Electronic Awareness

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

In the last fifteen years, electronic technology has produced a new phenomena in the world of science by the name of biofeedback. Today, anyone can get a cheap, simple model of this machine, which is being utilised to learn yogic relaxation and concentration techniques.

Nicholas and June Regusch in the book Mind Search write that biofeedback is one of the major, recent and significant achievements in the field of medicine. It is being used to learn to control a great number of disorders, such as headaches, high blood pressure and poor circulation. By the use of instruments which record even the slightest electrical stimulation of the body and indicate this in the form of a whistling sound, a sketch on graph paper, or the visual indicator of the machine, it is possible to detect certain changes in the internal functions of the body, and act upon them if need be until the visual indicator or tune changes. The high pitched tunes indicate considerable internal activity and tension, while low tunes indicate relaxation. The aim is to lower the tune of the indicator through relaxation. As one listens to a tune and tries to relax, he learns to connect the sensation of being relaxed with the corresponding tune. The key of biofeedback is to feel the internal changes as they occur.

How does it work?

Ordinarily the vital functions in a man are spontaneous happenings without awareness and control. Biofeedback can detect these automatic, spontaneous, internal functions on the conscious level. One of the first machines developed some time ago, before they were used for learning relaxation and concentration, was the polygraph, commonly known as the lie detector. This apparatus was used during psychological and physiological investigations. To use this machine, various receptors are connected to the body in different areas, and as the body responds emotionally or physically, the sensors capture the stimuli and register them in the machine, where they are transformed into some form which is easy to interpret, such as lines on graph paper.

The rubber bladder is the first receptor (sensor detector). This device is put on the chest or stomach of the practitioner and detects the change in the size of the chest during normal breathing. The rhythm of breath is never constant and can be influenced by a variety of factors, including emotions. The breathing is produced by a complex process in which the brain sends rhythmic impulses to the respiratory muscles, so, when they relax, the breath becomes slow and regular. But, if the rhythmic impulses are excited, then breathing becomes quick and superficial. The first sensor detects the breathing pattern.

The second receptor is a broad bladder of air, which is put around the arm or wrist and is inflated. This device detects the changes in blood pressure and pulse, which are intimately connected which the functions of the subconscious. The third is the Galvanised Skin Resistance (GSR). This measures the relationship between the sweat glands and the emotions. When a person is calm and relaxed, the functions of the sweat glands are minimal and the skin remains relatively dry. But when one is tense, nervous or excited, the glands are stimulated and the skin becomes moist or wet. This is another indication of emotional change in the person.

Two small electrodes are put in the hands of the practitioner and from them a very small electrical charge is received, which is totally inoffensive and so subtle that it is hardly felt at all. As the surface of the skin becomes moist, a change is produced in the electrical resistance of the skin. The machine measures the charge transmitted through the electrodes and compares them with skin resistance. In this form, normal or medium resistance is created. This state varies in every individual, but remains more or less constant when one is sitting down. When skin becomes moist, humid, wet, the change is registered in the form of an altered state of resistance. In the polygraph the change is seen by a pencil sketch on the graph paper, while in other machines, these changes are recorded with points of light or different sounds.

To operate a polygraph is difficult. It requires a person to install the detectors correctly and read the results on the monitor. The GSR machine is much simpler to use, as one simply connects the two electrodes to the fingers. A high pitched sound would indicate mental and physical activity; a low pitched sound would indicate relaxation. Trying to unite the low sound sensations with relaxation and to reproduce the same, makes one learn to relax the body and mind.

Nearly as popular as the GSR is EEG (Electroencephalogram). The EEG, instead of measuring the activities of the nervous systems, measures the electrical efficiency of the brain through electrodes placed on the head. These detectors do not emit any electrical charge as they are simply acting as receptors. The brain emits energy waves, similar to radio waves, whose longitude and magnitude and amplitude can be measured. One longitude of a wave is of twenty five to sixteen cycles per second, (c.p.s.) corresponding to the state of normal activity and is known as beta wave. The alpha state is in between fifteen to eight c.p.s., which indicates a relaxed and balanced mind. The theta state, between seven to four c.p.s. is a state of creativity or concentration. The delta wave is around three to point five c.p.s., a state of deep sleep, where the awareness does not normally exist. The above mentioned states are based on the longitude of brain waves expressed in the form of cycles per second.. Now the magnitude or force: a reading of thirty to forty microvolts is common for experienced meditators. In yogis the magnitude has been registered as over one hundred microvolts in alpha state. All the waves have an amplitude, which is independent from the frequency and mental state created by the waves.

