Alpha Biofeedback Research

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB., BS .(Syd.)

One of the most popular aspects of the biofeedback phenomenon has been the renewed ability of man to quieten his brain and mind at will so as to achieve calm and relaxation, the first stage of meditative training. This discovery is part of mankind's growth towards greater independence and autonomy. We are awakening our inner power through the help of machines. This mechanisation may help speed up the process of learning about body and mind that yogis and other introspective meditation groups have been undergoing for millennia.

The link between alpha and meditative states has been proved by scientific research. Joe Kamiya of San Francisco's Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, an early pioneer in the field of psychology, has stated that the Zen masters produce more alpha waves when they are meditating than when they are not, and they can easily switch it on and off at will. Artists, musicians and athletes are also prolific alpha producers as are introspective and intuitive people. Lester Fehmi, psychologist and alpha researcher at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, says that the enjoyable experience of alpha waves is subtle and ineffable. Kamiya theorises that the pleasure aspects may be caused by the fact that alpha represents something like letting go of anxieties. Other researchers have stated that alpha waves can be associated with unpleasant sensations and emotions.

The use of machines for the release of tension and production of alpha waves has a great deal of potential use in practical day to day life, especially in highly technological societies. For example, psychiatrists are hoping to use brain wave control for therapeutics, say to help claustrophobics relax in enclosed spaces. The Angie Nall School for problem children in Texas, USA, has been experimenting with alpha training as a substitute for tranquillisers in hyperactive children and in stutterers. Psychologist Elmer Green at the Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas, USA, has gone one step deeper by training people to go through alpha into theta (spontaneous, creative, pure awareness states) and thereby release deep, unconscious neuroses, complexes and problems.

Up to date

Late last century, a British researcher named Caton found that rabbits and monkeys generate electric currents in their brains which vary with arousal from sleep, death, exposure to light flashes, and other such changes and stimulations. He used a sensitive galvanometer (voltmeter) with electrodes placed directly on the animal's brain.

In 1929 Hans Berger, a German medical doctor, published research of EEG monitoring in human subjects with electrodes placed on the scalp. He observed the variations of frequency and amplitude and related them to changes in consciousness, especially alpha and beta rhythms. He examined a variety of subjects from 'normal' individuals to schizophrenics, manic depressives, epileptics and drug users, charting their brain waves and making the first 'map' of our inner workings and their relationship to states of consciousness.

The enigma of alpha

Today the biofeedback phenomenon is raging throughout America, Europe and the other technology orientated cultures (of course, the eastern culture has been doing the same thing, only without machines, for the last 5,000 years). Alpha fans are eager to learn how to control their brain waves, autonomic nervous systems and states of consciousness without drugs. Even more eager to cash in on this phase of evolutionary growth are the manufacturers whose products are priced at between $200 and $300 on the average.

Many people believe that alpha is a desirable state of brain wave consciousness to be in, and thus seek to maintain it all the time. Learning to control the states of consciousness that lead to alpha brain waves is one of the first steps in understanding our bodies and minds. Alpha is no better or worse than beta. Both can occur in diseased mental states such as psychosis, schizophrenia and so on. Both can occur in high states of blissful, spiritual experience. Control is the key word. We must be able to control our brain waves in order to control our states of consciousness and thereby gain autonomy and independence. Some critics say that the body works all right without our help, so why interfere with automatic processes. However, evidence of the staggering rise in psychosomatic disease over the last 50 years, coupled with increasing frustrations and stresses, have pushed people toward new trends. By controlling our brain waves, whether we relax into alpha or delta or concentrate into beta, we break down the limitations that have allowed diseases to become rampant.

Increased awareness of body processes empowers us to monitor the body and prevent the first steps of imbalance from emerging as full scale disease. Control helps us to expand our knowledge and unfold our potential. We can thereby concentrate better when we have to, and at the same time we can relax on command. Our inner states of consciousness become appropriate to our external situation. We can function better in our day to day lives, more aware of our every action.

Changing gears

The advent of a mechanised means of entering the various phases of normal consciousness at will, from concentration to deep sleep, has awakened in us an insight into the latent abilities we all possess. Biofeedback teaches us to change our state of consciousness in much the same way as we change the gears in a car. After all, we do not want to leave our car running when it is parked. In the same way we should not leave our brain turned on when we sleep. But how many of us know where the switch is in the brain to turn off unnecessary activity? Biofeedback teaches us to do this.

Alpha - the first step

Once we can enter an alpha state of relaxation at will we have taken our first step towards inner exploration, peace and power. When this has been learned, a teacher of biofeedback will take away the machine and let the individual move inward independently. However, without the machine to guide him it is difficult to advance further. A systematic method of meditation is required, one free from the constraints of goal orientation, to take one further into the mind.

Biofeedback can thus be seen as an eye-opener, a first encounter with new possibilities. It is primarily for those who are too engrossed in external things to become convinced of an inner reality, to be able to perceive the subtle nature of mind and prana. Once contact has been made, old concepts broken down, and the awakening of curiosity and desire to explore is sustained, yogic techniques can be used to fully develop our inner potential and take us deep within ourselves.