Alone in a semidarkened room, a young woman relaxed in an armchair before a blank screen, three electrodes fixed to her scalp and one grounded to an earlobe. Suddenly a pale blue light flickered on the screen and then steadied; a voice said quietly: "That's alpha."
The voice was that of Neurophysiologist Barbara Brown of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda, Calif. She was demonstrating "biofeedback training," a new way of teaching human beings to control the kind of waves their brains emitin this case, a rhythm called alpha, which usually accompanies a mood of relaxed alertness.
Letting Go. The brain's constant electrical activity produces wave patterns that can easily be measured with an electroencephalograph attached to the scalp. The patterns, recorded by the EEG as tracings on ribbons of paper, come in four main wave lengths: delta (.5 to 3 cycles per sec.), occurring in sleep; theta (4 to 7 per sec.), linked to creativity; beta (13 to 30 per sec.), identified with mental concentration; and the relaxed alpha (8 to 12 per sec.). It was only in 1929 that German Psychiatrist Hans Berger discovered alpha waves and not until 1958 that experimenters began working with alpha training. A tone or light activated by the EEG tells a trainee when he is producing alpha. Asked to keep the feedback (the tone or light) steady, most people can comply simply by relaxing.
If the system works as well as current research suggests, it may prove a boon for psychology, psychiatry, education and even industry. Already it has spawned a pop-alpha cult of profit-seeking trainers and fervent devotees in search of instant Zen.
The link between alpha and meditative states seems real enough. According to Psychologist Joe Kamiya of San Francisco's Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, an early pioneer in the field, Zen masters produce more alpha when they are meditating than when they are not, and they are quick to learn how to switch it on and off. Artists, musicians and athletes are also prolific alpha producers; so are many introspective and intuitive persons, and so was Albert Einstein. Alpha researchers report that subjects enjoy what Psychologist Lester Fehmi of the State University of New York at Stony Brook calls the "subtle and ineffable" alpha experience. Its pleasure, theorizes Kamiya, may come from the fact that alpha "represents something like letting go of anxieties."
It is partly this tension-relieving aspect of alpha that makes brain-wave control potentially useful in psychiatry. For example, scientists hope they can help claustrophobics by training them to produce alpha and thus relax in enclosed spaces. In Beaumont, Texas, the Angie Nall School for problem children has experimented with alpha training to relax stutterers and as a substitute for tranquilizers in hyperactive youngsters. At the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kans., Psychologist Elmer Green is training subjects not to raise but to lower their alpha while increasing theta. In a low-alpha, high-theta state, Green explains, deeply buried unconscious problems sometimes seem to float into awareness.