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Lecture/Discussion Topics

Neurotoxicity and Behavior

The topic of toxic pollution is very relevant to the discipline of psychology because of mounting research on the negative developmental, cognitive, and behavioral effects of exposure (e.g., Grandjean & Landrigan, 2014; Koger, Schettler, & Weiss, 2005; Scott, Amel, Koger, & Manning, 2016). Many chemical pollutants are endocrine disrupters that affect a variety of behaviors including motivation, aggression, learning, and reproduction (e.g., Jeng, 2014; Rana, 2014; Vandenberg, et al, 2012; Zala & Penn, 2004). Prenatal exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals is associated with cognitive deficits such as lower IQ and poorer memory, attention, and reading comprehension (Porterfield, 2000). Exposure to common pesticides can lead to developmental disabilities, behavioral problems, and autism spectrum disorders (e.g., Grandjean & Landrigan, 2006; Polańska, Jurewixz, & Hanke, 2013; Rossignol, Genius, & Frye, 2014). Zala and Penn (2004) suggest that the full extent of the negative effects of toxicants on behavior and cognitive functioning may not become apparent unless observed in a naturalistic context (e. g., one containing stressors that might catalyze the effects). A discussion about the biopsychological effects of toxicants is incomplete without addressing the issues of education and prevention. Students may assume that industrial pollutants are the only concern, but toxic chemicals are also found in common household products, including personal care products. Ask students, ” How can people be encouraged to stop using these toxic products when users feel they are required to maintain a standard of appearance, of cleanliness in the house, or of greenness of the lawn? ” Clearly, the answer is not merely to educate people about the potential hazardous effects; there are social norms and cultural expectations at play. For example, Carol Werner (2003) found that a program to reduce the use of toxic household products was more successful when individuals were not targeted for change in isolation, but were educated along with their social group. An individual may know that certain chemicals are dangerous, but if these chemicals are accepted by ” everyone else” as normal (or necessary), this may present a barrier to individual change.

Appetite, Sleep, Activity, and the Resource-intensive Lifestyle

Eating, sleeping, and moving the body are three basic physiological processes that are disrupted and distorted in contemporary urban environments (Scott, Amel, Koger, & Manning, 2016).. Students will be familiar with media reports about the “epidemics” of sleep deprivation and obesity in American culture and will be intimately familiar with the ways that innate sleep needs and natural appetites are undermined by hectic schedules, artificial lighting, fast food, caffiene, alcohol, etc. They may also have heard alarming reports about the health consequences of inactivity (“sitting is the new smoking!”). After reviewing the ample research on the negative health effects of sleep deprivation, poor eating, and inactivity, the biopsychology instructor can connect these issues to environmental sustainability by asking students to think critically about the origins and consequences of these society-wide problems. We are sleep-deprived inactive unhealthy eaters because of our lifestyle circumstances; encourage students to consider alternative lifestyles (cross-culturally, historically) that are more intimately connected to the natural context (e.g., sleep influenced by natural light levels, a diet consisting of whole non-processed foods). These lifestyles are not only stressful for our bodies and minds, they are also taxing the planet in that they are resource-intensive. Ask students to consider the relative ecological impact of people living in sync with natural appetites and sleep cycles compared to people living as most Americans do. Instructors may want to introduce the ideas of “evolutionary mismatch,” i.e., between our pre-industrial physiology and the industrialized lifestyle (Gluckman & Hanson, 2008), and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA; Gangestad & Simpson, 2007), which refers not a specific time or place, but to a set of conditions to which humans are best adapted. Modern society differs in significant ways from the EEA.

Evolutionary Psychology and Biophilia

According to evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson (1984), humans have an innate affinity for nature that he calls “biophilia.” In various writings on biophilia by Wilson and others (e.g., Kellert, 1997; Kellert & Wilson, 1993), this affinity is described as a love of nature, an attraction to nature, and a feeling of connection to nature. Wilson theorizes that this affinity stems directly from our ancestral past, a past in which humans evolved as part of the natural landscape, not separated from it. Biophilia and its converse, “biophobia” are interesting topics to address within the context of evolutionary psychology. For more on Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, see the Ecopsychology page of this site.

