Getting in Touch with Your Inner Brainwaves through Biofeedback
There are many aspects of human physical and psychological functioning to which most people are completely oblivious. For example, most of us cannot directly sense our blood sugar levels, blood pressure, or brainwave activity. It might be nice if we could, however, because many human afflictions, from migraine headaches to epilepsy, correlate with certain physical or mental states. In the 1940s, psychologists and other researchers began to investigate artificial ways of giving people feedback about otherwise impossible-to-monitor states. For example, they developed machines that picked up electrical signals from muscles and converted these signals to lights - visible signals that might reflect the degree to which a person was unknowingly tensing up his or her muscles. It was a short step from here to see if people could learn to alter these signals and thus change their own physical or mental states in desirable ways.
According to researchers, with the aid of a machine, you can become aware of your blood pressure and may learn to reduce it. Similarly, if you are shown a real-time EEG (electroencephalograph) that reflects brainwave patterns associated with either attention or relaxation, you may eventually learn to adjust your brainwaves to produce the desired state. Importantly, this training can be effective after people are no longer attached to the special equipment that made the training possible.
Researchers eventually created the term biofeedback to refer to procedures that allow people to monitor their physical and/or mental states and train themselves to change these states. Initially, many people were skeptical of the value of biofeedback. However, researchers say it has proven to be an extremely powerful procedure with health enhancing effects.
Over the past 50 years, researchers have used biofeedback to do everything from helping people relax to treating severe headaches, chronic pain, bedwetting, and high blood pressure.
Recently, neurofeedback (a form of biofeedback that gives people feedback about their own brainwaves) has even been used to help children with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Psychologist Vincent J. Monastra and colleagues supplemented a well-documented treatment program (Ritalin plus special training for parents) by giving some treated children neurofeedback on top of the medical and parental intervention. The traditional treatment was initially very effective, but when treated children were later taken off Ritalin, only those who had also received neurofeedback were able to maintain the improvements they had shown. Presumably neurofeedback works by allowing children to gain control over brain functions associated with attention (i.e., by helping them learn to pay attention in school).
If neurofeedback can help people pay attention, could it be used to help people pay attention to tasks that make extreme demands on people's attention? According to a recent study by Egner and Gruzelier, highly skilled musicians who received neurofeedback improved their musical performance (as assessed by expert judges kept blind to the training) by the equivalent of one class of honors in music. In the future, biofeedback may be used to enhance the performance of healthy people in much the same way that it has already been used to treat physical and mental disorders.
Monastra, V. J., Monastra, D. M. & George, S. (2002). The effects of stimulant therapy, EEG biofeedback, and parenting style on the primary symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback, Vol. 27, pp. 231-249.
Fuchs, T., Birbaumer, N., Lutzenberger, W., Gruzelier, J. H., & Kaiser, J. (2003). Neurofeedback treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children: A comparison with methylphenidate. Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback, Vol. 28, pp. 1-12.
Egner, T., & Gruzelier, J. H. (2003). Ecological validity of neurofeedback: Modulation of slow wave EEG enhances musical performance. NeuroReport, Vol. 14, pp. 1221-1224.
American Psychological Association, November 10, 2003