Monday, February 21, 2022


Biofeedback, by Marvin Karlins and Lewis M. Andrews
September, 1974  Warner Paperback Library

It doesn’t get much more “early ‘70s” than biofeedback; I mean just look at that girl’s frazzled hair on the cover. It practically epitomizes the post-Altamont comedown that followed the Aquarian Age. I’ve been interested in this subject for a long time but have never read much about it. I got this Warner paperback – which followed the original 1972 hardcover edition – some years ago, but have only now got around to reading it. The book definitely made an impact at the time; my edition, shown here, is the fourth paperback printing. So that’s a total of five printings in two years, counting the hardcover. 

The first I ever heard of biofeedback was in an old book, probably sometime in the late ‘90s. I bring this up because Biofeedback states in the opening: “To our children, biofeedback training will be as commonplace as television has become to us.” I guess I could be considered the “children” referenced here, given that I was born the month after this fourth paperback edition was published. And so I can confirm – no, biofeedback training did not become as commonplace as television. At least I’d never heard of it until coming across references in old books. But who knows, maybe others out there grew up listening to their own breathing on bizarre gadgetry and employing other high-tech gadgets to control various parts of their bodies, minds, or whatnot. 

Accordingly the book opens with a vaguely sci-fi intro in which we take a peek into a “voluntarium,” a biofeedback-equipped hospital of the future in which patients use machinery to conquer their own ailments. Biofeedback, we’ll learn, is the process of using “feedback from different parts of our body,” in other words listening to our body to figure out what is wrong with it. There’s quite a bit of Future Shock here, ie Alvin Toffler’s epochal study (which is even referenced in the text). That very ‘70s mentality of an oncoming future in which minds and bodies are united with technology. Again, the cover photo tells you pretty much all you need to know. 

Biofeedback runs to 190 pages, but only 138 pages are composed of narrative; the remaining pages are comrpised of notes and further reading suggestions. Much of the book is given over to the history of biofeedback research, and the training in action. The authors are specialists in this field, and occasionally deliver a personal insight, but for the most part they stick to a formal tone. That said, Biofeedback still manages to capture the groovy vibe of the era, particularly when the authors provide imaginary scenarios of how biofeedback training can be used. However it isn’t until near the end of the book that they give probably the best example of biofeedback training that is commonplace: when athletes or sports teams watch videos of themselves, using this “vision feedback” to improve their game. This is indeed so commonplace that I never realized the practice started as a sort of biofeedback exercise. 

The authors focus on biofeedback as a way around traditional medicine, which is how they envision the practice will ultimately evolve. Instead of a regimen of drugs or surgery for an ailment, a person would hook himself up into b.f. machines to figure out what’s wrong with his body and how to fix it. We get a lot of success stories on test trials of various training, to reduce hypertension or other maladies. There’s also material on how biofeedback training can be used for less severe things, like subvocalizing when reading; a case study shows us how a machine was able to make a noise when hooked up to a test subject who was subvocalizing while reading without any awareness of it. Some of the experiments capture that post-psychelic Spaced Out vibe of the era:

It gets even groovier in the speculative sections, where the authors give a glimpse of their “voluntarium.” The below could be a scene in Rollerball

This sort of material is the highlight of Biofeedback, but for the most part the authors rein in their speculative impulses and just give us somewhat dry rundowns of biofeedback history. But sometimes they are able to incorporate the groovy speculative scenes with history, as with this account of the biofeedback study one of the authors particpated in while a college student in the late ‘60s:

True to the era, there’s a fair bit of America-bashing in the book. Not to the level one would encounter today, but the authors take a few swipes at American culture…how it is business centered, with a focus on quick rewards. This in particular comes under fire when the authors look at how biofeedback could be a shortcut to nirvana. Whereas some people devote lifetimes to meditation to achieve a sort of cosmic awareness, the authors claim that b.f. gadgets could just as easily lead to the same destination. And Americans, we’re informed, love their gadgets, thus this reliance on biofeedback gadgetry to achieve the wisdom of gurus is a very American thing. This gets into the speculative arena again, and I almost wished the authors had just written a near-future novel imbued with this whole biofeedback-fueled Future Shock vibe. It looks like Lawrence Sanders sort of did, though, with his 1975 novel The Tomorrow File (which I’m currently reading and will review eventually…it’s one long book!). 

Speaking of other authors, the final section of Biofeedback could almost come from the mind of Joseph Rosenberger. Here we learn of “underground science,” how biofeedback has been used – especially behind the Iron Curtain – to study ESP and telekinesis. I’m pretty certain Rosenberger dealt with this very topic in at least one Death Merchant installment. But coming away from Biofeedback I wanted to see more of these concepts put into action, even if it was just speculative fiction. Another intriguing speculation the authors put forth is that biofeedback centers would be everywhere in the near future, but obviously that too never happened – unless I’m just completely clueless about them. Which is possible. 
Actually, I came away from the book interested in the biofeedback phenomena, and I wondered why it never caught on like the authors predicted it would. If anyone out there could share some history on the topic, I’d appreciate it.


Front Toward Enemy said...

(Zwolf again)

I don't know much about biofeedback, but I do remember back in school I went over to a friend's house to spend the night once, probably around 1982 or so, and he had a very early video game system. I don't remember what kind it was, but these were very crude games, almost all text stuff. He only had about three games for it, because there weren't that many. We stayed up all night playing the blackjack game, but we also goofed around with one "game" that was nothing but biofeedback. You'd answer a few questions and it would give you these wave charts that we could make no sense of. Even my friend didn't really know what this "game" was, and he was about the biggest computer-nerd I've ever met (he actually got in a fight in school once with another kid over MacIntosh vs. IBM... it was like gang warfare to these guys). Even as kids we didn't put much stock into the thing because it asked so few questions... it might as well have been a horoscope. But, strange that with a limited amount of "games" available for this system, one was dedicated to biofeedback. They probably thought they were getting ahead of what was going to be a big trend.

Graham said...

The thing with the wave charts sounds more like another 1970s pseudoscience, biorhythms which were supposed ups and downs that started when someone was born and followed predictable patterns throughout their lives.

Believers tried to optimise things for when the various 'waves' were at their height.

Of course it was all self delusion, but it sold a lot of books.