Neural Feedback and Brainwave Training

Department of Paraphysics and Parapsychology
Experimental College University of Washington c1970, 1982

“Gentlemen, I have a confession to make – half of what we have taught you is in error;
and furthermore we cannot tell you which half it is.” – Sir William Osler

A man named Caton first discovered electrical rhythms within the brains of animals in 1875. It was over 50 years later when Hans Berger showed that man also had these rhythms. His original search was in the hopes of finding the physical link between man’s mind and his body.

It was this mind/body question which led him to dedicate his life to finding this link. He became interested in the work of Caton and others and set up his own laboratory to further investigate the electrical activity of the brain. After 20 years of research, he was able to first record the brain rhythms of a human. He spent another 10 years convincing his colleagues that this rhythm came from neurons of the brain, not from blood flow or connective tissue. His original studies also showed that this rhythm changed with age, was vulnerable to sensory stimulation, and was affected by chemistry.

World War II broke out and Han Berger never finished his original work; crack the code of brain rhythms and their link to “psychic functions.” Since that time no one else has either. (1) Later research centered around the more practical applications of the EEG to epilepsy, brain metabolism, brain functions and the levels of consciousness.

(1) A first assumption toward this “link” can be found in ‘The Diamond Body’ by Richard and Iona Miller. Specific section to see would be “Meditation and Resonance Effects.”

Basic Metabolic Rate (EMR)

Brain metabolism is directly related to body metabolism. One facet of the human body that the EEG will monitor is that of brain metabolism. Such gross metabolic dysfunction as liver or kidney failure are easily seen with the EEG. Epilepsy is also seen as resulting in a metabolic dysfunction within the brain. Because of these and other important factions, the EEG was incorporated into the medical systems of Western society.

The EEG is also a good reflection of how well oxygen is metabolized in the blood. Your body needs oxygen in order to convert food resources into energy. Any deviation in oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output changes the EEG reading. Both hyperventilation and hypoventilation cause the EEGH pattern to slow down. The amount of sugar, as a food resource, also affects the EEG.

Brain Activity and the Source of Alpha Waves

The EEG is considered to monitor “gross” neuronal activity. It does not monitor individual neurons per se, but large groupings. Whenever rhythms are seen in the EEG, it is the net result of many thousands of neurons “in unison.”

Because alpha is seen so easily in the EEG, it was originally thought that there must be some kind of intra-cranial control mechanism (pacemaker) that caused all of those neurons to fire in unison.

Recently two Dutch scientists claimed to have proven the existence of such an alpha-pacemaker. It supposedly was located in the thalamus, located in the brain stem. It was thought to gate impulses from the body (spinal cord) into appropriate locations in the brain. Hand impulses are thus gated into that part of the brain designated as hand. Alpha, then, was thought to be a very rhythmic gating of the information from the body to the brain.

This rhythmic gating results in alpha, is thought to be the result of a very relaxed state. Non-rhythmic gating, resulting in dyssynchronous brain wave activity,. was considered a type of coping response, a response to impinging stimuli. While the pacemaker theory of alpha is still tentative, it is not yet received wide recognition within the scientific community. This is a result of a very complex relationship between autonomic nervous system activity, brain metabolism, age, and a host of other pertinent factors.

Level of Consciousness

One of the most important facets of the EEG is that it is an excellent indicator of levels and states of consciousness. Audio or visual inspection can determine whether a person is alert, relaxed, drowsy, asleep or even dreaming. Specific detail and arbitrary limit-points for various levels of consciousness are now defined by EEG parameters. The field of altered states of consciousness (ASC) and exploration and control of consciousness are all a direct result of this very important tool.

It is often thought the introduction of these new tools that new techniques and discoveries are made. The tremendous advances in electrons made the past decade has advance sophisticated equipment that stimulated psycho-physical and research in new ideas in science. This is especially true in the areas of biofeedback and self-control technologies.

Biofeedback Training

The technique of biofeedback is based on the fundamental process of instrument learning. A situation gives rise to several variable behaviors. One response is in some way rewarded or reinforced. Learning occurs as this response occurs successively more and more quickly and reliably. Essential to this learning process is the receiving of information in a feedback loop, similarly to servo systems. This can be done via visual or auditory stimuli, stating when we have made the correct response or moved closer to our goal.

