Collective Behaviour - Summer Seminar Series

Physiological synchrony across systems and species

Jens Prüssner, University of Konstanz

Jens Prüssner is the Head of the Clinical Neuropsychology Group at the University of Konstanz. His research focuses on studies that address behaviour and experiences that primarily affect the central nervous system. One of his main focuses is on the effects of systematic stress experienced during early childhood on people's vulnerability to psychological disorders due to changes to the CNS. He also addresses structural or functional changes in the CNS due to acute or chronic stress. One of the basic assumptions in his research is that the changes in the CNS precede a change in the regulation of stress / energy systems, which then leads to an increased vulnerability in regard to psychological disorders.

Project done by Stephanie Dimitroff, Bernadette Denk, Larissa Bär, Victoria Zirpel, Wolfgang Gaissmaier and Jens Pruessner.


Adjustment to, and synchronization with aspects of the environment happens routinely in most biological organisms, allowing for example the establishment of circadian rhythms in alignment with the dark-light cycle. Within organisms, synchronization also occurs across systems, allowing the concerted response to changes in metabolic or environmental demands. Research on this topic has picked up considerably over the past two decades, facilitated by the introduction of new measures and methods to allow a refined definition and establishment of synchronization. Prominent models include the polyvagal theory by Porges and the neurovisceral integration model of Thayer and colleagues, linking synchrony to health and well-being. Patterns of synchronization can also be observed across individuals, for example in mothers and their children, in spouses, or in groups of subjects facing a common threat. The role that synchrony plays here is much less clear, however. Explanations range from physiological synchronization being a spurious association to it being a prerequisite for empathic understanding. Recent work in this area includes studying synchrony in groups of individuals completing common tasks. Here, our group has contributed evidence to this line of work, demonstrating (a) synchrony in the cortisol stress response in subjects facing a common challenging task,  and (b) synchrony in heart rate variability in subjects participating in a speed-dating event. Finally, a separate line of study includes investigation of synchrony across species. Here, we could show that synchronisation occurs between horse and human during hippotherapy, however that the magnitude is associated with the degree of early-life adversity, providing one possible explanation for the greater risk for psychopathology in subjects with early-life adversity.

Datum: 2020-06-29