When you go to the doctor, standard practice is that you tell them what’s wrong and they fix it for you. Biofeedback therapy (BT) is a little different. In BT, you tell the doctor what’s wrong and they train you to fix it yourself. This kind of therapy has been shown to be effective for everything from migraines to incontinence and is gaining popularity every day.
But how does it work? Perhaps the best analogy is with a mirror. In the same way that mirrors give us visual cues which allow us to improve our appearance, BT converts physiological signals into visual and auditory cues which allow us to identify and work on problems within our own bodies. This is done using a variety of sensors. The type of sensor used depends on the type of problem you are trying to solve.
An example would be a headband which monitors brain activity being used to aid meditation. As anyone who has tried meditation will know, it is sometimes difficult to know whether you are meditating or just sitting there in silence. The headband gives you signals in the form of sounds which tell you what is working and what is not. Replace the headband with a heart monitor and you can learn to control your heart rate. Replace it with a respiratory monitor and you can learn to control your breathing.
If I couldn’t hear, it would be nearly impossible for me to learn how to play the guitar with any degree of skill. This is because the auditory signals which allow me to identify what I did right or wrong in previous attempts are not present. In other words, if I can’t hear then I can’t tell that what I have just played sounded like a crying baby scraping a dental drill across a blackboard. BT allows you to hear what you are playing so that you can better understand what your fingers need to do if you are to become the next Hendrix.
An important point about BT is that the physiological signals which the patient is learning to identify are not normally conceived of as being voluntary or controllable. These signals include heart rate, skin surface temperature, stress or muscle tension. It is only when we can visualise these signals on, say, a computer screen that we can learn to control them. This technique is revolutionising how we think about the relationship between mind and body.
Adam Boland – Science Editor