Exercise scientist William P. Morgan often contrasted how exercise physiologists and exercise psychologists study the exercising human. The physiologists were seen as unconcerned with what happened above the neck, choosing instead to focus only on physiological processes that changed during and after exercise and making the erroneous assumption that affect, cognitions, and perceptions were unimportant in understanding these processes. Likewise, their psychologist counterparts were seen as unconcerned with what happened below the neck, choosing only to focus on the psychological and/or social psychological processes that took place during and after exercise and ignoring the contributions that physiological processes might yield. The reality is, of course, that the body has a head and the head has a body—physiological changes can influence psychological processes and vice versa. Within exercise and sport psychology (SP), the biological plausibility of various social psychological or cognitive theories that dominate the field can be examined. Questions such as the following can be asked: How do all of these social psychological constructs relate to biological function? Where does the “energizing” capacity of goals come from? How might level of self-efficacy be manifested in the body? To grow meaningfully as a field of study, theoretical development needs to be framed within the context of neurophysiological mechanisms. Social neuroscience provides such a framework.
Social neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field of study that seeks to better understand how various physiological systems of the human body (e.g., immune, autonomic, central nervous system [CNS]) are involved in, and influenced by, social (e.g., social relationships, social support networks) and social psychological (e.g., attitudes, motivation, confidence, intentions, self-regulation) factors. At its essence, social neuroscience seeks to move beyond “simple” biological explanations for behavior by integrating influences across the physiological, psychological, and social levels of interactions between the person with his or her environment. It is worth noting that although the term neuroscience is currently the term of choice, and seems to impart immediate implicit respect, it is simply an evolution of already existing fields of study (e.g., psychophysiology, psychobiology) with a more explicit focus on the CNS. Understanding these multilevel interactions (e.g., physiological, psychological, social) can aid in better organizing theories of how the mind and body work. In essence, social neuroscience is a multilevel analysis approach to studying the problems and questions in exercise and SP. Such multilevel approaches are not easy to apply, but the informational yield is far greater than can ever be achieved by continually examining phenomena from a single level of analysis.
A social neuroscientific approach is certainly not impossible. Bradley Hatfield has been engaged in a programmatic line of research aimed at understanding the nature of superior cognitive motor performance and how that relationship is influenced by stress. Emerging from his early work, Hatfield described a model of efficiency that operates on multiple levels (i.e., neural, psychological, physiological, biomechanical). He argued that an environmental challenge can change brain activity, in turn, influencing the emergent psychological state (e.g., self-efficacy, focus, mood). The resulting psychological state then influences the motor control processes, autonomic and endocrine system functions and ultimately results in qualitative change in physiological state and the movement outcome. Hatfield’s empirical work demonstrated how SP, motor control, cardiovascular psychophysiology, and exercise physiology point toward “efficiency” as a main feature of superior performance. Hatfield’s research is a beautiful illustration of what John Cacioppo and his colleagues referred to as multiple levels of analysis (i.e., a social neuroscience approach). Such a model not only informs the findings of the research that they have carried out but also serves to guide subsequent investigations.
As another example, Art Kramer and Edward McAuley have been involved in a systematic line of research examining the influence of physical activity (PA), or exercise on cognitive functioning in older adults. The beauty of this work is in the approach. Instead of examining tasks that simply reflect cognitive functioning (which is a broad ranging construct), as so many others have done, their approach was to determine (a) what regions of the human brain are compromised with aging; (b) what cognitive tasks are thought to be “controlled” by such brain regions; and (c) whether exercise protocols that increase blood flow and neuronal density (determined from previous animal studies) can influence performance on such cognitive tasks. Given such an approach, it is not surprising that this group found more positive effects than are typically reported in this very diverse literature. As this line of research using what can be classified as a social neuroscience approach has continued, the investigations have yielded not only behavioral findings showing positive effects of exercise in previously sedentary older adults but corresponding changes in brain structure and function (via magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] and functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI]).
Many other examples could be cited to illustrate how “reintegrating” mind and body meaningfully in models and theories provides a much greater understanding of behavior. There is far more to gain by examining human behavior as a mind–body phenomenon from multiple levels (i.e., social neuroscience, psychophysiological, social– environmental) than can be gained by separating mind and body and/or staying within single levels of analysis. This knowledge yield is no less important in exercise and SP.
- Aue, T., Lavelle, L. A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2009). Great expectations: What can fMRI tell us about psychological phenomena? International Journal of Psychophysiology, 73, 10–16.
- Cacioppo, J. T., Tassinary, L. G., & Berntson, G. G. (2007). Psychophysiological science: Interdisciplinary approaches to classic questions about the mind. In J. T. Cacioppo, L. G. Tassinary, & G. G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of psychophysiology (3rd ed., pp. 1–18). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Hatfield, B. D. (2008). E pluribus unum—From DNA to social systems: Understanding physical activity through an integrated perspective. Quest, 60,154–177.
- Hatfield, B. D., & Hillman, C. H. (2001). The psychophysiology of sport: A mechanistic understanding of the psychology of superior performance. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas, & C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (pp. 362–386). New York: Wiley.
- Kramer, A. F., Hahn, S., Cohen, N. J., Banich, M. T., McAuley, E., Harrison, C. R., et al. (1999). Ageing, fitness and neurocognitive function. Nature, 400,418–419.