Report on the Annual Conference of the Biofeedback Society of California

by Siegfried Othmer | November 11th, 2014

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

BSC Conference 2014
T he 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Biofeedback Society of California was an upbeat and rollicking affair. It got underway with a look back at the work of the Menninger group and the Life Sciences Institute by Patricia Norris. Ostensibly the key research objective there had been to study the dimensions of human consciousness, but in fact there was considerable engagement with the use of biofeedback for therapeutic purposes as well. The work with prisoners extended over nine years, and it reached a number of prisons. Support for this work was withdrawn at a time when the State of Kansas was facing a budgetary crisis that caused the cancellation of nearly all rehabilitation programs in the prisons, with the exception of some attention to violent sexual offenders.

I have always wondered why so little about this work was ever published. Rumor had it that the results were too modest to make for a compelling case in print. Such was obviously not the case based on Dr. Norris’ report. But Dr. Norris also readily acknowledged that a key ingredient of success lay in something outside of the protocol: Prisoners were universally treated with “unconditional positive regard.” It goes without saying that people tend to act in a manner that is consistent with their self-image, which prison wardens do their best to disintegrate. Much is gained just by treating people as having intrinsic worth.

The talk of work with prisoners brought Douglas Quirk into the discussion. According to Sterman, Quirk claimed to have altered the lives of some 5,000 prisoners with his SMR-training technique over the course of 25 years. For years George von Hilsheimer had been passing on to us the number 2,976, on the basis of his long association with Douglas Quirk. The number conveyed validity merely by virtue of its specificity. But even that claim elicited a lot of skepticism. So Douglas Quirk is yet another of the early figures who combined neurofeedback with somatic biofeedback, in this case GSR (galvanic skin response—better termed skin conductance). He also worked very successfully with schizophrenia, and in that case the primary if not exclusive reliance had been on GSR. (The disregulation status of schizophrenic patients is robustly revealed in the GSR response.) The Menninger group had mainly combined Alpha-Theta training with temperature regulation. “If I were reduced to a single measure, it would be temperature,” said Dr. Norris. She has personally been doing temperature training herself since the age of 13. But other techniques were included as well. Matters were typically gotten underway with autogenic training, and breathing was always taught.

Dr. Norris is currently teaching a course in Transpersonal Psychology at Holos University, and this abiding interest was also reflected in her talk. Just as the entire domain of self-regulation practice, from autogenic training and progressive relaxation to neurofeedback, has its roots in the practices of Indian yogis, transpersonal phenomenology traces back to the Upanishads. It did not start with Stanislov Grof!

Dr. Norris recalled two dramatic instances of ESP that had been observed during Alpha-Theta sessions at Menninger. I’ve heard those same two stories before from others, so one is tempted to conclude that such observations must have been quite rare. Well, yes, but not as rare as one might suspect on that basis. It’s just that these two reports are particularly detailed and hard to dismiss. One report is of a person coming out of a session and asking, “Who was that tall man in a brown and white shirt coming to see Elmer Green during the session?” (Other versions have him wearing horn-rimmed glasses.) Elmer Green had been in the monitoring room two doors away, and the event happened just as described.

On another occasion, the person came out of his session quite out of sorts. In a visualization he had encountered his roommate upon coming home. The roommate was all excited to tell him that he had been accepted at Harvard for graduate work.
“You’ve been reading my mail?”
Well, not exactly.
“The envelope had a transparent address window, and I peeked through and saw that you had been accepted.”
When the fellow got home that evening, the event he had visualized then transpired just as he had imagined it.

This second kind of report is much more troubling to me as a physicist than ESP, since our understanding of the laws of nature precludes such specific predictions of future events. But reports such as this are not unprecedented either. Elmer had experienced such events himself. During a rumination on his future, he had glimpsed a mental image of the clock tower at Menninger years before he ever laid eyes on it. He was to spend his most creative years there.

Dr. Norris and I had a chance to talk for a while prior to her formal presentation. Having just spent time reviewing the writings of Elmer and Alyce Green, I wanted to have some blanks filled in, particularly about the later period in which the biofeedback world turned its back on Alpha training. I was interested in how the different groups related to each other during this challenging time—The Menninger group, Joe Kamiya, Barbara Brown, Les Fehmi, Charles Stroebel, Adam Crane, Johann Stoyva, Tom Budzynski, and Thomas Mulholland. I had the feeling that the blow-up within the organization caused the different groups to scatter into their own independent orbits, thus losing contact with each other. The energy of fusion that had been generated at the original Council Grove meetings, which then led to the formation of the Biofeedback Research Society, was now missing.

