It is not as bizarre as it appears to be on the surface. The human body and the ubiquitous chip have something in common — a palpable flair for self-regulation. Your electronic gizmo is a feat of technological excellence just as much, and more, the human body is with all its myriad feedback mechanisms, such as breathing, heartbeat, visual co-ordination and regulation of body temperature, among other infinite physiological processes.
The origins of biofeedback as a therapeutic option emerged, thanks to the amazing relationship that exists between the mind and the body. To cull a famous allegory, Narcissus, a character from Greek mythology, was, perhaps, the first real ‘proponent’ of biofeedback. His incurable allure for his own image may have epitomised the whole premise of ‘reflection’ — the mainstay in the fundamental workings of biofeedback.
Biofeedback mirrors the fact that individuals can monitor, and learn, to control involuntary activities of certain organs and bodily functions, while learning to repeat, or recall, behaviour, or bodily states, that they find affable and agreeable. For instance, people with migraine can learn to ‘prompt’ the condition and, in so doing, reduce muscle tension and, subsequently, their pain. In simple terms, biofeedback encourages you to exert certain control over your body’s internal functions — by making you conscious of what’s happening inside, as it responds to various subjective, or behavioural, stages. When you succeed in bringing about a change, biofeedback would present you with ‘tangible’ information on them.
It was assumed for too long that most human biological functions were not accessible to manoeuvring without the use of drugs, or surgery. The development and progress of biofeedback techniques ushered in a new area of psychological interest and turned the whole dogma from the inside out. This happened primarily because subjects using biofeedback could effectively control body functions — and, thus, their behaviour, which was not formerly believed to be ‘manoeuvrable’ by conscious management. This plausibility was akin, no less, to the formation of new cells and growth, including our electrochemical brain-wave catalogue that monitors our physiological activity and wellness.
Biofeedback first made waves in the medical community in the mid-1960s, when researchers in the US began to explore the likely effects of applying monitoring instruments into the mind-body feedback system — to determine whether or not one could learn to exert greater wilful control over it. The technique also enhanced its acceptance and credibility when Neal Miller trained laboratory rats to control certain glandular responses in his physiological and psychological laboratory at Rockefeller University. It did not, thereafter, take long for other findings to establish the proposition that one could manage and influence one’s somatic and behavioural patterns — through biofeedback.
Studies suggests that human beings can manipulate their EEGs, or electroencephalograph — an instrument used for recording small electrical impulses produced by the brain — by changing their excitation levels. You can, for example, while viewing alpha waves — a slow ‘ripple’ that indicates normal relaxed brain activity — on an oscilloscope, modify them into high frequency patterns. The result is imminent. You become more alert and attentive. You can, likewise, prompt your heart to relax and in the process help release, or purge, your tensions. The inference is obvious — that one can, with biofeedback, help relax ‘oneself,’ including one’s heart muscles, and bring down blood pressure levels over a period of time.
Clinical studies suggest that biofeedback is more than useful in people who have recently had heart attacks. This is how it works. It teaches such patients to ease anxiety and the fear of the future — a major barrier to physical and emotional recovery.
It is also universal understanding that certain specific body functions that are controlled by the central nervous system can be measured hypothetically. In medical terms, such parameters are related to the contraction of voluntary muscles, skin temperature of the arms and legs, brain-wave activity, electrical conductivity of the skin, heart rate, blood pressure, and the rhythmic contractions of the intestine. This is what biofeedback precisely achieves through the use of small portable units and high-tech gadgets, while making it possible for a dialogue between the patient’s conscious mind and his/her physiology to synchronise and effect harmonious change with relative ease.
When biofeedback was comparatively a new technique, the recording equipment was often attached lightly to the area of one’s interest and connected to the biofeedback instrument by wires. This allowed the quiet electrical, or any other, activity to be evaluated — allowing for shifting numerical scores to emerge — all of them with the view of effectively measuring a sensation. A person, for example, would ‘visualise’ images that moved him/her to a particular purpose. Or, one would ‘connect’ to the sun warming him/her — while elevating the temperature of one’s hands made clammy by anxiety.
