Exploring Biofeedback


The integrative theorist approaches everyday life differently: familiarity is replaced with explanation. Some aspects of our existence are more explained than others. Observing a rainbow is a less mystifying experience than watching people laugh at a soap opera.

I enjoy watching yoga instructors summarize how various postures affect their bodies. Some of their explanations feel vacuous; perhaps “toxin cleansing” talk must be more satisfying emotionally, than intellectually. However, many of their observations are both manifestly true and surprising. Grist to the mill.

With more training in anatomy, many of these phenomena would cease to surprise. However, not all of these surface-level observations already have pre-packaged explanations. Let’s go exploring!

Requisite Concepts

Your brain likes to process information via topological maps. Your vision system processes information in this way, different locations in Area V1 strongly correspond with locations in your visual field. Our brain maintains other maps as well, including a map of your own body. This map cannot be consciously altered, and it may contain erroneous information (c.f., phantom limbs and the neuromatrix theory of pain).

Another requisite concept I will call sensory consilience. Humans possess equilibrioception. As Wikipedia explains, “the organ of equilibrioception is the vestibular labyrinthine system found in both of the inner ears.” How, then, are we to explain this observation known to those who practice yoga: closing one’s eyes makes one more susceptible to falling? Visual information is combined with balance information in perceptual centers of the brain, to create a strengthened notion of balance.

Lastly, I want to distinguish between the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. Speaking impressionistically: the sympathetic system prepares the body for “fight or flight” by raising heart rate, blood pressure, muscular readiness, etc; whereas the parasympathetic system returns the body to a more calm, restorative, sustainable physiological condition.

The Promise Of Biofeedback Therapy

Biofeedback therapy is an emerging technology that shows a good deal of promise. People who can watch their heartbeat on a monitor tend, on average, to be more quickly able to lower their pulse. Neurofeedback is a particularly interesting version of this therapy; for example, depressed patients may achieve symptom relief by introspecting while they have access to an fMRI image of their brains.

From a sensory perspective, what is going on? Without biofeedback, patients aren’t completely ignorant of their bodily state. We can be made aware of our elevated heartbeat by auditory means (throbbing), chemical means (headrush), etc. Biofeedback augments this pre-existent information with new, visual information from the monitor.  In other words, biofeedback encourages sensory concilience.  While the details of how these disparate data sources are combined remain elusive, we can safely conclude that the result of this computation updates the body map.

Sensory consilience is clearly a System 1 activity: no one consciously orchestrates how vision corroborates equilibrioception. Yet biofeedback opens new channels of sensory consilience, and these new channels require time to be installed. Just as with any other habit, it takes time for the new source of information to “bootstrap into your subconscious processes”.

Making Sense Of Dance

I’ve recently decided that rocking out in the car is fun. 🙂 But, dancing too energetically causes an interesting reaction: some muscles complain, but subsequently the entire body feels fatigued. Dancing in moderation seems to have the opposite effect: certain muscles report strength, and subsequently the entire body feels energized.

This type of observation surely informs the fact that many people engage in mild “hand motions” while enthusiastically talking, etc.

How do we make sense of this?

Emotion evolved to facilitate behavior.
Why is fatigue? Fatigue is the message that the body is ready to slow down (parasympathetic system)
Why is energy? Energy is the message that the body is ready to speed up (sympathetic system)

But evolution is a kluge. These emotions would subserve behavior more precisely if they addressed particular muscle groups. But they do not. Pumping a fist to the beat causes the legs to feel tired. Communication gestures that energize the whole body is a physical lie (you do not, on the basis of those signals, know that you are in better condition to run a marathon) that is employed for psychological reasons (resources that would have been paid to, say, digestion, are now redirected towards cognition).

Making Sense Of Remedial Smiling

Bikram Yoga is aerobic activity conducted in a room set to 100 degrees, 30% humidity. It is not uncommon to become overwhelmed, to not move until your body regains control of itself. The last time I went, after a particularly grueling set of poses, we laid on our backs and breathing hard through the nostrils, recovering. The instructor advised us to smile while exhaling. After trying out this suggestion, the advice seemed to bear fruit, but only if the magnitude of the gesture is controlled. In moments with extreme sympathetic activity, facial expressions made things worse; in moments where the parasympathetic system was just beginning to take over, a smirk was the optimum gesture.

This type of observation surely informs the fact that people suffering from melancholy are encouraged to force themselves to smile.

How do we make sense of this?

First, we need to admit some form of mental bidirectionality. Introspection is not the only way to edit your mental state: what you do can modify what you feel. But, we can become more specific than this. How could the act of smiling ever cause happiness?

Perhaps we could appeal to some mechanism that takes our current emotional state, and our current behavioral, as inputs.  It would then compare the two, and attempt to smooth out their differences. If we perceive ourselves smiling while slightly melancholic, perhaps these two signals will be reconciled within the body map. But if we perceive ourselves smiling while intensely melancholic, perhaps the reconciliation will fail and our self-image is instead linked to feelings of insincerity.


The above is too vague for my liking… I hope to improve on it later.

Let me close by bookmarking yoga-inspired observations that beg for explanation:

  • Why am I encouraged to close my eyes at the end of class, but not during it?
  • Why am I encouraged to almost always breath through my nose, rather than my mouth?

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