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Study Notes

Biopsychology: Biological Rhythms - Infradian Rhythms

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 10 Apr 2017

Another important biological rhythm is the infradian rhythm. Infradian rhythms last longer than 24 hours and can be weekly, monthly or annually.

A monthly infradian rhythm is the female menstrual cycle, which is regulated by hormones that either promote ovulation or stimulate the uterus for fertilisation. Ovulation occurs roughly halfway through the cycle when oestrogen levels are at their highest, and usually lasts for 16-32 hours. After the ovulatory phase, progesterone levels increase in preparation for the possible implantation of an embryo in the uterus. It is also important to note that although the usual menstrual cycle is around 28 days, there is considerable variation, with some women experiencing a short cycle of 23 days and others experiencing longer cycles of up to 36 days.

Extension: A second example of an infradian rhythm is related to the seasons. Research has found seasonal variation in mood, where some people become depressed in the winter, which is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is an infradian rhythm that is governed by a yearly cycle. Psychologists claim that melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland during the night, is partly responsible. The lack of light during the winter months results in a longer period of melatonin secretion, which has been linked to the depressive symptoms.

Evaluating Infradian Rhythms

Research suggests that the menstrual cycle is, to some extent, governed by exogenous zeitgebers (external factors). Reinberg (1967) examined a woman who spent three months in a cave with only a small lamp to provide light. Reinberg noted that her menstrual cycle shortened from the usual 28 days to 25.7 days. This result suggests that the lack of light (an exogenous zeitgeber) in the cave affected her menstrual cycle, and therefore this demonstrates the effect of external factors on infradian rhythms.

There is further evidence to suggest that exogenous zeitgebers can affect infradian rhythms. Russell et al. (1980) found that female menstrual cycles became synchronised with other females through odour exposure. In one study, sweat samples from one group of women were rubbed onto the upper lip of another group. Despite the fact that the two groups were separate, their menstrual cycles synchronised. This suggests that the synchronisation of menstrual cycles can be affected by pheromones, which have an effect on people nearby rather than on the person producing them. These findings indicate that external factors must be taken into consideration when investigating infradian rhythms and that perhaps a more holistic approach should be taken, as opposed to a reductionist approach that considers only endogenous influences.

Evolutionary psychologists claim that the synchronised menstrual cycle provides an evolutionary advantage for groups of women, as the synchronisation of pregnancies means that childcare can be shared among multiple mothers who have children at the same time.

There is research to suggest that infradian rhythms such as the menstrual cycle are also important regulators of behaviour. Penton-Volk et al. (1999) found that woman expressed a preference for feminised faces at the least fertile stage of their menstrual cycle, and for a more masculine face at their most fertile point. These findings indicate that women’s sexual behaviour is motivated by their infradian rhythms, highlighting the importance of studying infradian rhythms in relation to human behaviour.

Finally, evidence supports the role of melatonin in SAD. Terman (1988) found that the rate of SAD is more common in Northern countries where the winter nights are longer. For example, Terman found that SAD affects roughly 10% of people living in New Hampshire (a northern part of the US) and only 2% of residents in southern Florida. These results suggest that SAD is in part affected by light (exogenous zeitgeber) that results in increased levels of melatonin.

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