The Origins of Biofeedback

The contributions of many earlier researchers and practitioners can be cited as forerunners of biofeedback:

Edmund Jacobsen commenced research at Harvard in 1908, and throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s worked

to develop progressive muscle relaxation as an effective behavioral technique for the alleviation of neurotic

tensions and many functional medical disorders (Jacobsen, 1938). He used crude electromyographic

equipment to monitor the levels of muscle tension in his patients during the course of treatment. The German

Johann Schultz contributed autogenic training in the 1930’s, a discipline for creating a deep low-arousal

condition, with a pervasive quieting effect on the autonomic nervous system (Schultz and Luthe, 1959). B. F.

Skinner, Albert Bandura, Joseph Wolpe, and others extended the operant training principles of the animal

laboratory into a refined science of behavior therapy and behavior modification through instrumental learning

(Skinner, 1969; Bandura, 1969; Wolpe and Lazarus, 1966). The building blocks were in place for a science

of self-regulation by the 1960’s.

The scientific emergence of biofeedback is a good example of synchronicity. A number of independent areas

of scientific work converged and overlapped, until a community of researchers recognized their common

ground. Kenneth Gaarder points out that biofeedback was not so much a discovery, as it was “an awareness

which emerged from the Zeitgeist” (Gaarder, 1979). Many researchers of the 1950’s and 1960’s can be

cited as independent founders of biofeedback. I will highlight here the early work on EEG, visceral learning,

electromyography, and incontinence.

Operant Control of EEG and the Pursuit of Alpha States

In the late 1950’s, Joe Kamiya studied the phenomenon of internal perception or the awareness of private

internal experiencing. Seredipitously, he discovered that a subject could learn through feedback to reliably

discriminate between alpha and beta dominant cortical states, and then further demonstrated that a subject

could learn to produce such alpha or beta brain states on demand (Kamiya, 1969, 1994; Gaarder &

Montgomery, 1977, p. 4). Kamiya’s continuing work on voluntary production of alpha states coincided with

the dawning counter-cultural interest in altered states of consciousness, and the emergence of a new interest

in Eastern religions, the psychology of consciousness, and in transpersonal psychology (Moss & Keen,

1981; deSilva, 1981).

This was the era in which Timothy Leary was attracting media attention, by encouraging youth to use LSD to

discover new levels of human consciousness. In August 1969 the renowned social psychologist, Dr. Richard

Alpert, renamed as Ram Dass, gave a presentation to the annual meeting of the Association for Humanistic

Psychology on “The Transformation of a Man from Scientist to Mystic.”

Alpha brain states are most closely associated with a creative, open awareness, or with a receptive,

meditative state. Kamiya’s research gave birth to a new humanistic dream, of human beings learning to

cultivate a spiritually awakened state, within a relatively short time frame, and through the guidance of

electronic monitoring. Now human beings could explore higher states of consciousness without psychedelic



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