In 1926, Hans Berger developed one of the first devices to record an electroencephalograph (EEG). The device virtually filled a room and made a rudimentary recording. It was then known that the brain produces electrical signals in an oscillating wave form, though the process was not clearly understood.
Berger. among others, paved the way for more sophisticated means of recording the EEG and therefore a deeper understanding of the underlying neuronal processes that produce these wave forms. From the outset, it was known that a person could learn to exercise some level of control over the waveform being produced in real time. So, in essence, even the first EEG devices were biofeedback devices since the immediate feedback of the visual EEG recording enabled a person to gain voluntary control over their brain’s neuronal waveforms.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s through the work of both Dr Joe Kamiya at the University of Chicago and Dr Barry Sterman at UCLA, neurofeedback was developed further. Dr. Kamiya was studying consciousness, and discovered that by using a simple reward system, people could learn to alter their brain activity. Along similar lines, Dr. Sterman ran an experiment to see if cats could increase their sensory motor rhythm (SMR). A simple machine gave them a food pellet every time they ‘got it right’, and they quickly learned to control their brainwaves to get the treat.
By the 1960’s, numerous portable devices for neurofeedback had been developed, including the Brain Wave Synchronizer and Mind Mirror. Several years later, Dr Sterman was doing an experiment for NASA, again using the cats from his lab. This time, he was testing the effects of exposure to lunar lander fuel. For most of the cats, as the levels of toxic fumes increased there was a linear progression of brain instability – first drowsiness, then headaches, followed by hallucinations, seizures, and finally death. However, some of the cats seemed to be immune. Sterman noticed that the cats who were immune were the same cats he had used in the SMR brain training experiment a couple of years before. The SMR training had given those cats utra-stable brains. Sterman moved on to train SMR in humans to control their epilepsy – 60% of his subjects reduced their seizure level by 20-100% and the results lasted. As a result, NASA trained their lunar astronauts to control their brain’s SMR rhythms.
In the mid 1970s, neurofeedback caught the attention of meditators as an aid in spiritual development and so moved into an area between science and religion. Conferences were attended by two people in orange robes for each one in a white lab coat. Soon neurofeedback gained a dubious reputation as a meditation tool, which considering the extreme biases of the time, made it an unpopular choice for researchers and scientists.
Neurofeedback didn’t fit the (now defunct) medical view of how the brain functioned. Though the empirical data proved that neurofeedback worked, it couldn’t possibly work under the scientific beliefs of the time. Thus, neurofeedback became regarded as “fringe” or “alternative” medicine.
Out on the fringes of science, work continued. By the late 1980s neurofeedback was being used to help people with attention deficit disorders and through the 1990s, applied to a wide variety of psychological and CNS based conditions.
Over the last 20 years, the medical view of the brain has changed completely and the principles of neuroplasticity are universally accepted. Neuroscience has come to accept the interrelation between the CNS the autoimmune, endocrine and gastro-intestinal systems and emotional, physical, and mental health. Science and medicine has conceded that indeed, the brain can change at any age, and that we create new neurons and neural networks throughout life.