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What is a Biological Model?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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The term “biological model” is used in several different ways, but the meaning of the term is usually clear from the context. In one sense, it is a mathematical model of a biological system, while in another, it refers to a specific organism that may be studied extensively with the goal of generating data that can be applied to other organisms. This term is also used in reference to a particular theory about the origins of mental illness and psychological distress that originated in the 19th century as understanding of the brain advanced considerably.

In the sense of a mathematical model, a biological model can be constructed to gain a deeper understanding of an organism, an ecosystem, a genetic lineage, or a wide variety of other topics in biology. Using mathematics, people can set up and test a model. Many topics can be studied from within the framework of mathematics. For example, population growth and population dynamics are things which lend themselves very well to mathematical modeling.

Modeling biological systems with math also allows people to change the parameters and variables to see what would happen if alterations occurred in the real world. For example, a group of scientists working on an insect pest control project might take a mathematical model of the pests in question and then start adding variables like the use of insecticides, genetic manipulation of the population to create sterility, and other things to see which approach would likely be most effective when it comes to controlling the insects.

A model organism can provide data that may be applicable to other organisms. The lab rat is a classic symbol, studied with the goal of learning more about the nature of other mammals, especially humans. Fruit flies are also commonly used, as is Escherichia coli, a bacterium widely studied in labs all over the world. These biological models are chosen because of the similarities between them and other organisms, or for traits such as rapid reproduction or genomes that are easy to manipulate.

In the world of medicine, the biological model is a theory to explain how mental illness emerges, and to provide insight into potential treatments. People who support this model believe that psychological problems can be explained by physical and chemical problems within the brain and central nervous system, such as abnormal levels of neurotransmitters or abnormalities in brain structure. This would make psychological conditions treatable like other diseases.

This model was adopted in the 19th century, and it radically changed the approach to the treatment of the mentally ill. Historically, people with mental illness were blamed for their illness and assumed to be responsible for it; under this model, medical professionals recognized that their psychological issues were not their fault, and that they could be treated. This marked a radical shift from confinement, isolation, and abandonment in asylums and other facilities built to house the mentally ill.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Qohe1et — On Feb 06, 2011


Darwin has clearly stipulated scientific theories which demonstrate mankind to be nothing more than advances primates. It would be better for our ecosystem and better for our own societal and mental health if we began to see the truth that we are merely self-destructive and dominating animals who have a long way to go before we learn to treat our environment as it was meant to be treated.

By arod2b42 — On Feb 06, 2011


It is rather sad to see how deluded people have become in choosing to latch on to ancient religions which were established to explain the plight of the dead. As mankind evolved, he naturally began to assume that there was some sort of animistic "spiritual realm," which dictated his life and caused calamities. This mode of thinking is ancient, and I think that the sooner we recognize that humans are merely psychological animals, the better.

By TrogJoe19 — On Feb 03, 2011

The mentally ill struggle with things that are not merely biological, but personal. I know this because I have been mentally ill, and no matter how hard I tried or how many medicines I used, I couldn't break free of my depressed patterns of thinking. It required a fundamental shift in the way I saw the world. This is more than merely mechanical or biological. We are not robots, I believe that we are meta-dimensional being who need a strong archetype, or "savior," in order to function properly.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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