The six minutes are up. Marcia pushes away from the table and stands up, her forehead knotted, her cheeks pale. She pulls the electrode off her scalp and unclips her ears. She doesn't feel better, she says. She feels sad. She feels worse. All around the room, the beepings are tailing off as the exercise ends and low, murmured reports from other guinea pigs--some pleased, some disappointed, and some perplexed--take their place. From the table behind us, I can hear a hospital-based psychologist say that the chronic pain she's had in her knees since the age of 19 has disappeared, at least for the moment.
We're groping and blundering in the dark, tapping along the shadowy wall of a cave with our canes. We're sailors jumping on board with Columbus, sketching new maps as we sail into regions marked, "Beyond, There Be Monsters." Welcome to garage brain science.
The Origins of Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback is not new. It was first explored in the late 1960s, decades before the laptop computer, by psychologists who used big, expensive, primitive EEG feedback machines to help subjects generate more of the slow, regular, alpha brain waves characteristic of blissful states of meditation. At the same time, in southern California, a hardheaded neuroscience researcher named Barry Sterman (now retired from UCLA's school of medicine) was accidentally discovering that generating brain waves in slightly faster rhythms could do something perhaps more miraculous: it could make the brains of cats highly resistant to epileptic seizures.
Sterman wasn't a therapist. He had no interest in altered states. He was curious about the brain mechanisms involved when behavior is inhibited. In 1965, in his lab at the veterans' hospital in Sepulveda, California, he trained 50 cats to wait until a tone sounded before they pressed a lever and got a ladle of milk. The cats became physically relaxed but mentally alert, as though crouched motionless in a garden waiting to pounce on a mouse. Their EEGs--recorded along the strip of their skulls where Alice in Wonderland wore her headband--showed odd, spindlelike tracings, indicating that clusters of the surface neurons were firing synchronously in short, repeated bursts. If you could have heard them, they'd have sounded like mini-drumrolls or brief surges of rain hitting a window at about 12 to 15 times per second, punctuated by intervals of silence. Sterman named this frequency, which is faster than alpha rhythms, Sensory Motor Rhythm, or SMR.