Psychophysiology (a complete overview)

In this article, we will talk about the history of psychophysiology, some generalities about psychophysiology and what is analyzed from the psychophysiological response.

What is Psychophysiology?

Psychophysiology is the branch of psychology related to the physiological bases of psychological processes. It is a discipline of psychobiology and the object of study is the human being. The objective of psychophysiology is the study of behaviour and the processes that organize it. Specifically, it is the study of our somatic and physiological processes.

The objective of psychophysiology is to study the behaviour of the human being and the processes that organize it. For this, this discipline uses some techniques that capture physiological signals.

From its birth in the last third of the 19th century until today, its object of study has remained constant. However, technological advancement and the influence of different currents of thought have modulated the way of approaching the study of the brain concerning behaviour.

Today, the brain is investigated using techniques from many different disciplines. Thus, we can find a relationship between psychophysiology and psychology, neuropsychology, psychoneuroendocrinology, psychoneuroimmunology or the psychobiological area of ​​neuroscience.

Magazines and societies dedicated to Psychophysiology

Some magazines that are in charge of spreading the knowledge of this perspective are:

  • Psychophysiology, since 1964
  • International Journal of Psychophysiology, since 1983
  • Journal of Psychophysiology, since 1987
  • Cognitive Neuroscience, since 2010
  • Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, since 1997
  • Spanish Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

History of psychophysiology

The branch of psychophysiology was initiated and developed by Wilhelm Wundt in the late 19th century through the publication of the book “Principles of Physiological Psychology”. However, the interest in the most relevant concepts of psychophysiology was taken into account much earlier, despite not constituting a research discipline.

In this sense, the most relevant historical aspects of psychophysiology are:


During the years 428 and 347 before Christ, the well-known philosopher postulated three different regions in human functioning: reason and perception located in the head, noble passions such as courage or pride located in the heart and low passions such as greed and lust located in the liver and intestines.


Subsequently, Aristotle postulated that the brain did not cause any sensation and understood that the heart must be where the sensations occurred. Likewise, Aristotle hypothesized a three-dimensional structure of the anima: vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual.


Contemporary with Aristotle, Herophilus dedicated himself to dissecting the bodies of animals and people for the study of the nervous system, tracing nerves from the muscles and skin to the regions of the spinal cord.


In 157 BC, Galen made an important assessment by reporting that changes in gladiator behaviour were caused by head injuries. For the first time, the brain begins to be associated with mental functioning.


In 400 BC, Nemesisius has formulated a theory of location in the brain, elaborating the idea that cognition is in the ventricles.

Thomas Willis

During the 18th century, Thomas Willis provided valuable information about brain function. He was the first author to locate functions in the cerebral cortex. Specifically, the author located sensation in the striatum, perception in the corpus callosum and memory in the cortex.

Likewise, during the same period, La Peroynie placed intelligence in the corpus callosum since an injury to the hemisphere did not cause significant deficits.

Joseph Gall

At the beginning of the 19th century, Joseph Gall promoted the study about the location of the brain in the different cognitive functions. Likewise, at the same time, Flourens postulated a theory antagonistic to Gall’s, defending that mental processes depended on the global functioning of the brain.

Some generalities about psychophysiology

As we have already mentioned, the objective of psychophysiology is to study the behaviour of the human being and the processes that organize it. For this, this discipline uses some techniques with which physiological signals are captured. All these signals that are captured are translated into electrical signals to be analyzed.

Thus, to obtain the psychophysiological signal it is necessary, first, to capture that signal. This can be captured directly electrically or bioelectrically or indirectly bioelectrical. Some of the instruments that can be useful to pick up signals are the thermistor or the photoplethysmograph. Once the physiological signal has been captured and transmitted by the sensors, it can: be transformed, amplified, filtered and/or calibrated.

Finally, to obtain the signal it is necessary to make a registration. Thus, it can be carried out on graph paper moved at a constant speed, which is recorded with oscillograms and ink pens. It can also be done on computers when the amplification phase ends. This last process is more dynamic and facilitates signal manipulation.

To explain the psychophysiological signal, analysis is necessary on the one hand and interpretation of the signal on the other. Thus, the following parameters are analyzed in the psychophysiological signal:

  • Amplitude.
  • Frequency (Hz)
  • Waveform.
  • Response latency (ms.).
  • Cycle.
  • Interval.

Basic types of registration

The signal recording can be done in monopolar or bipolar mode.

