What is biofeedback

Feedback is a term used by learning theory psychologists to signify 'information received in response to a given behavior.' A good example can be taken from archery: the initial action, aiming and releasing the arrow, is followed by its feedback - the hole made by the arrow in the target. If the arrow is too far to the left, we adjust our initial behavior (aiming and releasing) more to the right.

In very simple terms, we could say that people act for two reasons:

• in order to avoid what is painful;

• in order to seek what is pleasurable.

Pain and pleasure are both basic forms of bio-feedback. A child who burns himself playing with matches will learn, through the feedback of pain, that matches can be dangerous.

Behavior can be modified by positive reinforcement, which is the equivalent of pleasurable feedback, or negative reinforcement, the equivalent of pain, failure, loss, etc.

Western society is based on this principle, from the spankings and rewards children receive to the prison sentences and awards handed out to adults, depending on how they behave.

Bio-feedback relies on a mechanism of biological information, and is founded on the following theory:

Certain types of physiological processes, which are ordinarily outside the sphere of conscious control, can gradually be mastered if they are transformed into visual or auditory signals. Breathing does not need to be reinforced by a visual or auditory signal because we can control it simply by concentrating and making an effort to do so. Brain waves, or the degree of contraction of our muscles, on the other hand, are normally imperceptible, and need to be reinforced.

In 1968, J. Kamya, a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, decided to try and get subjects to recognize a particularly interesting type of brain wave - alpha waves.

"I wondered if, after repeated sessions in which subjects learned to detect this type of wave, they could not be taught to enter some special state of awareness."

To his great surprise, not only were subjects able to recognize different types of brain waves with ease, they could also voluntarily switch from one type of wave to another. The process was greatly facilitated by using a device that emitted a beep when the desired frequency of brain wave appeared.

Kamya called the process bio-feedback. The technique was soon being used to treat a wide range of disorders, sometimes with astonishing success, shedding new light on the concept of what is voluntary and involuntary, as far as processes taking place within the human organism are concerned. Its potential applications are so varied that we are still discovering new ways to use it, from curing certain nervous behaviors like involuntary twitching to teaching patients how to control epilepsy, blood pressure, digestive activity, and so on.

However, since Kamya's first article on bio-feedback appeared in Psychology Today in 1968, it has been the use of bio-feedback techniques to control brain wave frequency, and especially to stimulate the emission of alpha waves, that has generated the most controversy.

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