Evolutionary Roots of Unsustainable Behavior

Humans possess some traits that were adaptive in ancestral environments but may prove maladaptive given the current ecological crisis. Some of our evolved predispositions contribute to unsustainable behaviors (Penn & Mysterud, 2005). Humans are no different than other species in that we are wired for survival, but we have developed technologies that have allowed us to inflict unprecedented harm on the natural systems that support us– and our perceptual systems, which evolved in an environment where threats were sudden and immediate, leave us ill-equipped to track gradually worsening problems that take many years to manifest (e.g., climate change). Ask students to brainstorm about innate tendencies in humans that may lead to ecologically destructive choices. They may come up with things such as our desire for status and our tendency to conform. See van Vugt, Griskevicius, & Schultz (2014) for an insightful discussion about how some of these evolved tendencies may be harnessed to promote sustainable behavior.

The Impact of Environmental Stressors on Animal Behavior

Biological and environmental psychologists study the effect of environmental stressors such as noise and pollution on human behavior, but what effect do these stressors have on the behaviors of nonhuman species? To spark a discussion on this topic, an instructor could introduce students to the example of marine noise pollution. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has been working for decades to reduce underwater noise from human activities such as military sonar, gas exploration, and construction. The organization cites research evidence that marine noise pollution interferes with communication in whales, dolphins, and porpoises, and disrupts their natural feeding and breeding behaviors. Efforts to mitigate noise are showing promise.

Earthquakes and Environmental Risks

Recent popular press has described the looming potential for “The really big one” (Schulz, 2015) – an earthquake that could destroy large sections of the Pacific Northwest. California is also at risk for a “big one,” although the maximum potential for an earthquake involving the San Andreas fault is 8.2, compared to as high as 9.2 if the entire Cascadia subduction zone buckles. The earthquake in Japan that unleashed the nuclear disaster at Fukushima was magnitude 9.0.

Have students consider the various environmental risks that are created or compounded by earthquakes and other natural disasters (destruction of homes and other building structures that generates massive amounts of wasted resources and toxic pollution; nuclear plant melt-downs (e.g., the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington State); impacts on the health and habitats of both humans and wildlife species; etc.)

Animal Research and Animal Rights Activism

Animal models are fundamental in biopsychology and neuroscience. By connecting the issue of ethics in animal research to the larger animals rights movement, instructors can encourage students to think about humans’ connection with animals and the natural world in general. The discussion will not be boring and may get heated. Prep students with some words about respectful dialogue. Suggested discussion questions include the following:

  • Why are some people so upset by animal research while others are unfazed by it?
  • Animal welfare advocates find some research procedures gruesome and cruel. Have researchers who perform these procedures become desensitized? Is a process of desensitization necessary for animal researchers when they are first starting their careers?
  • What motivates animal rights activists to free laboratory animals? Are their actions inspired by ecological awareness and concern?
  • Is it ethical to use living creatures for research intended to subvert natural processes of illness, disease, and mortality in humans? Does it make a difference in your position if the illness, disease, or mortality are brought on by natural factors (e. g., old age) versus by unnatural factors (e. g., exposure to chemical toxins)?
  • (How) does research on sentience and emotion in animals affect your feelings about animal research in general and about standards of care for laboratory animals?

See the History of Psychology page of this site for more on attitudes toward animal research.

Environmental Health Risks of Transporting Fossil Fuels

In addition to the climate changing effects and air pollution associated with burning fossil fuels, transporting them creates a variety of environmental health risks, i.e., environmental factors such as pollution that can cause “premature death and avoidable illness and disability (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013).  Escalating consumer demand for oil, especially in the U.S., involves increasing transportation from Canadian oil fields, and headlines such as the following are becoming more common:

“A train hauling millions of pounds of crude oil derailed” in West Virginia, polluting the air and water supplies (Heyman & Pérez-Peña, 2015).  A train “with 72 tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded… killing at least 13 people” in Quebec (Revkin, 2013). “Residents of a small North Dakota town felt their houses shake and were hit by the intense heat of an explosion after a train carrying crude oil derailed”  (Rocked, 2014).

Consequently, there are a variety of adverse health impacts of transporting coal and oil. In addition to the direct mortality associated with accidents, the health risks range from respiratory ailments to cancer to developmental disabilities that affect children’s learning, memory, attention, and overall academic performance. Additionally, coal dust, combustion emissions, and diesel particulate matter are all significant water, air and soil pollutants, affecting fisheries, recreation, and agriculture in addition to human health.

