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The Psychophysiology deals with the relations between psychological processes and the underlying physical functions . It describes how emotions , changes in consciousness and behavior are related to brain activity, circulation, breathing, motor skills and hormone release.

The field of psychophysiology can be subdivided according to the topics of basic research, according to the main physiological functional systems or according to the areas of application. Central topics are emotions and the stress reaction , changes in consciousness, relaxation, recovery and sleep . Cognitive psychophysiology examines how the information is processed in the event of sensory stimulation or cognitive tasks. Pain reactions and interoception (Latin: inner perception) of body functions, such as palpitations, muscle tension, are analyzed in order to understand how physical complaints arise and can be influenced. The question of the physiological and genetic basis of certain personality traits ties in with the old teachings on constitution, body structure and temperament. In clinical psychology and psychiatry, psychophysiology contributes to new explanatory models and treatments.


The term psychophysiology was coined by the German psychiatrist Christian Friedrich Nasse (1778-1851) and overlaps not only historically with the term psychophysics, which was also in use at the time . The neurologist and psychiatrist Hans Berger (1873–1941), who is considered a pioneer of electroencephalography (EEG), emphasized that psychophysiology depends on the equality of psychological and physiological methods. The conceptual history of psychophysiology, neuropsychology and biopsychology in the border area of ​​different disciplines reflects the controversy that took place in the 19th century between psychics and somatics in psychology and psychiatry and that continues to the present day. There are different philosophical views as to whether consciousness and brain activity can interact with one another, whether they are only two sides of the same psychophysical process, or whether there are two different, but complementary, complementary descriptions of brain functions. These different views of the mind-body problem or the psychophysical correlation can influence the theories and the choice of methods of scientists.

Since the middle of the 19th century it has become possible to record the pulse, breathing, and later also blood pressure, electrical heart activity ( electrocardiogram , EKG) and brain activity ( electroencephalogram , EEG) during an emotion or a puzzling task. The simultaneous registration of various physiological changes, polygraphy (Greek for spelling), is typical of this research direction. Psychophysiology can be used as one of the basic disciplines for behavioral medicine, behavioral therapy , industrial psychology and the like. a. Fields of application are considered.


Description levels

Emotions , strain ( stress ), waking and sleeping as well as many other changes of state can be described on several levels:

  1. as processes of consciousness , experience and physical well-being, which are accessible to self-observation and can be communicated in language,
  2. as behavior patterns that can be objectively observed in activities, movements and facial expressions, and
  3. as physiological changes that can be measured in many mutually interacting functional systems.

In direct experience, e.g. B. in a strong anger about an event or in states of fear , these aspects seem to form a unit. However, research has shown that there are no rigid relationships, but rather coupling and decoupling of components. An intense feeling of fear is therefore not regularly accompanied by a corresponding fear behavior (avoidance behavior) or a physically measurable vegetative and hormonal fear physiology .

Psychophysiological activation, reactivity and reaction patterns

Activation and individual reactivity are two central concepts in psychophysiology. The generic term activation includes u. a. Emotions , excitement , tension , exertion , excessive demands (stress-strain reactions) and motivational states. In the orientation reaction to a stimulus or during the request to give a speech and - possibly extremely during a state of fear - there is usually a clear physical reaction compared to a rest phase. The typical pattern of the alarm reaction was described in psychophysiological studies that included up to 20 measured variables. These include: an increase in subjective alertness and tension, an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory activity, sweat secretion and electrical conductivity of the skin (electrodermal activity), muscular tension and an increasing excretion of certain hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, cortisol and Growth hormone. In contrast, the blood flow and temperature of the skin decrease. In addition, the EEG and immunological parameters change. This alarm reaction is biologically appropriate because it prepares the organism for attack or flight, fight-or-flight. However, there are individual differences in reaction behavior, because individuals may react more strongly with blood pressure, with muscle tension or in another organ system. Reactivity is the persistent ability of a person to regularly respond to stimuli and stresses with stronger or weaker activation.


Emotions such as anger, fear, joy can usually be easily distinguished in their facial expression patterns, but there are no corresponding physiological differences in the vegetative-endocrine area or in the EEG. The psychophysiological test results remained unsatisfactory despite a very large amount of research. Emotions cause significant changes compared to the resting state, but no characteristic patterns can be observed. Many biologically oriented researchers nevertheless maintain that neurobiological programs for basic emotions are laid out in the brain. Another important finding of laboratory tests is that the subjectively experienced intensity of tension and strain (stress) is hardly related to the objectively measured degree of physiological changes. This situation has theoretical and practical consequences, for example for diagnostics and therapy.