In support of that view, Dr. Norris said that she had never familiarized herself with Barbara Brown’s writings. She knew of her mainly because of the electric toy train that she was using to deliver the alpha feedback (with proportional control!), which had gripped the public fancy.

Elmer Green is still with us. He is now 97 years old, and he’s living in Kansas. His memory function is no longer reliable. Dr. Norris promised to tell him of our recent trip to India. Elmer has retreated ever more into the life of the mind. This interest is strongly reflected in his last publication, “The Ozawkie Book of the Dead,” in which he chronicles the mental decline of his wife Alyce into Alzheimer’s dementia. In that three-volume opus, Elmer describes Alyce’s ability to carry on productive meetings on topics of her professional interest even as her mental function generally was radically declining. An island of competence was being conserved. During a later stage, when Alyce was no longer able to engage him in the mother tongue, they were still communicating for some years at another level. The implication is that personhood—the core self—may be maintained in AD well beyond the point where that is obvious to the external observer. We know the same to be the case with autism: we cannot judge the life of the mind of the autistic child on the basis of overt behavior.

What Patricia Norris described to us had been a fountain of creativity for some decades, and yet one is struck by the insularity of their efforts. The rest of the biofeedback community was no longer being kept informed because they had turned their backs on the whole adventure involving alpha training. When Eugene Peniston first brought his stunning data to the AAPB in 1990 in Washington, he received a rude reception. The organization had been blind-sided in a way. They did not know what was coming. They were quite done with alpha training, and could not abide having it resurface at their meetings. When Peniston came back three years later to present his superb follow-up data, the mandarins of the field were lying in wait to do him in. The names have been redacted to protect the guilty. What followed was an assassination of a professional identity. At a critical moment during that ritual slaughter, it was Patricia Norris who got up and pronounced with firmness that what she was witnessing was quite simply beyond the pale. Thus chastened, the critics fell silent. One felt besmirched and embarrassed for just having been present at this meeting. Peniston, a gentle soul among men, never returned.

This whole history reminds me of a characterization of the Reagan Administration by the then-art critic of Time Magazine, Robert Hughes: Reagan “cut the sinews of connectivity between ideas, and thus fostered the defeat of thought.” This trend has continued, and it is presently quite impossible to conduct a rational discourse on political issues within the United States. This is clearly the intention of the financial elites, with the result of a Tower of Babel era in our public sphere. The public square has disappeared.

In the earlier day this was also the intention of the mandarins of the field with regard to biofeedback. Just as lions aim to separate their intended prey from the herd before moving in for the kill, purported facts were always evaluated in isolation, and were not allowed to be appraised in the context of other, related findings. Clinical findings rarely rose to the level of proof of a proposition all on their own. They had to be appraised in context. Aspiring nuggets of insight were thus deliberately fragmented into oblivion, as context was sundered.

The reign of the thought police is reflected in yet another report by Patricia Norris. She said that during the early years membership in the Biofeedback Research Society was not open to clinicians, and they were not allowed to present at meetings. Only the academic priesthood was permitted to give talks. This was to assure that academic standards would be respected at every turn.

Obviously the basis for the setting of standards were the models that were already accepted within the core of academic professionals. This had the effect of rejecting novelty at every turn, a pattern of responding that has been weighing heavily on the field until fairly recently. Folks entering the field presently would not believe the thorough-going hostility to emerging findings and new ideas that dominated the field for nearly all of its existence. Since the opportunity for funded academic research had passed, the new findings tended to emerge from those unreliable clinicians. Some of this narrow-mindedness still prevails, of course, among the same people, but it just doesn’t matter any more. The organizations have completely lost control over the direction(s) of the field. They did so by discrediting themselves.

Meanwhile it was easy for clinicians to find fault with the presumptive objectivity and solidity of academic pursuits. As an example, Patricia Norris pointed to the difficulty of obtaining a baseline on salivary activity with the introduction of a probe into the mouth. Even the anticipation of a probe being placed into the mouth will no doubt affect salivation. The state dependence of physiological variables such as salivation called the very notion of absolute baselines into question.

Dr. Norris recalled Alyce Green’s abiding interest in creativity early on in her career. In an experiment with some 26 college students the impact of theta training on creativity was investigated. Instead of finding greater creativity where it was expected, namely in the students’ areas of academic interest, the experiences instead led to concern with issues of the self. The theta training had turned them toward issues that were most salient to the person, which tended to involve concerns about inter-personal relationships. This led then to the more extended exploration of their interiority. Over time, clarity was achieved on the proposition that the so-called theta state was central to the phenomenon of transformative experience, one to which alpha training was the mere precursor.