Class Activities

Measuring Arousal in Response to Nature

Have students conduct an exercise demonstrating the relation between psychological states and physiological response when viewing natural versus human environments. Beforehand, the instructor should collect images of scenes of nature (waterfalls, woods, wildlife, etc) vs. human environments (large cities, traffic, air pollution spewing from factories, etc), or short (e. g., 10-min.) video clips of each. There are numerous free stock photos sites on the web. To get started, click on the images below. These pictures vary on a variety of dimensions (e. g., whether people are present; whether the scene is built, natural, or both; whether the human impact is damaging or more benign; shapes and colors):


Student experimenters should create sets of photos and then measure heart rate and blood pressure before and during viewing of the images by fellow student participants. Include assessment of subjective arousal to the video stimuli such as that described by Rowland, Kaariainen, and Houtsmuller (2000): Rate the following 4 adjectives using a 7 point scale, where 1 = not at all and 7 = extremely: relaxed, excited, calm, fearful. In addition to reporting on the results of the arousal measures, student experimenters should describe their photo sets in terms of potential confounds and how those confounds may affect arousal reports.

(adapted from Rowland, D. L., Kaariainen, A., & Houtsmuller, E. J., 2000. Interactions between physiological and affective arousal: A laboratory exercise for psychology.Teaching of Psychology, 27, 34-37.)

Class Activities

Bottled Water and Social Norms

(Adapted from Koenig & Reyns, 2012)

In a reaction paper, a) Ask students to evaluate their use of bottled water (do they buy bottled water? How much/how often?)

  1. b) Assign readings on the energy costs of bottled water and the leaching of xenoestrogens (endocrine disrupting chemicals) into bottled water. Did the readings impact students’ views about bottled water? Do they think their behavior will likely change as a result? Why/why not?
  2. c) What are the apparent descriptive social norms on campus about bottled water use?  Is there an injunctive social norm?  How might students use a social norm approach to reduce the use of bottled water on your campus?  

Reviewing Research on Environmental Toxicants

There is a burgeoning literature on “environmental” toxicants; i.e., pollutants that are released by humans into the environment (air, water, soils, etc.), and their impacts on the health and well-being of humans and other animals. Many of these substances act as direct neurotoxins or as endocrine disruptors. Have students find, read, and report on current empirical articles that describe a particular substance or class of substances (e.g., pesticides, plastics, flame retardants, heavy metals, and the mix of chemicals comprising air pollution). Detailed assignment instructions can be found here. [contributed by Susan Koger]

The Hidden Costs of Fossil Fuels

Oil, natural gas, and coal are the three main sources of energy in the U.S. There are significant environmental and public health costs (i.e., externalities) at all levels of production: extraction/mining, transportation, as well as combustion. Instructors could either review these costs (oil and coal are outlined briefly, below), or have students conduct research and present, for instance, as follows: Form groups of students, with each group assigned to a particular fossil fuel. Each student within the group (or a pair of students, in larger classes) is responsible for investigating a specific process and bringing that information back to share with their group, which then collectively develops a presentation on the substance and its costs for the rest of the class.  

Hidden Costs of Fossil Fuels

Multimedia Resources

Films: Health Hazards of Environmental Toxicants

Films that instructors could use to introduce the topic of health hazards of environmental toxicants include:

THE HUMAN EXPERIMENT (2013, 91 min.)
The Human Experiment lifts the veil on the shocking reality that thousands of untested chemicals are in our everyday products, our homes and inside of us. Simultaneously, the prevalence of many diseases continues to rise. From Oscar® winner Sean Penn and Emmy® winning journalists Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, The Human Experiment tells the personal stories of people who believe their lives have been affected by chemicals and takes viewers to the front lines as activists go head-to-head with the powerful and well-funded chemical industry. These activists bring to light a corrupt system that’s been hidden from consumers… until now. [exerpt from the website] Detailed description

TAR CREEK (2012, 54 min.)
Tells the story of the Tar Creek Superfund site in NE Oklahoma and the massive and deadly remains left by the lead and zinc mines there. Detailed description