This is made possible by using electronic feedback loops (such as those provided by an Electroencephalophne or EEP) and a psychological; technique called operand conditioning. The first successful attempts were attributed to Joe Kamiya in the late 1950’s. Essentially, his technique gave a signal when he achieved specific levels of consciousness. Its full potential has yet to be realized.

Behavior has traditionally been divided into two categories:

1. Voluntary control, such as walking, writing, muscular activities.

2. Autonomic control, such as heartbeat, blood pressure, brainwave production, body visceral processes.

We learn to guide behavior by receiving feedback on the results and then making appropriate adjustments. This is the place where the voluntary and involuntary behavior differ. While we can receive feedback in our writing, we do not have such access to those from the visceral activities. If provided with this absent feedback via electronic means, it has been shown conclusively that man can learn to exert a “voluntary” control over inner body functions.

Recent research into control of heart beat, blood pressure, body temperature, brainwave production and pain seems to indicate that a conscious control is possible. Research into control of brainwaves through the use of biofeedback techniques has centered around alpha waves, and more recently, theta. Some of the more well-known researchers are Kamiya, Kasamatsu, Brown, Hart, Peper, Mulhollond, Stoyva, Green, Walters and Green.

In discussing biofeedback research and results, one runs into a problem of semantics. It is the idea of learning to “control” our brainwaves. It must be emphasized that in using these techniques, a person is not learning to directly control the neuronal electrical activity of action potentials and synaptic events (in the cerebral cortex). One learns to control the subjective or mental events, associated with the presence of alpha or theta.

Changes in brainwave patterns, or blood pressure , body temperature and deep muscle tension are “physiological correlates of physiological processes that the subject learns to control.”

Brain Wave Patterns

The pattern of neuronal activity in the cerebral cortical section of the brain can be recorded electrically. This is done by measuring the electrical potential difference between two points on the scalp. The record is known as the electroencephalogram (EEG). Brain waves manifest themselves as oscillating voltage. They have two main dimensions: the frequency of oscillation and the amplitude.

The frequency predominately determines the amplitude of the brain wave, but there can be fluctuations of amplitude at a given frequency. Brain waves are broken up into four main categories, determined by the frequency of the wave. The borders of these categories are more or less arbitrary. The following table is approximately correct:

  • Beta: This is a conscious brain wave. It is characterized as a state of being awake, alert, and concentrating. If this stage is maintained for a prolonged period, it becomes associated with feelings of tension, worry, fear, or anxiety. Lower brain states are necessary on an occasional basis to maintain the alert aspect of this state. A visual-identification in one’s minds eye occurs, a state where images are identified with form and specific objects.
  • Alpha: This is also a conscious state, but identified with the mental experience where images are not identified. It has come to be associated with feelings of pleasure, pleasantness, tranquillity, serenity and relaxation. It can also imply a relaxed concentration. It is also a place of light sleep and several dream states.
  • Theta: This state is traditionally labeled unconscious by Western medicine. In recent years, however, people trained with autogenics can achieve this state and retain consciousness, similar to Eastern mediators. Theta has come to be associate with such things as hypnogogic imagery, day dreaming, sleep, cognition of problem solving, future planning, remembering, switching thoughts, and creativity. It is also now been shown to be where maximum regeneration of tissue occurs.
  • Delta: This state is predominately associated with no-dreaming sleep or deep sleep. There are some reports of individuals achieving this set of brain wave patterns and still retain consciousness. If it is achieved while maintaining a conscious state, “out-of-body” (OOBE) experiences are subjectively experienced and reported.

Sleep Cycle

The EEG pattern changes throughout the night. These changes can determine when dreaming occurs. The chart below is an average sleep cycle during those eight hours.

Stage one is the drowsy period of sleep, characterized by what is known as sleep spindles (spindle-alpha).

Stage two is a sleep where responses to external and/or internal stimulation can occur. This stage is characterized by what are known as K-complex waves.

Stage three means you are on your way to State 4.

Stage four is deep sleep. It is also delta state and is not associated with dreaming. REM states (Rapid Eye Movement) is where most dreams occur.

