Biofeedback Testing

22 Jun

I’ve always been fascinated with biofeedback, despite having had the chance to ever get my feet wet with it. The closest I’ve come is probably messing with mind machines and then there was that weird psychic experiment I did at Duke a couple years ago, too. But neither of those things qualify as biofeedback because (amongst other things) they lack a distinct characteristic: the ability to respond back! Let’s take a closer look and what this means and dig a little deeper into the topic of biofeedback testing.

What is Biofeedback?

My intro is misleading, so before I confuse you even more, let’s wrap our minds around what this whole “biofeedback” thing is anyway by looking at a geeky scientific definition.

Here we go, from the pages of Wikipedia:

Biofeedback: the process of becoming aware of various physiological functions using instruments that provide information on the activity of those same systems, with a goal of being able to manipulate them at will.

Honestly I had to read that definition twice as it’s a bit wordy, but in a nutshell we can boil it down to this:

A tool for measuring something related to your body – like heart rate, breathing, sweat – combined with the intention to use this tool to adjust what’s being measured in real time.

That’s pretty much what biofeedback tests are all about.


Biofeedback Testing Machines for Personal Use

This is where the subject of biofeedback gets really exciting. There are dozens of different tools and machines you can get and run experiments yourself. They are (mostly) affordable and offer a fascinating way to connect your body and your mind in a way that’s usually fairly inaccessible to us. I would imagine most people are interested in this type of testing in order to experience states of relaxation, concentration, focus, and so on. This is good because most commercially available biofeedback systems for personal use focus on just these things.

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Thoughtstream – a USB Powered Personal Biofeedback Device

This battery powered biofeedback device is about the size of a walkman and runs of three AA batteries. It looks to me like it offers an excellent introduction to using biofeedback personally at home in a way that’s easy to mess with and figure out without spending a ton of money either. I particularly like how it connects to your computer via the included USB cord and lets you interact with the results in all sorts of clever ways with graphs and such.

The method of biofeedback employed here is called Galvanic Skin Response (AKA skin conductance.) This involves burning your skin with a hot wire to see how you long you can take it before your heart rate increases… just kidding. All it means is that it measures the “electrical conductance” of your skin via moisture. Also known as sweat. What’s the connection here, you might ask? Sweat is controlled by the nervous system, and therein lies the ability to meaningfully use GSR biofeedback to interact with your body. Pretty awesome, eh?

If you’re curious, you can read reviews or buy a Thoughtstream here.

ALSO: If you’ve used the Thoughtstream I’d really love to hear from you. I’m particularly intrigued by this machine because it’s made by the same people (MindPlace) who make the Sirius Mind Machine, a super fun device I’ve toyed around with for years. In fact, at first glance, you could easily mistake one device for the other.

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The StressEraser Portable Biofeedback Device

The StressEraser is a modern looking, battery powered biofeedback device that measures one thing: heart rate. The idea here is that you can use the Stress Eraser machine to monitor your heart rate and then work on controlling your response to stress.

I love how simple it is to use. You interact with the device by breathing in and then exhaling when prompted. After that, you get all sorts of feedback about what’s happening in your body. Thus the feedback begins – literally, as in the results are “fed back” to you, when the next breath occurs, and more results are displayed.

Lots of people use this device as a kind of scientific approach to meditation. I also see it being used to help people deal with the causes of sleep deprivation and sleep problems in general.

Check out some reviews (or buy it) by clicking here.


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Stress Thermometer

Here we have a simple stress thermometer. It’s by far the cheapest device on this list. Probably because you have to have that little thing wired to your finger the whole time which is not nearly as cool as just breathing. 🙂 And also it just measures one comparatively simple thing: the body’s temperature.

How is knowing your temperature important?

Well, you’re able to gauge certain things with a temperature measurement such as stress but what I find most fascinating with a device like this is to simply use it for experiments in which you will yourself to lower or raise your temperature and…. then it actually happens!

Is this possible?

Yes. There’s a fascinating review at Amazon (Second review from the top.) from a hypnotherapist on using this stress thermometer as part of a hypnotherapy practice and monitoring the results after making a suggestion that they are warmer, stating the temperature changes 1-2 degrees. Amazing.

Now could you do this on yourself with being hypnotized? I would imagine so but am not sure. If you know, do chime in via the comments below.

Read reviews (or buy) the Stress Thermometer here.


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emWave Personal Stress Reliever

The emWave Personal Stress Reliever device measures what’s known as heart rate variability analysis or HRV. The idea is that you can see your HRV response to stress and use this machine to purposely train yourself to stay calm in those situations. People interested in this machine often are the same ones interested in the Stress Eraser, as the idea behind the two is the same although the mechanism is different. After reading several reviews between the two, it’s clear that while some love the emWave, the Stress Eraser is a better unit and costs about the same. (Unfortunately I did see a number of super negative reviews of this machine, too, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking about buying it or another similar one.)

Read emWave reviews here.


Um, Is Biofeedback a Scam Though?

Absolutely not.

I think that because it’s tool that can be used by individuals interested in human potential and personal development, this often triggers the skeptic radar in some peoples heads. But biofeedback is not a New Age fad. It is legitimate way to interact with your body and it is backed by scientific evidence. Speaking of which….

What Can Biofeedback Be Used For

Biofeedback can be beneficial in a variety of ways. Here’s a list of some conditions, diseases, and problems that can be in treated or whose treatments can be supplemented via biofeedback testing.

  • headaches
  • migraines
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • panic attacks
  • depression
  • fibromyalgia
  • chronic pain
  • back pain
  • asthma
  • physical rehabilitation
  • excessive sweating
  • lie detector tests (yes, the infamous polygraph test is a form of biofeedback!)
  • ADHD
  • depression
  • addiction
  • substance abus
  • seizures
  • hypertension
  • heart disease
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, COLD, COAD, CAL, CORD)
  • bedwetting
  • insomnia

While biofeedback is often associated with just helping work through “psychological problems” such as stress and anxiety, it’s fascinating to see that certain types of biofeedback testing is helpful for people with heart disease, sweating, ADHD, asthma, and COPD. In fact, I get most clinical applications of biofeedback aren’t really about reducing stress but are about more “serious” conditions such as physical rehab, asthma, chronic pain, etc.

Note I’m not suggesting if you have any of these problems you should just buy a biofeedback device and try and help yourself. Obviously you need to see a doctor if you have a serious medical condition.

*Those interested in procedures for back pain might want to check out my recent blog post on electric stimulation therapy. It’s not biofeedback but my hunch is you’ll find it interesting if reducing back pain is part of your interest with biofeedback machines.

What’s Your Experience With Biofeedback?

Love it? Hate it? Did it help you relax, meditate, sleep, focus, take over the the world?

I’d love to hear your experience using Biofeedback.

Please include what type of device you used and what the results were. Thanks!


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