Biofeedback and Self-Regulation

Neal Miller was a founding father in the field of Biofeedback. The following articles deal with biofeedback, its history and new directions. Included within the material are both some of Miller’s own articles, and unique material that the committe  has gathered. More recent works represent either projects that derived from Prof. Miller’s activity or that of his students.

How it all began

In 1957, Neal Miller read K. M. Bykov’s book, The Cerebral Cortex and the Internal Organs, which reported that autonomic responses in a wide variety of internal organs could be classically conditioned.  Noting the close concordance already established between the operations of classical conditioning and instrumental ones, Miller was inspired to embark on attempts to show that autonomic response could also be instrumentally conditioned.  If successful, the medical benefits would be enormous.   Heartened by an experiment finding that thirsty dogs were able to increase or decrease salivation in order to obtain water rewards but wishing to rule out the possibility that the salivation was somehow triggered automatically by the somatic postural changes also adopted by the dogs, Miller paralyzed rats’ somatic musculature with curare which left heart rate responding relatively unaffected.   Brain stimulation reward was then used as the reinforcement for any designated increase or decrease in heart rate the rats made.  After an initial series of successful experiments using this rat preparation, the effect mysteriously disappeared despite repeated and highly sophisticated attempts to identify the cause and reinstate the effect.

However, humans paralyzed by gunshot wounds proved better at gaining autonomic control in elevating in their case a profoundly hypostatic blood pressure.  According to Miller and Dollard’s four fundamentals necessary for effective instrumental learning as italicized: These patients had a high drive to do so otherwise they fainted whenever they sat or stood up. Unlike the rats, they were shown their own amplified blood pressure readings, thus, providing them an informational biofeedback cue about their own performance.  To this information, the response they initially used to try to change their readings was to think emotional, often sexy, thoughts to which the desired blood pressure changes are normally reflexly connected.  Whenever there was a desired response, even if too small an increment initially to be clinically relevant, the mere detectable fact of it was a reward, given the paralytics’ high achievement motivation.

Similar success has been reported in intact humans in for example causing one arm to blush and the other arm to blanch which makes it difficult to construe by what mediating cognitive construction these autonomic responses could be reflexly mediated.  And as Miller loved to point out, toilet training, particularly the learning of control over the autonomic bladder sphicters, is a well-known-and rewarded-universal fact of life.  Certainly the application of biofeedback methodology promoted by Miller and his associates has proved highly beneficial medically in treating a wide variety of problems, such as idiopathic scoliosis, enuresis, and migraine, problems involving both voluntary and autonomic response systems.  Biofeedback methodologies as applied to neuroimaging and the like, uses not explored by Miller, have come very much into standard usage as successful treatments for mood and other mentation disorders in recent years.

Note:  Beginning in 1973 until 1990 Miller published 17 articles with the term biofeedback in them.  If one counts his publications in journals or books with that term in them the count increases to 27.


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