PROGRAMMED TO BE FAT? (2012, 45 min.)
Man-made chemicals may be programming us to be fat – before we’re even born. Detailed description

TOXIC BABY (2011, 91 min.)
In a unique blend of music, animation, and science, Toxic Baby reveals the shocking truth of one of the greatest environmental issues we face today: our children’s exposure to thousands of chemicals in their day to day lives and the mounting  concern within the scientific community about the implications of this exposure on their health and development. [excerpt from the website] Detailed description

This documentary “reveals pictures of environmental pollution througout America. It’s the politics of pollution as giant corporations manipulate the system to delay environmental reform, endangering the lives of people all over the world for increased profits. Toxic Soup shares the stories of everyday folks fighting to keep their blood, water, and air safe from pollution.” [excerpt from the website] Detailed description

This free short video offers an overview of risks from chemical contaminants commonly found in our homes, workplaces, and products. View the film on YouTube here.

HOMO TOXICUS (2008, 90 min. or 50 min.)
This film addresses the link between the toxic substances we are exposed to on an everyday basis and the increasing number of health problems associated with this exposure. Through interviews with respected industry scientists, as well as independent researchers, this film illuminates the toxins we are inadvertently handing down to our children, and the inconsistent standards of evaluation and regulation that are part of the problem. Detailed description.

ADDICTED TO PLASTIC (2007, 85 min.)
Reveals the history and worldwide scope of plastics pollution, investigates its toxicity and explores solutions. Detailed description

TOXIC BUST (2006, 41 min.)
Explores the relationship between breast cancer and exposure to toxic chemicals. Detailed description

Website: Biological Psychology Newslink

This site is a searchable database of abstracts of news articles related to biopsychology topics. Students can search by a list of keywords related to sustainability (e. g., animal rights, neurotoxins, evolution) or by their own search terms (e. g., conservation, environmentalist) to find links to relevant articles.

Website: Toxipedia

The site Toxipedia has resources for instructors educating about negative health effects of environmental toxicants.

Website: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s TSCA Inventory

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law that requires manufacturers of chemicals to register them, was passed in 1976. Synthetic chemicals must be reported to the EPA, but they need not be tested for safety before they are put to use. To date, the EPA has required testing of only about 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals on the list. Only nine have been subject to regulation for posing an “unreasonable risk” to human health. These include asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and lead. Food, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and cosmetics are excluded from the TSCA. (Chameides, 2011). EPA TSCA Inventory

Website: Globe At Night-Light Pollution

Light pollution is ambient illumination coming from streetlamps, headlights, airports, public buildings, and other sources that cast light upward or sideways, brightening the night sky. Light pollution is no longer a problem exclusive to urban areas and it poses significant health risks to humans (e.g., Haim & Portnov, 2013) and other species (Rich & Longcore, 2005). The Globe at Night is an international campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and submit their observations to the website from a computer or smart phone.

Suggested Readings For Students

Koger, S. M., Schettler, T., & Weiss, B. (2005). Environmental toxicants and developmental disabilities: A challenge for psychologists. American Psychologist, 60, 243-255.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Making ourselves sick: Health costs of unsustainable living. In Psychology for sustainability (4th ed). New York: Routledge.

van Vugt, M., Griskevicius, V., & Schultz, P. W. (2014). Naturally green: Harnessing stone age
psychological biases to foster environmental behavior. Social Issues and Policy Review, 8(1), 1-32. doi: 10.1111/sipr.12000


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). National Center for Environmental Health. Available at

Chameides, B. (2011, June 14). The Toxic Substances Control Act’s toxic baddies. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Doughton, S. (2013, Nov. 1). Hanford nuke plant’s earthquake risk underestimated. The Seattle Times. Retrieved 9/10/15 from

Gangestad, S. W. & Simpson, J. A. (Eds.). (2007). The evolution of mind: Fundamental questions and controversies. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Gluckman, P., & Hanson, M. (2008). Mismatch: The lifestyle diseases timebomb. New York:
Oxford University Press.

Grandjean, P., & Landrigan, P. J. (2006). Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals.
Lancet, 368, 2167–2178. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69665-7

Grandjean, P., & Landrigan, P. J. (2014). Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity.
The Lancet Neurology, 13(3), 330-338. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(13)70278-3

Haim, A., & Portnov, B. A. (2013). Light pollution as a new risk factor for human breast and
prostate cancers
. New York, NY: Springer.

