs voluntary movement, and the auditory cortex governs sounds and language.


Hippocampus, which looks like the sea horse species it is named after, is a part of the brain buried deep within both hemispheres. It is a central component of memory formation. Neurons in the hippocampus show activity and physically change when we learn something new. They then connect to other cortical regions via neuroplasticity. The hippocampus is also the area that gives birth to new neurons daily.


Amygdala is often called the brain’s emotion center, which processes fear and threat. But it also labels memories and decisions with an emotional component.


Neurotransmitters are molecules that permit one neuron to signal another neuron, muscle, or gland. When a neuron communicates with another neuron, a neurotransmitter is produced in the first neuron’s cell body. Then, it is released in a small 20-40 nanometer gap called the synaptic cleft before the second neuron, which then binds to the second neuron to complete the signal. Finally, the neurotransmitter is re-released in the gap for the first neuron to absorb it again for future use.


A synapse is a 20-40 nanometer (0.02-0.04 microns) connection between 2 neurons where a neurotransmitter performs its action. It is the transmission hub between 2 neurons. Stable changes to how one neuron’s synapse connects to the next neuron represent stable learning.

White matter

White matter is the region of the brain composed of axons that connect neurons together. The white color comes from the myelin sheath, which is primarily fat.

Gray matter

Gray matter is the brain’s region composed of cell bodies, axon terminals, and synapses. Gray color comes from the cell bodies and axon terminals, which do not contain fatty deposits that look white. However, a live brain would look more pinkish than plain gray because of the blood vessels.

Myelin sheath

Myelin sheath is a layer of fatty deposits on a neuron’s axon (which transmits the impulse), which affects how efficiently the neural signal transmits. The process is known as myelination. It is one of the processes involved in neuroplasticity. High myelination looks like a string of sausages. The neural signal jumps over each tubular fatty deposit. The longer the tubular deposit, the longer the signal jumps, effectively making the neuron transmit faster.

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