April 03, 1978 12:00 PM

From Green’s work with guided missiles came the inspiration for biofeedback machines

The idea seems as simple as a thermostat. Using electrodes to monitor such functions as brain waves and heartbeat, a patient can see how his body is working. Then, theoretically, he can learn to control these normally involuntary processes by thought and behavior.

To some doctors the notion seems foolish. To others it is “biofeedback,” a valuable new medical technique.

Dr. Elmer Green, 60, of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kans., is a biofeedback pioneer and one of its gurus. His experiments in biofeedback with his wife, Alyce, have included work with Indian yogis. One “stopped” his heart for 16 seconds. Another buried himself alive in a box for seven hours before asking to be released because he had received accidental shocks from a monitoring machine.

Many doctors take the technique seriously. The Biofeedback Society of America estimates there are 500 researchers studying it. Green himself was given a $150,000 HEW grant in 1967 as a staff member of one of the most prestigious psychiatric institutes in the world. Green’s theory is that most psychosomatic diseases result from stress, which disrupts the involuntary nervous system. “It’s the system that messes up our lives,” he says. “But one way to make the unconscious conscious is by picking up signals from your body.”

Green first began toying with this concept when he was studying physics at the University of Minnesota in 1938. After the war he worked on Navy guided missiles and later took his doctorate in biopsychology at the University of Chicago. In 1964, when a Menninger colleague suggested that if he could somehow measure the muscle tension in his neck, he could control it, Green recalls that the startling idea “really rang a bell.” He was reminded that all automatic devices—like guided missiles—are controlled by feedback. “The autonomic nervous system is hard to control,” he thought, “because there isn’t any feedback.”

Inspired, Green began using his knowledge of physics to develop biofeedback monitoring machines. His collaborator was Alyce, a North Dakota schoolteacher and actress who was a divorcee with two children when they were married in 1941. (Green, incidentally, wanted to call the technique “physiological feedback,” but that mouthful was voted down by his colleagues in 1969.)

At the Menninger Foundation the Greens discovered that their volunteers could raise the temperature of their hands by increasing the flow of blood to them—just by imagining warmth. To their surprise, the Greens also noticed that one female volunteer’s migraine headache simultaneously disappeared. By relaxing the involuntary nervous system to warm her hands, they argue, the woman decreased the blood in the head, where pulsing causes migraine.

Biofeedback has also been used as a treatment for many other medical problems—high blood pressure, epilepsy, alcohol and drug addiction, even cancer. But so far its major success has been with migraines. The sometimes overenthusiastic publicity accorded biofeedback has aroused criticism. “Elmer Green can’t prove his data—his research lacks essential controls,” says one foe, psychologist David S. Holmes of the University of Kansas. “There may be potential benefit from biofeedback, but I am a dustbowl empiricist. I think it’s a fad.” Karl Menninger, the foundation board chairman, says, however, “The benefits of biofeedback treatment can be proved. It helped me in using certain muscles that I thought were paralyzed for a year following an operation.”

The Greens have set up a clinic, the Biofeedback and Psychophysiology Center, at the Menninger Foundation and are currently treating about 85 patients. They have also put on two-day seminars for some 1,200 health professionals at $180 each. Elmer Green says he will work on biofeedback two more years, then switch to “the energy relationships between magnetic fields and states of consciousness.” His new scientific studies aren’t likely to win over many critics. “There is one mind,” he says mystically, “and we are all connected to it in some way.”

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