Behavior: Alpha Wave of the Future

Behavior: Alpha Wave of the Future
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 emit—in 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 , occurring in sleep; theta , linked to
creativity; beta , identified with mental
concentration; and the relaxed alpha . 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 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.