Biphasic Response

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A biphasic response is a two phase reaction to a stimulus. For example, scientists and health care workers are noticing that some people are experiencing a biphasic reaction to COVID-19. After first contracting the virus, they  experience one set of symptoms, but later experience a second set of symptoms that linger.

Alcohol consumption has shown to produce a biphasic response. The effects of alcohol on the body has two distinct phases. After consuming alcohol, the body almost immediately responds with a positive affect. The alcohol works as a stimulus. At low blood alcohol levels, the alcohol is associated with pleasurable feelings. However, as the blood alcohol level rises, alcohol begins to have a depressive effect. Alcohol at higher concentrations is associated with negative emotions and feeling ill.

Biphasic responses are not just biological. We often experience psychological biphasic reactions where a reaction to a single event changes from an initial positive response to a later negative reaction. Since a significant source of learning is from biological feedback loop, drawing information from the feeling response of our bodies, biphasic responses confuse the data, creating fuzzy information of confusing positive and negative consequences associated with a single behavior.

Key Definition:

Biphasic response is a two phase response to a single stimulus. Biphasic responses typically are used to describe physical reactions in science, however, they are also common in psychology with emotional reactions to single events.

​ An Example of a Psychologic Biphasic Response

A common example of a psychological biphasic response is the presence of guilt following the immediate euphoria of an action. When a teenager engages in sexual activity, they often experience the biological exhilaration in the moment, but, if they have a religious background forbidding the behavior, the joy may quickly be replaced by guilt.

A single behavior that produces both joy and sorrow in distinct phases is a biphasic response.

Self-Complexity and Biphasic Responses

A biphasic psychological response is often correlated with different and conflicting goals. T’ Franklin Murphy wrote, “self complexity is the array of multiple aspects underlying our self concept. We are a beautiful mosaic of many pieces. These pieces include social roles, personality traits, histories, psychological habits, preferences, and relationships—to name only a few” (2021).

We are motivated by action from a variety of sources, both biological and psychological—often  some mixture of both. We are not singular, meaning multiple factors push for action simultaneously. In the example of the teenager and sex, the biological drive for sex and the simultaneous drive to follow culturally learned standards for conduct coexist. However, circumstances may strengthen or weaken the strength of the drive.

While sitting in the church pews, or in company of one’s parents, one set of urges may subside, and other desires arise. Environments are key components of behavior.

External Environments Impact on Reactions

In a biphasic response to a behavior, an internal or external environment change may contribute to a second phase of reaction to a behavior. Often with needs, the drive to fulfill subsides after satisfying the need. Some refer to this as a cathexis of energy. Psychic energy once dedicated to fulfilling the need is diverted to other needs once the original need is satisfied. This presents a change in inner environments.

Satisfying a drive leads to a shift in priorities. The once driving need loses strength, freeing our minds and bodies to fulfill other goals. Unfortunately in the second phase, we may realize that our behaviors were not in alignment with the secondary goals. We experience negative feedback, the second reactionary phase to the behavior. We interpret this as guilt.

Biphasic Guilt 

Pleasure and guilt cloud the feedback waters. neither pleasure or guilt is inherently wrong, they both provide feedback. When pleasure and guilt are the biphasic reaction to a single behavior, they are signaling an inner conflict of goals.

Leon Festinger referred to this as cognitive dissonance. Several years ago I explained this concept. basically, we have many priorities and attitudes—seen and unseen. Priorities and attitudes are not constant; they shift with context. Other events push important goals to the back when other events intrude. Recent events prime our mind, we examine the moment with relativistic thoughts and subsequently, we violate commitments, or temporarily adjust priorities. We are constantly at war within ourselves, facing conflicting desires, and incompatible goals (2015).

We are complex beings. Our sanity depends on rectifying some of these conflicts. We will drive ourselves into chaotic insanity, bouncing between poles of pleasure and guilt. Neither pleasure or guilt are sufficient guides. Complexity challenges our understanding of the drives creating the pleasure and guilt. Instead of constantly chasing pleasure and suffering from guilt, or sacrificing every pleasure to appease guilt, we may need to take a deeper look into our souls. Perhaps, adjusting beliefs creating guilt in some cases; and foregoing some pleasures that significantly conflict with some honorable goals. Finding this balance is not a one time self-exploration, but a life time challenge of complex beings, such as ourselves.

A Few Closing Words on Biphasic Response

Just as pleasure and pain may provide a feedback loop, so does a biphasic response. Biphasic responses signal conflicting goals. We can ignore this feedback, reliving the pain or pause, investigate, and grow.

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Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Self Complexity. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-30-2021. Accessed 10-30-2022.

​Murphy, T. Franklin (2015). Cognitive Dissonance. Psychology Fanatic. Published 10-2015. Accessed 10-30-2022.

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