Taking Charge: Biofeedback and Brain Power

Control Yourself

Stop a moment. Now, change your brain-wave activity into an alpha rhythm. . . . The question immediately arises: How? How do I know when my brain waves are in alpha? And how is it possible to change my brain waves intentionally?

One of the central assumptions of Western physiology has been that there is a fundamental distinction between parts of the human body that we can consciously control—the so-called voluntary components—and those parts over which we have no conscious control—the “involuntary” components. These involuntary components traditionally included brain waves as well as such things as the expansion and contraction of our blood vessels, blood pressure, heart rate, the secretion of hormones, healing, and the activity of the immune system.

Then the lightning bolt hit. With the development sensitive instruments that could measure minute changes in the body, scientists found that if they monitored the activity of one of the so-called involuntary processes of a human subject and fed it back to the subject with some sort of visual or auditory signal, the subject could learn to bring that process under voluntary control. They called this process biofeedback.

Discovering the Bodymind

In a burst of studies that caused a sensation in the scientific world, biofeedback researchers proved that subjects could take voluntary control of virtually any physiological process—even the firing rhythm of individual nerve cells. One researcher, John Basmajian, hooked up subjects so they could monitor the firing rhythm of a specific neuron (called a single-motor unit). Each time the neuron fired, the subjects would be fed back a sound like a drumbeat. Amazingly, the subjects quickly learned how to control the rhythm with which the cells fired, creating intricate drum rolls, gallops, and beats, Elmer and Alyce Green wrote, “It may be possible to bring under some degree of voluntary control any physiological process that can continuously be monitored, amplified, and displayed.”

This was a momentous discovery—it meant that the long-held belief of a clear separation between voluntary and voluntary components of the human system was not accurate. It meant such processes as the secretion of hormones and the operation of the immune system could, theoretically, be intentionally controlled. It also meant that the whole foundation of mind-body dualism upon which all of Western thought had been based—that there is a clear and necessary separation between the mind and the body—had to be tossed out the window. Clearly there was some still mysterious link between mind and body.

This research marked the beginning of a great paradigm shift that was to lead to the development of such fields as psychoneuroimmunology and psychobiology and to the emergence of a new vision of the mind and body as a single, indivisible unit, a field of intelligence, a bodymind.

Practical Tools and Profound Relaxation

Aside from the theoretical implications, it quickly became clear that breakthroughs in biofeedback had enormous practical applications. Using temperature biofeedback, migraine sufferers learned to make their hands warmer, thus increasing peripheral blood flow and alleviating the migraine. People with heart malfunctions learned to control their heart rates. Biofeedback training was effective in helping people lower their blood pressure; control gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers, excess stomach acidity, and irritable bowel syndrome; and alleviate problems associated with muscle tension, such as teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint problems, tension headache, cerebral palsy, paralysis resulting from brain damage, and much more.

More generally, researchers found that many different types of biofeedback instruments, including those that measured muscle tension (called electromyographs, or EMGs), skin temperature, and the electrical conductivity of the skin (Gallvanic Skin Response meters), were powerful tools for teaching people to become deeply relaxed. In many cases subjects could learn to put themselves into states of profound relaxation quickly after only a few biofeedback training sessions. Using biofeedback relaxation training, researchers were able to produce a wide variety of positive psychological as well as physiological effects, including alleviation of phobias and anxiety and increases in IQ.

On The Joys of Observing Your Own Brain

Fingertip temperature monitors, EMGs, and other biofeedback instruments were proving to be powerful tools for human self-regulation. But still, one type of biofeedback instruments gripped the attention of both scientists and general public alike: the EEG. It’s all very interesting to see how you can make your hands warmer or colder, but it’s another universe entirely to be able to actually change your brain and to be able to observe the process as it happens. What a mysterious thing—changing what’s happening inside your head. And when you do it, how exciting, what fun, and what a sudden surge of power. I had gotten my first taste of it in the early 1970s when I had overhead someone talking about an experiment going on at New York University (NYU), and wangled my way into the experimental group by claiming to be an NYU student. I learned to generate alpha waves by making a machine go click-click-click. For long delightful periods I would sit there with the machine caressing me with timeless strings of beautiful clicks. It was delightful and mysterious, and a large part of the delight and the mystery was that I was listening to the activity of my own brain and becoming aware of every subtle little change that took place within it. I learned that if I thought of certain things the clicks would stop and if I thought of other things, or stopped thinking, the clicks would start.

