On the Life and Mission of Sue Othmer: February 1, 1944 to February 3, 2023

by Siegfried Othmer | February 8th, 2023

S usan FitzGerald Othmer died on February 3rd after three years of declining mental health, two days after her 79th birthday. This was Sue’s 38th year of involvement with neurofeedback.

A lover of nature who became a neuroscientist in the observational, naturalistic tradition of Oliver Sacks, Sue Othmer was a mother of three children, a teacher and community organizer, a gifted therapist and clinician, and a pioneer in neuroscience. Her life is best understood through the impact she has had on those around her. Unflappable, calm in the face of hardship, Sue navigated life with an even keel, a happy disposition, a unique self-sufficiency—steadying and nurturing those around her.

Born February 1, 1944, in Boston, Sue grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and in Bethesda, Maryland, as the family followed her father, Joseph Harold FitzGerald, in his career at what was then the US Civil Aeronautics Board. Sue graduated in 1962 from high school in St. Louis, where her father was serving as President of Ozark Airlines. Sue studied physics as an undergraduate at Cornell, where she met Siegfried, a doctoral student in physics, at a Ravi Shankar concert. They married in 1964. Sue was the only female in a large class, graduating in 1966 magna cum laude and with selection to Phi Beta Kappa.

Sue had always intended to enter the field of neurobiology, but she felt the need for grounding in physics and mathematics before doing so. She began graduate work in neurobiology at Cornell under Frank Rosenblatt, inventor of the Perceptron—the first modern neural network, which paved the way for contemporary artificial intelligence. Sue was investigating attentional mechanisms in the cat using the then-novel technique of EEG evoked potentials. It is noteworthy that this work was roughly contemporaneous with Barry Sterman’s ground-breaking research with his cats.

In 1968, Othmers welcomed their first son, Brian. The family moved to Sherman Oaks in 1970 so that Siegfried could pursue a career in aerospace research at the Northrop Research and Technology Center. Sue continued her research at the UCLA Brain Research Institute under its director at the time, Ross Adey. Frank Rosenblatt’s tragic death in a sailing accident in 1971 aborted her trajectory to a Cornell Ph.D. As UCLA did not provide for transferring post-graduate credits, Sue was forced to abandon her nearly completed doctoral work.

In 1971, Sue founded the Topanga Canyon Docents, which she then led for nearly two decades. Its primary purpose was to offer experiences of the natural environment to school-age children. Sue also pursued a serious interest in pottery, ultimately even winning a prize for two of her pieces. Sue observed that pieces of pottery go through three stages. The first is that they are simply too dear to consider giving them away. The second is that you are willing to give them away, and the third is that they aren’t good enough to give away…

Brian had begun showing marked behavioral difficulties by age two, and these were to become ever more challenging over time. A second child, Karen, was born in December 1973. By the age of seven months, she was exhibiting neurological deficits and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor. After a series of unsuccessful medical procedures, Karen succumbed at the age of 14 months. Kurt was born in November 1975.

Brian’s behavioral difficulties evolved into a seizure disorder that was then managed medically, though major behavioral problems remained, posing severe challenges to family life. In 1985, Sue had the opportunity to evaluate neurofeedback at the office of Margaret Ayers in Beverly Hills. The method worked wonders on Brian’s remaining problems, resulting in his being able to go on to college a couple of years later.

It had become clear that Brian’s behavioral problems had to be understood—and treated—in a physiological rather than a psychological frame. And it was equally clear that these behaviors could yield to a targeted training model—neurofeedback. Sue and Siegfried decided to pursue the further development of this novel therapeutic method, and in this manner, Sue was able to return to her field of professional interest, neuroscience, while also meeting Brian’s needs. A computerized version of Sterman’s laboratory instrument was developed, with software design by Edward Dillingham of Pacific Palisades, but with considerable input from Sue by virtue of her earlier experience with EEG measurements. The new instrument was labeled NeuroCybernetics.

Brian’s seizure disorder could not be brought fully under control with the medications, and he remained at great risk from dietary spices. He succumbed to a nocturnal seizure in March of 1991, just months before his graduation from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Brian had had six good years with the neurofeedback and ranked at the top of his class in computer science. He was also selected for the math honorary, even though he was not a math major. His journal chronicles his personal struggles, and his changing perspective on his own condition. It forms the centerpiece of the book “Brian’s Legacy.”

In the late nineties, Sue made the pivotal discovery that the target frequency had to be highly individualized for best results. The search for the optimal training frequency for each person then drove the agenda for subsequent protocol development. Significantly, this took Sue to ever lower frequencies to train those who were more seriously dysregulated. This extended the field into entirely new terrain, the infra-low frequency regime, in 2006. The exploration of this low frequency domain occupied Sue for the rest of her professional life—seventeen years. Protocol developments were presented both in training course manuals and in Sue’s Protocol Guide, which is now in its seventh edition. Sue also played a key role in the annual conferences that brought the practitioner network together both in person and on-line.

This development entailed two major conceptual shifts: the first is that the resolution of mental dysfunction may involve the context in which the neural dance is organized more than the dance itself. This context is organized at low frequencies by the glial system. The second is that the search for optimal training parameters compels a shift to an observational approach in which the therapist is guided by the brain’s response to its own signal, as opposed to the conventional manner of training the brain by way of operant conditioning. This means a shift from what might be considered a treatment model of neurofeedback to a therapy model.

Sue’s professional life helped bring to light the vast potential for self-recovery in mental health, showing it to be our most under-exploited resource. Sue lived her life with dignity and purpose, and in a spirit of acceptance of what life dished out to her. Her mission in life was fulfilled in abundance. Sue is survived by her husband Siegfried Othmer, their son Kurt Richard Othmer, their grandson Colton Dean Othmer, and by an elder brother, Joseph Knowles FitzGerald of Moraga, CA. Two older sisters are deceased: Jean FitzGerald Jackson Seglie, of Kensington, Maryland, an editor, and Helen FitzGerald Cserr of North Dighton, Massachusetts, a professor of physiology at Brown University. Son Brian Othmer and daughter Karen Othmer are deceased.

Memorial donations may be made to the Brian Othmer Foundation (www.BrianOthmerFoundation.org/donate) in the furtherance of Sue’s mission. A private memorial service for family, friends, and colleagues is being planned for the morning of March 18 at the EEG Institute in Woodland Hills, followed by a walk open to the public in the Santa Monica Mountains that afternoon. Visit eeginfo.com/news for details.

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