Nervous systems and their functions

The sensory nervous system is made of many receptor nerve cells located in different places on the sense organs, i.e. hearing - ears, sight - eyes, smell - nose, touch - skin, taste - mouth. These cells are connected with nerve filaments, which by joining into bundles, enter into the spine to form the spinal cord and are then distributed to different centres and areas of the brain. Information which comes in is analysed and categorised in the brain to form the action or experience. The nervous system's main function is to connect the cells specialised in receiving stimuli with motor cells which can act on that information.

The central nervous system receives stimuli from the sensory receptors. It analyses them, creates a particular state of awareness and memorises them for future reference. Simultaneously, these messages are then transmitted in the form of orders, through the motor nervous system to different body organs. There is a fire burning. The eyes transmit colour, shape and forms; the skin absorbs sensations of heat; the nose, the burning smell; the ears, the sound of burning and crackling of wood. These perceptions are in the brain, forming the experience, and at the same time preparing the actions to be taken against it, if necessary. If one goes near the fire, the brain will automatically send out a warning signal. The brain is a physical organ capable of directing the physical actions and reactions. At the same time it acts as a co-ordinator of mental processes that are connected with the life and consciousness. It is a doorway between the physical and mental realities.

Stress chain reaction

An influential negative experience recorded in the brain will change the mental, emotional and conscious planes, and, depending on the cause, give the person a headache, depression, anxiety, worry, tension or anger. If the situation continues, then the breakdown in mental and emotional patterns may even be the cause of psychological or unconscious reactions and problems. If any of the sensory cells or motor cells are not stimulated or working properly, then the output of that cell will consist of sparse and uneven impulses. This will create tension in the central nervous system, causing a delay in the normal process and affecting the functions of the brain, as the input and output of the stimuli will be uneven, and this may cause different physical, muscular, and mental tensions. If this state continues in a man over a period of time, then the state of consciousness will change, energy resistance will be lowered, mental and emotional states will be uncoordinated, and another stress will be added to this chain reaction process.

Beyond relaxation

Self-awareness is perception or knowledge of one's own conditions or states of changes in the body or the mind. Because biofeedback indicates the changes of the body and brain in the form of a sound or sketch, one can increase the self-awareness up to a certain point as a side-effect of the biofeedback process.

A trained and alert yogi is completely conscious of the subconscious activities of his body and brain, and is able to control his autonomic nervous system by concentration. Today, anyone with a little practice of the biofeedback system can achieve a conscious state of relaxation and expansion of mental capacity, plus creativity. A yogi knows that the autonomic nervous system, which controls and regulates the involuntary functions of the body, is controlled by the subconscious mind. Up to a certain point, the subconscious mind can be directed by the conscious mind. Through yoga nidra, antar mouna, mantra yoga, nada yoga and trataka, a yogi can co-ordinate and increase the relaxation of the muscular and nervous systems, thus avoiding the stress chain reaction process. A yogi can gain relief from low emotional and low energy feelings. He can encourage the brain to develop its responsibilities for maintaining the harmony between the internal and external environments. He can expand the receptivity of consciousness, allowing it to intermingle with the subconscious and unconscious parts of mind to become aware of those unseen activities that are constantly changing and forming the human personality.

A simple practice of developing breath awareness, and trying to develop a rhythm in the breath, will allow one to watch exactly how the muscles and nervous activities are co-ordinated, how incoming and outgoing impulses are channelized, and how introversion of mind takes place. The same practice, if developed and practised properly, will enable the aspirant to transcend the sensual states of personality and adopt the attitude of a seer. This opens the insight into the surrounding atmosphere in society, while taking protective measures to defend the personality from the influx of negative reactions.

In biofeedback, instruments are used to obtain limited information from the subconscious mind. But external influence can also affect the experiment, i.e. if you touch a person connected to the GSR (skin monitor), then a considerable alteration can be detected in the graph of the monitor. One of the difficulties that one faces in biofeedback is that it requires control over oneself so that external influences do not affect the experiment. These monitoring instruments which are used for relaxation and concentration serve as indirect measurements of the sympathetic nervous system's activity. Biofeedback can only detect unspecified functions of the autonomic nervous system and suggest how far one is able to change his activities.