To me it was amazing to learn that I could, in fact, change my brain and the things that were going on inside it. What a revelation! Until then, I had always assumed that whatever was going on in my mind—sadness, anger, confusion, joy—was simply “going on” and that it would keep going on until it stopped going on and something else began. But as I say by the alpha trainer learning to spin out lovely chains of clicks—and learning to make them stop, if I wanted to—I learned that you could change your mind. It struck me as being a process something like changing TV channels. If you don’t like the soap opera that’s on channel 2, change to the western on channel 4.

I was filled with a sense of power. Not the power to stop speeding locomotives or leap tall buildings at a single bound, but a much more modest and personal power—the power of being aware of my own mind and knowing that I had some control over it. I loved the sessions and would have kept going back to the lab for years, except suddenly the experiment was over. No more sessions. And so my experience of EEG biofeedback was over. Or, rather, put on hold for the next twelve years.

Meanwhile, the popular craze for alpha machines ran its course. In part, the reason personal alpha trainers didn’t catch on was that the machines themselves were still too crude. (This was before the invention of the microprocessor, which would make it possible to shrink such devices down from the size of a suitcase to the size of a pack of cigarettes.) Another reason was that alpha simply wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. People had exaggerated expectations. They’d heard that alpha was a mystic state, satori, bliss, and sudden illumination. So they tried it out, and found that it was . . . well . . . okay. As I say, it could give you a feeling of power, but it was a very modest sort of power, the usefulness of which was not immediately apparent—kind of like knowing how to wiggle your ears.

Meanwhile, ironically, as the public lost interest in EEG biofeedback, researchers began making some discoveries that were actually earthshaking and dazzling, discoveries having to do with theta and whole-brain synchrony: These states, unlike alpha, had magic and mystery and power.

Some researchers, such as Les Fehmi, began working almost exclusively with synchrony, and designed biofeedback machines that would give subjects a sound or light feedback whenever they were in synchrony. The researchers found that subjects who could learn to get into a state of synchrony experienced dramatic changes: increases in IQ and grades in school, improvements in performance by executives and athletes. And, repeatedly, the subjects who learned to produce brainwave synchrony reported extraordinary experiences of heightened states of consciousness—emotional breakthroughs, feelings of oneness with the cosmos, ecstasy. Fehmi, himself a practitioner of Zen meditation, came to believe that the state of synchrony was in many ways identical to the state of Zen satori.

Other researchers, such as Thomas Budzynski and the Greens, developed and explored EEG biofeedback devices that enabled subjects to learn to enter the mysterious theta state. But since all this research required EEG machines that cost thousands of dollars, and were not easy to use or understand, the work aroused little popular interest at the time.

But what was being discovered was extraordinary. All the researchers investigating EEG biofeedback training discovered that it clearly increased human brain power. These increases in IQ and in other types of intelligence and achievements seemed to result not only from the altered brain-wave states that were the result of EEG biofeedback training, but also from actual physiological brain growth in response to the challenge and stimulation of learning to use the mind tools—that is, from the enriched environment effect.

Among those who found increased IQ in response to biofeedback training were professors Harold Russell, Ph.D., and John Carter, Ph.D., of theUniversityofHouston. They concluded that:

Learning to self-regulate one’s ongoing EEG frequency and amplitude activity is a complex and time consuming task. It requires a highly focused concentration on and the awareness of the brain’s activity and the repetition of the patterns of mental activity that produce the desired frequency and amplitude. . . . When the task of control of EEG activity is adequately learned and sufficiently practiced, the functioning of the human brain improves measurably, e.g. . . . scores on standardized tests of achievements or intelligence increase by 12 to 20 points.

In other words, there seems to be something inherently brain expanding about learning to manipulate your brain waves. That’s one reason for the seemingly sudden burst of interest in EEG biofeedback that has erupted in the last two years, and the arrival on the scene of a variety of new consumer-oriented EEG devices.



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