Applied Psychophysiology

What is physiology?

Physiology is a branch of biology, which focusses on how living organisms function. The functions arise from integrated contributions from anatomical structures organized into 11 body systems. These are:

  • Skeletal system
  • Muscular system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Respiratory System
  • Integumentary System
  • Endocrine System
  • Lymphatic & Immune System
  • Digestive System
  • Urinary System
  • Reproductive System
  • Nervous System


Functions or capacities, such as seeing, hearing, and walking, are physiological processes which depend on anatomical structures, namely eyes, ears, and legs respectively. At the molecular level, physiological processes are mechanical, chemical, and electrical events. No functions exist independent of anatomical structures. Walking, for example, is not independent of the legs. Rather, walking is what the legs do.

[Mureriwa, J.F.L. (2011), Psychology is entirely physical: Taking the mind out of behavioural neuroscience, Biofeedback Laboratories].

What is psychophysiology?

As the name implies, psychophysiology is a subset, or a branch, of physiology. It is a study of how anatomical structures and body systems, especially the nervous system, act to produce what we call “psychological processes” or “mental events”, and behaviour. Although these processes are discussed separately, they are part of a whole, and depend on multiple overlapping brain processes. Examples of psychological processes and the associated psychophysiology follow below.


Psychological Process


Contributory Anatomy and physiology (Psychophysiology)


Awareness of self and the environment. Arousability and ability to respond to specified phenomena.

Reticular activating system in the brainstem. Thalamus. Brain cortical structures.


Process by which we experience the outside world and internal body states.

Special senses, namely vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, and other senses such as sense of balance: These depend on sensory organs such as eyes and ears, which transmit information to the central nervous system.


A conscious organism’s readiness to respond to specified stimuli (Posner, 1975). It is a component of attention

Multiple brain structures, including right parietal and frontal lobes.


An alert state characterized by ability to select and sustain focus on stimuli.

All the lobes of the brain (frontal, parietal, occipital, temporal, and limbic). Pattern of activation depends on source of stimulation, e.g. visual vs. auditory.


The brain’s interpretation of sensations. For example, the identification of a barking, four legged animal as a “dog”.

Multiple brain areas, but especially the frontal, parietal, occipital, temporal lobes.


A permanent, or relatively permanent change in behaviour as a result of experience [This is a definition generally accepted by behaviourists]

Multiple brain areas. Depends on sense modality involved, e.g. whether visual or auditory. There is a special role played by limbic structures such as the hippocampus. Learning involves protein synthesis and changes at the synapses.


The ability to register, store, and recall information.

Multiple brain areas, like “learning”


The driving forces of behaviour, including biological needs like hunger; stimulus motives, like curiosity; self-actualization; or unconscious needs.

Multiple brain areas, including brain systems involved in perception, memory, emotions, and basic survival needs.


Emotions are subjective feeling states. Various psychologists have drawn up lists of “basic emotions”. One of the most influential theorists is Plutchik (1980) whose list lists the following: Acceptance, anger, anticipation, disgust, joy, fear, sadness, and surprise. From these 5 basic emotions, are drawn several secondary emotions, which arise from a combination of emotions. For example, envy is proposed to be a product of sadness and anger.

According to Plutchik, emotions serve a psych evolutionary purpose. Fear for example, is a behaviour designed to avoid danger; whilst anger is designed to eliminate a barrier to satisfaction of an important need.

This theory thus suggests that emotions are biological and hard-wired in our physiology. Multiple brain areas are involved, for example systems involved in memory and arousal

Cognition and Speech

These are essential elements of all the other processes discussed.

Multiple brain areas. Speech is especially tied to frontal structures (including Broca’s Area), and Temporal lobe structures (Wernicke’s area), and the connections between them, with inputs of nearby brain lobes, namely occipital and parietal lobes.

Brain Executive Functions

The capacity to do the following: Formulating goals, creating a strategy to achieve goals, strategy implantation, sustaining action to achieve goals, and self-checking to ensure that the goal has been achieved.

The pre-frontal lobes play a pre-eminent role. They do so by exercising a supervisory role over other brain areas, in line with whatever has to be achieved.