Psychophysiology in African-American Samples: Howard University Studies

By Camara Jules P. Harrell, PhD

"There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both." — August Wilson

Grandfather with GrandchildrenThe growth and maturation of psychophysiological research and the interdisciplinary nature of Black Psychology have influenced the trajectory of our research at Howard University. When we established the psychophysiology laboratory in 1980, Psychophysiology, the major journal of the sub-discipline, was only 16 years old. However, interest in psychophysiological research increased significantly over the next thirty years. Viedman-del-Jesus, Perakakis, Munoz, Lopez-Herrera, and Vila (2011) conducted a bibliometric analysis of the first 45 years of Psychophysiology. They found that the field has focused on increasingly complex aspects of human behavior, due in part to refined noninvasive measures of physiological activity. Black Psychology, the second field that has impacted our work, displayed an interdisciplinary penchant from its inception. In fact, three years before the first issue of the Journal of Black Psychology was published, the initial volume of the cross-disciplinary publication, The Black Scholar (March, 1971), dedicated the entire fifth issue to Black Psychology. Later, psychologists of every stripe, as well as contributors listing their disciplines as Africana Studies, History, Psychiatry and English authored chapters in the third edition of Reginald Jones’s (1991) edited volume Black Psychology. Thus, we find our current research to be an amalgam of currents and trends within these two disparate areas of research.

Inclusion of Measures of Physiological Activity

An abiding assumption fueling our studies maintains that laboratory studies of the fabric of African-Americans lives profit from the inclusion of measures of physiological activity. Over the years, graduate and undergraduate students have incorporated measures of electrodermal, electromyographic, and cardiovascular activity in their studies of a wide range of behavioral processes. The topics covered in these studies fit the characterization of African-American life found in August Wilson’s layered play “Two Trains Running.” One track carries studies of behavioral processes that are part of daily commerce that enhances and humanizes our existence. The studies riding the second track focus on processes that truncate or disrupt human expression.   

Nurse and patientOur studies initially ran along the first track. They focused on cardiac activity that occurred with and possibly facilitated performing simple psychomotor and attention tasks (Harrell and Clark, 1985). More recently, our students have shifted the focus to the relationship between cardiac activity, specifically heart rate variability (HRV), and executive cognitive functioning. For example, higher levels of HRV were associated with better performance on the Trail Making Task and the Symbol Digits Modalities Test (Keen, Harrell, Campbell, and Callender, under review). Furthermore, colleagues in other disciplines remind us constantly that the arts have played essential roles in the enhancement of the lives of people of African descent in America.  Currently graduate students are designing studies of the cardiac concomitants of various creative strategies employed by African-American students and of the effects of tempo and rhythm on cardiac activity.

Early Stages of Research

Indeed most of the studies of African-American life that we have executed have been related to stress and coping processes, and thus travel along the second track. We recognized that racism constituted an important source of stress in African American life, and Lang’s (1979) bio-informational theory encouraged us to use mental imagery to import racist events into the psychophysiological laboratory. Later with the help of Howard University filmmakers, we developed a series of vignettes for use in psychophysiological studies that depicted various forms of racism. These studies are part of a growing body of laboratory studies that have demonstrated that imagined and filmed laboratory analogues of racism elicit increased cardiovascular and electromyographic activity (see Harrell, Hall, and Talieferro, 2003). Sociologists and social epidemiologists have pioneered the study of the impact of structural forms of racism on health outcomes. Tanisha Burford (2009) as part of her doctoral dissertation developed a laboratory analog of structural racism. She reported that HRV and systolic blood pressure are particularly sensitive to the impact of structural racism.

Family outingIndeed, the work on the physiological impact of racist stressors is still in the early stages. Psychological and biological factors that contribute to individual differences in responses are still being identified. We suspect that available measures of facets of racial identity and subjective responses to racism are saturated with demand characteristics. Doctoral students are conducting studies of indirect and more implicit measures of affective and cognitive responses to racism. In addition, we have expanded the physiological variables measured in these studies to include neural endocrine. Racism may impact physiological outcomes and health through a variety of psychophysiological pathways (Harrell, Burford, Cage, Nelson, Shearon, Thompson and Green, 2011). We anticipate that studies conducted in psychophysiological laboratories will continue to produce important breakthroughs in our understanding of the impact of racism and stress on the health of African-Americans.


Burford, T. I. (2009). "Structural racism, cardiovascular activity, and affect: The role of rumination and personality." Unpublished Dissertation.

Harrell, J. P. & Clark, V. R. (1985). Cardiac responses to psychological tasks: Impedance cardiographic studies. Biological Psychology, 20, 261-283.

Harrell, J. P., Hall, S., Taliaferro, J. (2003) Physiological responses to racism and discrimination: An assessment of the evidence. American Journal of Public Health 93, 243-248.