Biofeedback – Part 1: Mirrored Response

It may sound weird. But, the fact is: the human body and a mechanical system for guiding missiles have something in common--a compelling, dexterous degree of self-regulatory capacity.

If the missile system is a feat of engineering/technological excellence with electronic controls, the human body relies on numerous feedback mechanisms which are almost automatic and involuntary--like those involved in breathing, heart beat, visual co-ordination, regulation of body temperature, etc.

Biofeedback, by way of definition, may be described as an open-minded technique by which individuals can monitor, and learn, to control the involuntary activity of certain organs and bodily functions. It is also a manifestation of the notion that individuals can repeat, or recall, behavior, or bodily states, that they find congenial and pleasurable. For instance, people with tension headaches could learn to induce the condition that reduces muscle tension and, consequently, their pain.

The origins of the system are difficult to outline, yes, owing to the curious relationship between the mind and the body. To draw a metaphor: Narcissus, a character from Greek mythology, was, perhaps, the first real "proponent" of biofeedback. His fatal attraction for his own image may have exemplified the concept of "reflection"--the core at the vital mechanics of biofeedback.

The most basic human biological function, researchers had assumed for a long time, was not accessible to manipulation without the help of drugs, or surgery. With the development of biofeedback techniques, a sensational new area of psychological interest opened up. Attitudes changed when it was found that subjects could actually control body functions--and, thus, their behavior--not originally considered "maneuverable" by conscious management, like the creation of new cells and growth, including our electrochemical brain wave "register" that monitors our biological activity, as it were.

Biofeedback got its first major bonus in the mid-1960s, when US researchers began to explore the possible effects of introducing monitoring instruments into the mind/body feedback system--to ascertain whether patients could learn to exert greater willful control over it. Further credibility for the system was established in 1969--the year Neil Armstrong made history on the Moon--when Neal Miller trained rats to control certain glandular responses in his physiological/psychological laboratory at Rockefeller University. Soon, other findings suggested that human beings--to manage their somatic and behavioral patterns--could use these very same techniques, and with good effect.

Studies have demonstrated that human beings can manipulate their EEGs (electroencephalograph--an instrument used for recording small electrical impulses produced by the brain) by changing their excitation levels. A person, for example, in a relaxed state, while viewing alpha waves (a slow "ripple" that indicates normal relaxed brain activity) on an oscilloscope, can alter them into high frequency patterns by becoming more alert and attentive. Likewise, a subject, whose heart rate is displayed, can see it wane with the release of tensions. Example: behaviors can be manipulated to relax the heart muscles, and bring down blood pressure levels, in hypertensive individuals, over a period of time.

This is not all. In one American study, a biofeedback specialist, for example, successfully used the technique, in patients, who recently had had heart attacks, by teaching them to decrease anxiety and fear of the future--a major obstacle to physical and mental recovery. The expert trained his subjects to reduce levels of arousal and their planes of anxiety by recording autonomic (spontaneous) activity. However this may be, it must be emphasized that the results of such experiments are generally affected by the number of variables involved, and because training may not always be faultless and effective.

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