Many physical functions and functional irregularities cannot be perceived or can only be perceived to a very limited extent. Few people can feel their heartbeat spontaneously and count with any degree of reliability. Body perceptions are influenced by the particular situation, suspected causes and other conditions. In the case of chronic diseases in particular, the severity of the complaints and the objective medical findings often do not match. Physical complaints are therefore only to be interpreted in the context of the overall illness behavior.

Cognitive processes

When the brain reacts to sensory stimuli or when motor activity is prepared, the processes are also reflected in the EEG. The triggered effects, the evoked potentials and the readiness potentials enable localization and a very precise insight into how this information is processed. In addition, changes in consciousness, relaxation, monotony or different sleep stages lead to typical EEG changes. This cortical psychophysiology based on the electrical findings of the brain is an important direction in neuroscience in addition to imaging methods , which can also show activity in deeper, subcortical brain structures.

Personality traits

In addition to the morphological individuality of the body structure, there is also a relatively persistent biochemical and vegetative-endocrine individuality of the human being, which together with innate functional weaknesses and predispositions to illness determine the human constitution . The search for the biological basis of certain personality traits or temperament began in ancient medicine with the teaching of the four body fluids . Relationships with body structure, blood groups and certain hormones were later asserted, but so far not reliably proven. Nevertheless, this research is being continued out of the conviction that constitution and temperament must have a common basis in the brain or in the genetic makeup of the individual. The British psychologist Hans Jürgen Eysenck had a great influence on modern psychophysiology . He claimed that the personality trait emotionality has a biological basis in the vegetative-endocrine reactivity and the personality trait introversion and extraversion in the various central nervous excitability. If these relationships are not secured with the current state of research, this does not, of course, exclude the possibility that positive results can be found with other methods in the future. Neuroendocrinological and immunological studies with a view to Eysenck's personality theory show a complicated picture with both positive and negative findings.

Many psychophysiological investigations focused either on so-called type A behavior , which is characterized by motivation to achieve, assertion, and aggressive tendencies, or the pronounced tendency to get annoyed frequently without expressing this emotion clearly. The former was seen as an increased risk of coronary artery disease and myocardial infarction , the latter as a risk of developing high blood pressure . Extensive and method-critical investigations revealed no or only minor and therefore meaningless connections in practice.

application areas

In many areas, concepts and methods of psychophysiology have proven to be theoretically and practically fruitful. At the workplace, physical, mental and emotional stress can be recorded in order to improve work processes, break regulations and work organization. Chronic overwork is a contributory cause of some diseases, u. a. of high blood pressure, and can have a negative impact on many other diseases. In clinical psychology and psychiatry, the psychophysiological perspective helps to develop more precise explanatory models, for example for anxiety disorders , somatoform disorders , borderline personality disorders and other psychiatric diseases.

During behavior therapy, psychophysiological methods are used to thoroughly record treatment progress. The sleep laboratory, which uses psychophysiological methods to diagnose sleep disorders, is also widespread in practice. In the therapeutic area, psychophysiologically oriented relaxation methods have proven themselves , with the exercises, e.g. B. by feedback of reduced breathing or muscle tension, are supported unspecifically. In contrast, with biofeedback only the measured value of the disturbed body function is reported visually or acoustically in order to reduce the symptoms, e.g. B. lowering blood pressure to learn specifically. The biofeedback has been in practice - with certain exceptions - not been so successful as was originally thought.

Outpatient monitoring is of great practical importance for diagnosis and for regular monitoring of body functions and symptoms in everyday life in order to record critical changes in risk patients and to adjust the dosage of medication or to recognize treatment progress. The 24-hour monitoring of the ECG and blood pressure are indispensable routine methods, because they show in an immediately convincing way the reactivity in everyday life, which is important in diagnosis and treatment.


In the vast majority of psychophysiological examinations, only non-invasive, bloodless methods are used. These include: electroencephalogram EEG, electrocardiogram EKG (heart rate), blood pressure, breathing, temperature, perspiration and electrical conductivity of the skin, physical-motor activity and special movement patterns, speech activity. Saliva samples can be used to determine whether the levels of the hormone cortisol change. On the other hand, other hormonal and immunological determinations require a blood sample. With the outpatient assessment and monitoring , new, everyday research approaches were developed.

Web link

Wiktionary: Psychophysiology  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


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