Monopolar (endosomatic): one electrode is placed on an active part of the skin and another on an inactive part. For example, a monopolar record is given on the electroencephalogram.

Bipolar (exosomatic): it is registered to utilize two electrodes located in two electrically active points. For example, the EKG works this way.

Types of psychophysiological response

The psychophysiological response obtained can be in three ways.

Tonic. It refers to the basal or rest level in the activity of a psychophysiological measure, that is, without applying a stimulation.

Phasic. It is the response or degree of reactivity to a specific stimulus. They are a temporary change in the tonic level.

Spontaneous or non-specific. These are spontaneous psychophysiological responses. They appear in the absence of a known stimulus and indicate a degree of liability and general activation.

What is analyzed from the psychophysiological response?

The following are analyzed from the psychophysiological response:

Activation or arousal: This activation is the release of energy that occurs in the analyzed subject. This measure relates the psychophysiological changes with the behavioural ones.

Habituation: Cessation or decrease in amplitude of responses as a consequence of repeated activation.

In addition to the above, in psychophysiology, it is important to consider the context of registration. Thus, the signal can be recorded in the field or the laboratory. If the registration is made in the laboratory, certain variables such as temperature, humidity, light, etc. they will have to be controlled.

In this way, the experimental task will be carried out in several phases. First, before the task, it is important to know the characteristics and physiological responses of the subject that we will analyze. Then there will be an adaptation phase, followed by a ‘basal’ record, a pacing record, and a post-pacing record.

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FAQ about Psychophysiology

What does a Psychophysiologist do?

A psychophysiologist studies and observes the relationship between physiological signals recorded from the body and brain to mental processes and disorders. 

What is a psychophysiological disorder?

A psychophysiological disorder is a  physical disorder with a psychological cause. For example, stress is a psychophysiological disorder. 

What is a psychophysiological measure?

A psychophysiological measure is an assessment of the interaction between psychological and physical states using a variety of instruments in both laboratory and naturalistic settings. 

What can you do with a Psychophysiology degree?

With a Psychophysiology degree you can become a Cognitive Performance Coach, an  Human Engagement and Adaptive Thinking  Coach or a  Project Assistant with the Department of Psychophysiology. 

Is asthma a psychophysiological disorder?

Yes, asthma is a psychophysiological disorder. Other psychophysiological disorders are tension headaches and diabetes (not genetic). 


In conclusion, we must mention the nature of psychophysiology as a branch in which different disciplines converge. The most immediate consequence of this fact is that a good part of their knowledge is generated based on that produced by other sciences. On the other hand, the knowledge it generates can also be used by other sciences. We are undoubtedly talking about a fascinating discipline.

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know!

Further reading

Handbook of Psychophysiology (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology), by John T. Cacioppo

Psychophysiology: Human Behavior and Physiological Response (Psychophysiology: Human Behavior & Physiological Response, by John L. Andreassi 

Psychophysiology: Today and Tomorrow 1st Edition, by N. P. Bechtereva 

Psychophysiology: Human Behavior & Physiological Response,  by John L. Andreassi  (

The Psychology and Physiology of Breathing: In Behavioral Medicine, Clinical Psychology, And Psychiatry (The Springer Series In Behavioral Psychophysiology And Medicine), by Robert Fried

Handbook of Sport Neuroscience and Psychophysiology, by Roland Carlstedt


Bear, M.F., Connors, B. I Paradiso, M. (2008) Neuroscience: an exploration of the brain (3rd edition) Barcelona: Wolters Kluwer.

Carlson, N.R. (2014) Behavioral Physiology (11th edition) Madrid: Pearson Education.

Cacioppo, John; Tassinary, Louis; Berntson, Gary (2007). “25”. Handbook of Psychophysiology (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 581–607.

Glynn, Laura; Christenfeld, Nicholas; Gerin, William (2002). «The Role of Rumination in Recovery From Reactivity; Cardiovascular Consequences of Emotional States». Psychosomatic Medicine. 64 (5): 714–726.

Purves, D., Augustine, G.J., Fitzpatrick, D., Hall, W.C., Lamantia, A-S. Mcnamara, J.O. I Williams, S.M. (2006) Neuroscience (3rd edition) Madrid: Editorial Médica Panamericana.

Rosenzweig, M.R, Breedlove, S.M. I Watson, N.V. i. (2005) Psychobiology. An introduction to behavioural, cognitive and clinical neuroscience (2nd edition updated). Barcelona: Ariel.

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