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Alpha may also prove useful in other ingenious ways. Psychologist Thomas Mulholland, president of the Bio-Feedback Research Society, thinks it may be feasible to develop teaching machines controlled by attention. When concentration is high, alpha is low: notified by proliferating alpha that a child's mind is wandering, the mechanical teacher could win his student back by showing a few attention-getting pictures.
Keeping Secrets. Other researchers believe that in an alpha state a sleep-deprived person may become effective again. Defense Department researchers are said to be toying with the idea that captured U.S. intelligence agents trained to turn on alpha could foul up enemy lie detectors and keep military secrets. In industry, major companies like Xerox and Martin Marietta are investigating biofeedback training to spur creative thinking and reduce executive tension; some are already experimenting with one of the dozen brands of portable brain-wave trainers now available for $300 or less.
To scientists like Mulholland, commercial alpha machines and the "alpha training institutes" now proliferating on the West Coast attract chiefly "the naive, the desperate and the superstitious." Machines operated by amateurs may record little more than amplifier noise or scalp twitches. There is still no proof that alpha and special mental powers go together, though the possibility tantalizes even the scientists. The alpha machine is still a long way from becoming Walker Percy's "lapsometer," which allowed Dr. Thomas More in Love in the Ruins to probe people's minds. But research is too new for anyone to claim that alpha training is a shortcut to nirvana. Electronic yoga remains a faddist's dream.