The Self in Self-Regulation

by Siegfried Othmer | October 3rd, 2007

In working with neurofeedback we find that clinical realities quickly outrun our models. What’s worse, our changing conceptions are not always couched in new terminology that firmly ensconces the new realities and delineates the departure from the past. Sometimes we merely alter our view of words that we have used all along, and must continue to use. And it can also happen that our conceptions are changing beneath our formal awareness.

This is what may have been happening with the central term of our field, self-regulation. I was startled to read the other day a post in which Cory Hammond proposed that “self-regulation be taken out of the definition of neurofeedback.” In its place he would emphasize the processes of learning and conditioning. Traditional self-regulation he saw as connected more with peripheral biofeedback, where one is much more consciously engaged, and where the concept of “voluntary controls” (Menninger) is much more applicable.

But even in those days it was clear that clinical success meant that the control had to a certain extent been internalized. Biofeedback was not about eternal vigilance over one’s autonomic state. There were always two parts to the conception of biofeedback: the process of enhancing self-regulation within the session, and then the enhanced self-regulatory capacity that one took home.

But even if we go along with this line of thinking for a moment, is the issue really resolved by jettisoning the term “self-regulation” for a focus on learning and conditioning? This formulation certainly keeps the discussion safely in the camp of psychology, but does it get us any closer to understanding the realities of neurofeedback?

It seems to me that neurofeedback has simply shifted the balance slightly toward engaging the machinery of regulation more directly, when comparison is made to traditional biofeedback. The realities have not fundamentally altered. The moorings to the idea of voluntary controls have increasingly been cut. Directed attention and intention can still help to row the boat, but these are not essential to the underlying process. They simply aid it. The fact that this process can (and perhaps must) be understood on two levels may be illustrated by the following thought play.

“At some point within the lifetime of most of those reading this, a scientist gave a chimpanzee a mirror, and that chimpanzee recognized himself. If a patch had been pasted on his forehead surreptitiously, the chimp would see it in the mirror and then reach for it on his own forehead rather than grasping for it in the mirror. By contrast, a cat will just see another cat, and may even reach behind the mirror to get at it. The chimp has a sufficiently developed sense of self to make the identification. The cat does not.

“In this same time frame, our species has become a witness to our brains in action through the EEG, or electroencephalogram. For over eighty years now man has known what the EEG looks like, but only over the last forty years or so have we taken the opportunity to look at ourselves systematically through the mirror of the EEG—that is to say, watching our own brain as its activity unfolds—in real time. Now when “we” look at our EEG we are like the cats. We see fascinating data pass before our eyes, but we can’t be sure that the signal really refers to us, and it certainly isn’t clear what it all means. But our brains are processing this information all the while, and our brains are looking at these data much like the chimpanzee. The brain, as the ultimate author of that activity, recognizes itself in the unfolding signal. There is over time the unmistakable confirmation that the wiggles in the signal out there reflect real goings-on within the observing brain.”

It was not long after I wrote this piece (in an introduction to neurofeedback for a German audience) that George von Hilsheimer wrote the following in a post:

“Sterman’s cats did not have to understand, desire, or cooperate with the training; they got the resistance to seizure without any consciousness at all….Sterman is “cat” school, and not monkey school. Cat mothers need no cooperation from their kittens; they seize them by the neck and carry them. Monkey babies have to hang on.”

Both cats and humans can do neurofeedback in “cat school,” to borrow George’s charming metaphor. Neither the cat nor the cognitively impaired infant needs to know what is going on. But the brain, both in humans and in cats, is in monkey school. It must reach out and come to terms with the external reality, and nothing is quite so intriguing to the brain as something “out there” that correlates with something “in here.”

So, we now have a means for engaging the activation-relaxation dynamics of brain networks directly. But the objective remains self-regulation, and that always was and will always remain largely out of our abiding voluntary control. Once we are comfortable in the view that the whole debate is really about the state of regulatory networks, then it is a much smaller conceptual jump to accept that these networks can also be provoked by direct stimulation rather than by coaxing and cajoling, beguiling and beckoning, redirecting and renormalizing.

And once we realize that direct stimulation of extremely brief duration can bring about non-trivial clinical change, learning and conditioning models are also inadequate to describe what happens. We don’t have good models for one-shot learning. Conditioning takes time. A leap must be taken at some point to ask the question of what makes our regulatory networks stable. We have to move beyond psychological categories into the language of networks. But when we do, we will not really leave the term self-regulation behind. Rather, we will finally know what we are talking about.

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