Psychophysiology is the branch of physiology that is concerned with the relationship between mental (psyche) and physical (physiological) processes; it is the scientific study of the interaction between mind and body. The field of psychophysiology draws upon the work of physicians, psychologists, biochemists, neurologists, engineers, and other scientists.
A psychophysiological disorder is characterized by physical symptoms that are partly induced by emotional factors. Some of the more common emotional states responsible in forming illness include anxiety, stress , and fear. Common psychosomatic ailments include migraine headaches, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and heart disease .
Historically, there has been a large chasm between the allopathic (mainstream) and alternative medical worlds with regard to views on psychophysiology. While the allopathic medical field continues to follow the Cartesian model of health, in which mind and body are seen as separate, the alternative medical field stands firmly on the notion that the mind and body are intricately connected. In general, treatment in the mainstream medical system is oriented toward fixing or curing isolated symptoms in the body. Alternative health providers strive to look at the symptoms, as well as the underlying pathology, or cause. While the first focuses on isolated parts of a whole system, the latter group strives to address the whole being, mind and body, emotions, and physical symptoms. They believe that mental processes intricately affect bodily ones, and vice versa.
With a more holistic mentality, the population is experiencing an ever-progressing paradigm shift in which the body and mind are no longer viewed as separate, but rather as intricately interrelated. Medically, as well as culturally, Western society has reached the point at which the focus is increasingly on integrative mind/body healthcare. More patients and physicians are choosing to utilize therapies built upon the holistic models in which psyche (mind) and soma (physical body) are seen as one, or intimately related. They are utilizing such modalities as meditation, yoga , bodywork, and visualization techniques in efforts to relieve overall stress and to heal various psychosomatic illnesses.
The field of psychophysiology is leading the way to an ongoing investigation into the intricacies of the mind/body relationship. Applied psychophysiology focuses on the effects of emotional states on the central nervous system, by observing and recording data on such physiological processes as sleep rhythms, heart rate, gastrointestinal functioning, immune response, and brain function. Techniques used to measure such factors include electroencephalograms (EEGs), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans. In an effort to quantify the effectiveness of different treatment techniques, the science of psychophysiology is being applied to many areas of alternative medicine, from psychotherapy and hypnosis to bodywork and meditation. Studies of the effects of emotional states on various physiological processes abound. For instance, it has been shown that there is a relation between loneliness and heart disease, as well as a connection between post traumatic stress disorder, irritable bowel syndrome , and fibromyalgia . By documenting the effects of emotions on health, this field hopes to improve the healing capacities of treatments. Many of the studies done by psychophysiologists occur in research institutions and universities.
There are several interpretations of what a healthy psychophysiology may look like. However, there are common characteristics that speak of mind/body health. Ultimately, such a holistic state exists when internal and mental awareness becomes strong enough to create a sense of embodiment, balance, and presence in an individual's body. Disease may be present in such a state, yet with this underlying, holistic understanding there exists more fighting power by which to heal. Science is proving this fact. Therapies that integrate mind/body processes have been shown to aid the healing processes for numerous diseases.
When stresses, traumas, or debilitating emotional states are present, individuals may experience physiological unrest. For example, if an individual with a known allergy to bee stings receives such a sting, the natural reaction could be panic. As a result of this psychological response, blood pressure and heart rate increase, digestive functions decrease, and the person becomes dizzy. If emotional stresses or traumas of this kind remain in the body/mind for extended periods of time, an imbalance in the healthy system may eventually manifest, as when individuals under chronic stress succumb to illness or disease. The field of psychophysiology is showing that the most effective treatments are those that address the emotional states of disease as well as the physical aspects.
Treatments for psychosomatic illnesses are being synthesized from both the allopathic and alternative medical worlds. Methods vary from drug therapy and biofeedback to the use of meditation, yoga, and massage therapy . Many treatments have been shown to be effective; individuals have the freedom and responsiblity to discover for themselves the treatments that have the most personal benefit. What is effective for one person may not work for another. Consumers of mind/body treatments are encouraged to evaluate options, practitioners, and their individual needs. The field of psychophysiology conducts research to improve the information available to consumers.
In general, treatments are selected if they complement and strengthen an individual's awareness of the body/mind relationship. Such practices are most effective in achieving overall states of health when addressing the mind to affect the body, and vice versa. For example, two disciplines that have proven effective in establishing this awareness are meditation, a mind-centered activity, and Rolfing , a form of therapeutic bodywork. Treatments that simultaneously work with both the physiology and the psychology are highly beneficial. This thorough approach may be achieved by pairing modalities that complement one another. Examples include combining psychotherapy with bodywork, and certain drug therapies with meditation, visualization, and yoga.