Heyman, D. & Pérez-Peña, R. (2015, Feb. 17). Spilled oil keeps flames burning after a train derailment in West Virginia. The New York Times, retrieved 9/10/15 from

Jeng, H. A. (2014). Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and male reproductive health. Frontiers in Public Health, 2,55.doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2014.00055

Kellert, S. R. (1997). Kinship to mastery: Biophilia in human evolution and development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kellert, S. R. & Wilson, E. O. (Eds.) (1993). The biophilia hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Adapted from Koenig, A. M. & Reyns, N. B. (2012). Assignments integrating psychology and environmental studies. Ecopsychology, 4, 110-116. Note that these authors describe other useful class exercises, including one on Commons Dilemmas.

For instance, Koenig & Reyns (2012) used: Gleick, P. H. & Cooley, H.S. (2009). Energy implications of bottled water. Environmental Research Letters, 4, 1–6; Wagner, M., & Oehlmann, J. (2009). Endocrine disruptors in bottled mineral water: Total estrogenic burden and migration from plastic bottles. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 16, 278–286.

Koger, S. M., Schettler, T., & Weiss, B. (2005). Environmental toxicants and developmental disabilities: A challenge for psychologists. American Psychologist, 60, 243-255.

Penn, D., & Mysterud, I. (Eds.) (2005). Evolutionary perspectives on environmental problems (Evolutionary foundations of human behavior) . Somerset, NJ: Aldine Transaction

Polańska, K., Jurewicz, J., & Hanke, W. (2013). Review of current evidence on the impact of
pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls and selected metals on attention
deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children. International Journal of Occupational
Medicine and Environmental Health, 26(1), 16-38. doi: 10.2478/s13382-013-0073-7

Porterfield, S. (2000). Thyroidal dysfunction and environmental chemicals– Potential impact on brain development. Environmental Health Perspectives, 108, 433-438.

Rana, S. V. (2014). Perspectives in endocrine toxicity of heavy metals – A review. Biological
Trace Elements Research, 160(1), 1-14. doi: 10.1007/s12011-014-0023-7

Revkin, A. C. (2013, July 8). The long chain of responsibility behind an oily and deadly train wreck. The New York Times. Retrieved 9/10/15 from

Rich, C., & Longcore, T. (Eds.). (2005). Ecological consequences of artificial night lighting.
Washington, DC: Island Press.

Rocked by New Year’s apocalypse (2014, 1/1). The Daily Telegraph (Australia).

Rossignol, D. A., Genuis, S. J., & Frye, R. E. (2014). Environmental toxicants and autism
spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Translational Psychiatry, 4(2), e360. doi:

Rowland, D. L., Kaariainen, A., & Houtsmuller, E. J. (2000). Interactions between physiological and affective arousal: A laboratory exercise for psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 34-37.

Schulz, K. (2015). The really big one: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal northwest. The question is when. Retrieved 9/10/15 from

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Making ourselves sick: Health costs of unsustainable living. In Psychology for sustainability (4th ed). New York: Routledge.

Smith, et al. (2013). Energy and human health. Annual Review of Public Health, 34, 159–188. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031912-114404.

van Vugt, M., Griskevicius, V., & Schultz, P. W. (2014). Naturally green: Harnessing stone age
psychological biases to foster environmental behavior. Social Issues and Policy Review, 8(1), 1-32. doi: 10.1111/sipr.12000

Vandenberg, L. N., Colborn, T., Hayes, T. B., Heindel, J. J., Jacobs, D. R., Jr., Lee, D. H., …
Myers, J. P. (2012). Hormones and endocrine-disrupting chemicals: low-dose effects and
nonmonotonic dose responses. Endocrinology Review, 33(3), 378-455. doi:

Werner, C. M. (2003). Changing homeowners’ use of toxic household products: A transactional approach. Journal of Environmental Psychology , 23 , 33-45.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zala, S. M., & Penn, D. J. (2004). Abnormal behaviors induced by chemical pollution: A review of the evidence and new challenges. Animal Behavior, 68, 649-664.