In recognition of her role in this research, Dr. Norris was presented with the Joe Kamiya First Person Science Award, which in this case it could be presented by Joe Kamiya himself. “First person science” refers to the study of psychophysiological states and of subjectivity, in effect the entire domain of self-knowledge. It is difficult now to see just how much of a departure from convention Joe Kamiya’s early research represented at the time. In the heyday of B. F. Skinner, inquiring into mental states was simply not a fit subject for study. In the context of American psychology, Kamiya had been the pioneer of first-person science, thus setting the stage for the Menninger group to carry on. All this was anathema to the Skinner acolytes within the field, who for purposes of feedback insisted on treating people as nothing more than large-size rats.

I want to end this installment of my report on a more positive note by observing that a new spirit and a new energy seems to be coursing through the BSC. This is surely attributable to new people coming into the field who have not been traumatized by that earlier reality, or had their creative impulses impugned and stifled by the erstwhile mandarins. The old guard is being humbled, overtaken by events beyond the reach of our organization(s). The intrusion of software into the realm of mental health has reduced the time constant of change to one that no authority figure can control or even oversee. We are witnessing the “eclipse of the elites,” and not only in our own field.

On the other hand, the core message of our discipline all along, namely the centrality of self-regulation strategies to the maintenance of health and well-being, has yet to be recognized by the society at large, and by the field of medicine in particular. So to be fair, that same crusty old guard has in fact been the valiant and steadfast custodian of a body of knowledge that was at risk of being entirely eclipsed in the West, and for that they have received small thanks and very little reward. With the aid of new software, allied with ubiquitous display capability and universal communications access, we will now finally see the broad diffusion of the self-regulation technologies that we always knew was coming. Our professional societies may have squandered the opportunity to direct the course of events, but we can all be pleased that this revolution is finally coming about. More on this in the coming installments.

Photo: (L to R) Siegfried Othmer, Nicholas Dogris, Joe Kamiya, Patricia Norris

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

2 Responses to “Report on the Annual Conference of the Biofeedback Society of California”

  1. Robert Boddington says:

    Correction offered:

    “Quirk claimed to have altered the lives of some 5,000 prisoners with his SMR-training technique over the course of 25 years.”

    This assertion is not supported by Quirk’s own data, published a year or so before his death.

    The actual number was 233. (Pilot study I: 50. Pilot study II: 106. Study III: 77):

    J Neurotherapy Vol 1, #2, Fall 1995
    Composite Biofeedback Conditioning and Dangerous Offenders: III
    Douglas A. Quirk, Ph.D. Ontario Correction Institute

    The history of von Hilsheimer’s erroneous claims about Quirk’s work has been well documented on the Yahoo Biofeedback List without credible rebuttal.

    Robert Boddington, MS

    • Dear Robert—

      Thanks for weighing in on this issue. Clearly George had a history of embellishing his recollections as time went on. So on the basis of your critiques over the years, I ceased to quote George’s number of 2976. But now we hear an even larger number from Douglas Quirk himself, as reported to us by Barry. First of all, it should be noted that Barry has not been not inclined to give Quirk any credit before now. He strongly disapproved of the use of the inter-hemispheric training protocol. So I was startled to hear this implicit endorsement from Barry on this occasion.

      Now as to what the numbers mean. Your head count of 233 refers to the people actually included in the formal evaluations, which is surely a much smaller number than the entire cohort that may have benefited over years. Quirk intended this to be the first of several publications on his twenty-five years of work at OCI. I assume that this study was undertaken relatively early in this timeframe. After all, it attempted to resolve the core questions of whether these methods were actually accomplishing something. On the other hand, the study was retrospective in that the data had to emerge from follow-up after a minimum of six months post-release, and extending to three-year follow-up.

      One may conjecture that these data were collected over the first four or five years of his work with these methods. And in this report he states: “Some of the deficiencies in the present study have been addressed in an ongoing replication.” This sentence appears to have been written at the time the work was ongoing, even though the publication emerged during Quirk’s retirement. This all has the flavor that at this point he is still figuring things out himself rather than presenting a finished body of work to his colleagues.

      By the same token, it may be that for purposes of the study he may have selected those subjects that met the tightest criteria. Being a clinician, he may have cast his net more widely in practice. The larger number may also encompass all the folks who received just GSR training. In this case there was no selection screen such as the Differential Diagnostic Technique (DDT). Any psychologist knowledgeable in biofeedback would see most inmates at a facility such as OCI as dysregulated and as potentially benefiting from biofeedback. Justifiably With 500 inmates passing through the facility every year, it is easy to see how he might have ‘benefited’ some 5000 over the course of his quarter-century career.

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