How does a typical biofeedback session work? This is, of course, subject to vary from one individual to the other — from 25 to 45 minutes, or more. The duration of treatment, likewise, is subject to differ. Most biofeedback practitioners suggest that treatment is best terminated, or suspended, when the patient has realistically learned and promoted a habit strong enough to be incorporated into his/her self-image — one that has given the maximum benefit, or relief. They also aver that it would be more than helpful for the individual to understand when a ‘booster’ session is needed to derive better treatment outcomes, or results.
It may be mentioned that classical clinicians attest that biofeedback is nothing but placebo, although research, not to speak of proponents of the practice, are convinced that the individual’s innate ability to perceiving what is happening inside his/her body is fostered by ‘feedback’ in several ways. They observe that a weak or extraordinary sensation, for example, could be strengthened and used — after electronically recording the information, along with the constantly changing functional processes involved. The emerging data, thus, obtained could be presented to the individual, or patient, by way of sensory inputs — sight, hearing, or touch. This overall voyage, when collated, they suggest, would allow the person to use certain trial-and-error modes — to explore ‘how’ and ‘what’ s/he feels vis-à-vis certain influences of a specific bodily function, or illness.
Whatever the argument, or school of thought, biofeedback is safe and also effective. It encourages individuals to recognise one significant fact of life — that each one of us has the resource to influence what happens in one’s physical body and, perforce, heal oneself of a particular malady. The technique is, however, not a cure- or end-all. It cannot, for instance, be applied on patients who have major psychosomatic illnesses, or are taking certain anti-diabetic medications, including insulin. Yet, the fact is, when biofeedback is used in combination with other traditional, complementary, or alternative medical treatments, it could augment their healing compass and radar, while providing improved treatment outcomes for the individual, or patient.
Today, high-tech, state-of-the-art biofeedback gadgets are available worldwide. A host of equipment manufacturers and companies offers the best on the most advanced scientific and technological lines. The only constraint is some of them may be expensive for home or personal use, albeit affordable — in the long-term. The best way may yet be the most simple. To seek the help of a qualified therapist and — most importantly — use the healing modality in juxtaposition with other medical therapies, including yoga and meditation — and, draw the maximum benefit possible.
In its present form, biofeedback makes it possible for one to use the therapy for managing anxiety, realising true relaxation, and achieving important goals. This is not all. Biofeedback offers a whole range of therapeutic applications and possibilities — right from stress and breath control to the tranquil canvas of relaxed visualisation and fitness appraisal for gym enthusiasts and improved performance for athletes and sportspersons, including the treatment of sleep disorders, easing pain, controlling weight, bowel function, smoking, and also bladder disorders, such as incontinence, besides improved public speaking skills, and presentation on the job — a common, terrifying trigger of ‘anticipatory anxiety’ for some people.
Biofeedback has, doubtless, proven its clinical efficacy in specific disorders, such as phobias, drug and alcohol abuse, headaches — especially migraines — sleep issues, torticollis, or wry neck, high blood pressure, pain syndromes, allergies and asthma, certain psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety and depression, irritable bowel syndrome [IBS] too, where the treatment is a much preferred choice, not to speak of neuromuscular rehabilitation, particularly for early recovery following paralytic attack. What’s more, biofeedback has been successfully employed in space physiology. It helps astronauts to adapt themselves better to zero-gravity ‘blues.’
It may, in conclusion, be imperative to emphasise that biofeedback is a down-to-earth technique. Its learning does not require great, or extra, intelligence. Motivation is everything that one would require for its success — one that seamlessly bridges the gap between our mind and the body and of what purports to be the fast-expanding stream of mind-body, integrative, or personalised, medicine.