Notice how one spends most of the first part of the night in Stage 4 sleep. The latter part of the night is spent mostly in REM sleep. Therefore, most dreams occur toward the end of one’s night’s sleep,. When this stage is deprived or not allowed to occur, temporary personality changes occur with other psychological changes. When one them makes up that lost sleep, they will spend more of it in a lighter stage, REM. In a sense, this make up for that lost dream time.

Although there is a lot of variable data on EEG changes with age, there is a basic curve that shows the usual rate of development and change with time. Primarily the EEH frequency of a person stays very low, about 1 to 2 cps in a newborn infant, gradually increasing until the age of 19, where the normal adult rhythm, while awake, is about 20 cps.

Things which lower the EEG frequency are:

  • LSD, sedative drugs
  • Large doses of alcohol
  • Very low blood sugar
  • Lack of oxygen

Things which raise the EEG frequency are

  • Caffeine
  • Small doses of alcohol, barbiturates
  • Low blood sugar
  • Excess of carbon dioxide (CO2)

Hypnosis, per se, has little effect on the EEG. What is contained in the hypnotic suggestion which change frequencies and make the difference.

How The EEG Works

The EEG generates a feedback signal by picking up the very low voltage brain wave signals with two or more electrodes. A high-gain circuit amplifies the signal and drives a wide bade filter. This filter passes signals in the alpha through delta range and attenuates signals of higher and lower frequencies. The feedback is usually in the form of a modulated white-noise with the modulation at the brain wave frequency. There are usually two controls, one for amplitude variations and the other to discriminate frequency bands for tighter control.

The cerebral cortex is the outer most part of the brain. It is this convoluting mass of tissue that man has more of than any other animal. The cortex of each hemisphere is divided into four main areas, called lobes. Alpha is found predominately on the occipital lobe or back-part of the brain. This is the section which deals with visual systems. Alpha is also found in the frontal lobe, but not as easily. Theta is found more commonly on the temporal lobe, which the speech, sensory, and motor areas tend to show primarily beta activity.

Electrode placement usually uses a ground or reference point under one ear. The potential generated between the two electrodes is very important. Therefore, the second electrode is usually placed in the occipital region, just under the inion (“bump” on the back of the head) at one side about one inch. The side chosen is the same side that the “ear” electrode is on. This gives the most optimum gradient form brain signals being easily monitored.

Potential Application

Pleasure, relaxation and sleep are associated with alpha-theta output. The combination of relaxing, clearing the mind and turning inward can be a very pleasant and rewarding experience. Learning to relax and go from alpha top theta has proven to beneficial to the insomniac. In some cases, it can also be a sleep-substitute.

Hypnosis patients are much more susceptible to suggestion when in lower alpha states. It is now possible to achieve states of consciousness within several weeks of autogenics training to those of Zen masters with 20 years meditation effort. The main drawback is that when one learns these states, continual reinforcement is necessary for similar continued ability, day-to-day.

One of the main purposes for sleep is to transfer information and experiences from short to long-term memory. Concentration, learning and recall ability can and is greatly enhances with alpha-theta control exercises. Recall capability is greatest in alpha state. Also, by learning to exclude all external stimuli when trying to achieve alpha-theta control, increases one’s ability to concentrate.

The reverie state which is indicated by theta and low-frequency alpha seems to increase hypnagogic and dream-like images. There is also a link between reverie and hypnagognic imagery and creativity. These images are critical for the creative process.

Other Biofeedback Directions Include:

EMG (Electromyography) is used for hypertension, deep muscle control, and reading improvement by eliminating “subvocalization.”

Thermal Feedback for controlling body temperature at various points on the body. Current research shows that most individual can raise or lower finger temperatures about 8 degrees Fahrenheit, useful in the control of migraine and tension headaches.

GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) is used as a lie detector and supposedly is a way of communicating with certain plants. Although the latter is highly questionable, there is a statistical significance in the change of skin resistance in certain fish 8 hours prior to a major earthquake, offering a new early-warning system for the prediction of major quakes in high-risk areas.

These have been just a few of the many suggested possible applications. An exciting field with promise, biofeedback technique research should provide more new discoveries and ideas for years to come.

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