Derided by other psychologists 40 years ago, his pioneering work on biofeedback now routinely brings relief to a host of medical problems
Thursday April 4, 2002
Neal Miller, the psychologist and neuroscientist, who has died aged 92, was one of the first research workers to demonstrate experimentally the power of mind over matter. His ideas were derided by many of his colleagues 40 years ago, when he suggested that people might learn to control their heart rate and bowel contractions just as they learned to walk or play tennis, through a system called biofeedback.
Today, biofeedback is used routinely in alternative medicine to alleviate problems such as headaches, chronically taut muscles resulting from accidents or sports injuries, asthma, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, disorders of the digestive system and epilepsy.
Many of Miller’s theories, now accepted as little more than common sense, were established in ground-breaking work begun in the 1930s and based on his conviction that the brain affected human behaviour; and he sought to map the physiological underpinnings of the most visceral of human drives, like fear, hunger and curiosity.
Neal Miller was born in Milwaukee. He got his BS at the University of Washington in 1931, an MS at Stanford a year later, and a PhD in psychology from Yale in 1935. He was a social science research fellow at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in Vienna for one year. His training was traditional, with an emphasis on Freud. But he soon turned his attention to measurable aspects of behaviour and to the physical workings of the brain, and he developed the conviction that a true understanding of behaviour would ultimately depend on understanding how the brain worked.
He returned to Yale and spent the next 30 years in research that established his reputation as one of the most accomplished behavioural neuroscientists of the 20th century, for his pioneering studies of motivation, learning and reward.
He was among the psychologists whose reputations were established in the second world war, when they were asked by the US government to develop better tests for selecting aircrew, and improved pilots’ and air gunners’ operational success rates.
But when Miller described a conditioning and reward experiment in which rats were taught to control everything from their heart rate to their brain waves his credibility plummeted in the eyes of his peers.
Until then it had been assumed that functions like heartbeat, blood pressure and intestinal contractions were under the control of the autonomic nervous system and therefore beyond an individual’s conscious control.
When Miller’s experiments showed that the animals learned that they would get a reward if they performed a change effected usually by the autonomic nervous system, he suggested that, since people were a lot smarter, they might be taught to do the same, provided they could monitor the process directly.
When he introduced the idea, the task of monitoring physiological processes, like heart rate and blood pressure, was complicated.
Nowadays, with modern electronics, scientists can give individuals portable devices to monitor how they are faring as they conduct their daily lives, and researchers have a variety of sophisticated brain-scanning devices to monitor the reactions of people when they are reading, processing visual and auditory stimuli and experiencing emotions.
As Miller explained in a lecture in 1995, the small number of other scientists who shared his interests 50 years earlier had no such tools, and they had to rely on laboratory animals, principally rats, using reward and punishment to study behaviour. Eventually, scientists learned to stimulate the animals’ brains with electricity and chemicals to produce sensations like hunger.
Miller and a young colleague, Leo DiCara, discovered that by using a means of electrical stimulation to the pleasure centre in the brain, laboratory rats could be trained to do extraordinary feats, like decreasing their heart rate at will, dilating the blood vessels of one ear more than the opposite ear, or controlling the rate of urine formed in their kidneys.
Miller was regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on animal learning abilities. Over the years, his regular use of laboratory animals aroused criticism from animal rights groups. He was a forthright defender of the practice, once arguing that if people had no right to use animals in research, then they had no right to kill them for food or clothing. Yet he acknowledged that the issue was complex.
“There is sacredness of all life,” he said. “But where do we draw the line? That’s the problem. Cats kill birds and mice. Dogs exploit other animals by killing and eating them. Humans have to draw the line somewhere in animal rights, or we’re dead.”
His second wife, Jean, and a son and a daughter by his first wife survive him.
· Neal Elgar Miller, psychologist and neuroscientist, born August 3 1909; died March 23 2002