Meditation is an age-old process that has great potential in quieting the mind, calming the emotions, and balancing the physiology. For centuries, Eastern peoples and their traditions have focused on the art of meditation. Meditative techniques vary from bringing one's attention to the breath, to chanting a mantra (a specifically pre-established word or phrase), or to focusing one's gaze on a specific, unchanging image (a visualization technique). Focusing awareness inward to bodily sensations may interrupt unhealthy thought patterns, thereby reducing or preventing the effects of stress on the physiology. Studies as well as experiential phenomena have shown that meditation decreases blood pressure, muscle pain , and cholesterol , while improving digestion, relieving anxiety and depression , improving immunity, and boosting energy levels. Ultimately, meditation may lead to knowing one's self, both psychologically and physiologically. It is out of this state of embodied presence and attention that healing occurs.
Certain forms of bodywork have been successful in affecting the mind by working through the body. Emotions, thoughts, and feelings may reside in the body, just as much as they do in the mind. For example, a depressed person's body may reflect the emotional state by hunched shoulders, sad facial expressions, and slow movements. Psychology has shown that by adopting positive physical expressions such as a smile or improved posture, a person will experience corresponding and measurable effects in the mind. These relationships, through the science of psychophysiology, are being experimentally validated.
By manipulating the structure of the body during bodywork, a healer may directly or indirectly affect both physiological and psychological health. Benefits from this type of therapy come from both the new changes in the physiology, as well as the changes in the consciousness and awareness of physically existing patterns. By becoming aware of such body/mind relations, healer and client break up old patterns in the physical tissue, the mind, and the emotions. An overall body/mind freedom is enhanced, bringing with it a greater chance for a holistic state of health.
Research & general acceptance
Interest in the mind/body relationship is as ancient as it is vast, and the field of psychophysiology is researching and validating this connection. The allopathic medical world has achieved great breakthroughs in human health, particularly with regard to the treatment of traumatic and life-threatening injuries and diseases. Medically, socially, and environmentally, a more holistic and preventive approach to healthcare is being sought, one that integrates and balances the mind/body relationship. Much work is being done to develop new knowledge; the field of psychophysiology is a major contributor to the exploration.
Training & certification
A variety of health professionals, such as physicians and psychologists, incorpcorporate the principles of psychophysiology into their work. One of the objectives of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB) is to promote professional standards of practice, ethics, and education for its members. Certifications exist for professionals such as massage therapists and others who perform specialized techniques that incorporate psychophysiology principles.
Andreassi, John L. Psychophysiology: Human Behavior and Physiological Response. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.
Borysenko, Joan, Ph.D. The Power of the Mind to Heal. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 1995.
Cacioppo, John T., ed. Handbook of Psychophysiology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Chopra, Deepak, M.D. Magical Health, Magical Body: Mastering the Mind/Body Connection for Perfect Health and Total Well-Being. Chicago, IL: Nightengale-Conant, 2003.
Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB). 10200 W. 44th Avenue, Suite 304. Wheat Ridge, CO 80033. (303) 422-8436. <http://www.aapb.org>.
The area of experimental psychology concerned specifically with how biology shapes behavior and mental processes.
The area of experimental known as physiological psychology has evolved in the 1990s. Increasingly, the field is being referred to as behavioral neuroscience, replacing physiological psychology and biological psychology. Nonetheless, the goals of psychologists in this field remain the same: to utilize basic research to explain behavior in physiological terms, working on the assumption that for every behavioral event there is a corresponding physical event or series of events.
The physiological psychologist (or behavioral neuroscientist) is also concerned with the functioning of the adrenal glands and with the physical processes involved in sensation. Although physiological psychology is concerned with physical organisms, it is distinguished from such life sciences as physiology and biology by its focus on behavior. Researchers may investigate questions such as how the brain controls physical movements or regulates eating; the role of sex hormones in violent behavior; the effects of drugs on memory and personality ; the physiological basis for sleep and dreaming; and the areas of the brain devoted to language functions. Physiological psychology overlaps with the field of neurobiology, which is the study of the nervous system and its functions. A related field is psychopharmacology, the study of drugs and behavior.
Another subfield of physiological psychology, psychophysiology, deals with the measurement of physiological responses as they relate to behavior. Practical applications include lie detector tests; clinical tests of vision and hearing ; tests of brain activity in individuals with mental retardation and neurological and behavioral disorders; and biofeedback training.
Asimov, Isaac. The Human Brain: Its Capacities and Functions. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Guiley, Rosemary. The Encyclopedia of Dreams: Symbols and Interpretations. New York: Crossroad, 1993.
Mind and Brain: Readings from Scientific American Magazine. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1993.