CONSCIOUSNESS
© C.O. Evans & J. Fudjack

Addendum C -
Biofeedback Research [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


In this section and the next we suggest a theoretical interpretation of the data and findings of two important new areas of scientific research, namely biofeedback research and research into subliminal perception. We attempt to follow out the theoretical consequences of approaching this data utilizing the attentive model, and we attempt to show that on analysis it may be concluded that scientific researchers in both these fields have unconsciously assumed a spotlight model of consciousness. Our claim is that we can make a lot more sense of the findings in both fields if they are interpreted from the standpoint of the attentive model of consciousness. We shall examine biofeedback research in this section, and research on subliminal perception in the next.

To understand what is meant by biofeedback we have to think of a subject as capable of making an adaptive response when that person's attention is drawn to information about his or her own physiological processes.

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A biofeedback instrument is an instrument which makes this information available to the subject. This it does when it is connected to the subject's body by means of electrodes. The instrument measures changes in electrical activity occurring in the region of the body to which the electrodes are attached. These measures of electrical activity are displayed in such a way that the subject can make of the display an object of attention. The display may consist of movements of a needle across a dial, a changing sound, or a fluctuating light.

After a period of biofeedback training a subject learns to control the performance of the biofeedback instrument. That is to say, the subject learns to keep a needle steady at a point on a dial (which has been pre-selected), or to reduce the pitch of a sound, or to make a light go out or change color. In effect the subject has learned to act as the switch for the instrument.

Since the instrument is only registering a particular physiological process (such as heart beat, brain wave, or skin electrical response), it follows that to exercise control over the instrument is at the same time self-control of a physiological process.

Biofeedback learning is not complete when the subject has learned to control the performance of the instrument. It is completed when the subject can dispense with the instrument and alter a chosen physiological process at will without receiving the information made available by the instrument.

The question arises, How do subjects do this? The answer must be that

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another type of information than information supplied by the instrument is available to the subject. Subjects testify that this other type of information comes from subjective experience. 107 The attentive model provides us with a possible explanation of how a subject's subjective experience supplies him or her with this information.

The biofeedback instrument provides the subject (whom we shall suppose to be a woman) with objects of attention which are only obtained when she is in a particular underlying feeling state. This means that she cannot have the object of attention and fail at the same time to have the accompanying feeling state. She can be absolutely certain (for reasons of logical necessity) that when she experiences a particular object of attention (instrument reading) she is in a given underlying feeling state (the alpha state of relaxation, for instance). The information then about her physiological processes received by 'perceptual data' from biofeedback instrument reaches her in the form of objects of attention. The other kind of information is information she is privy to by virtue of experiencing the underlying feel state she is in while attending to the reading of the instrument.

Given the idea of an underlying feeling state -- the experience of the feel or quality of life at a particular moment - - it is possible to understand how the subject has information about her physiological processes independently of the information coming from the biofeedback instrument . This kind of information is information the subject possesses about the way she feels and is presented only in the form of feeling, not in the form of objects of attention. However, if an object of attention such as a reading on a dial, is constantly and consistently presented to a subject when in a particular

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feeling state, so that within the subject's experience the two become correlated, a researcher can identify that feeling state by referring to the corresponding object of attention. The subject then knows what feeling state the researcher is interested in having reproduced and she can oblige because she knows how the state feels, can tell when she is in it, and can produce it by entertaining one of a set of appropriate objects of attention.

So in order for the subject to dispense with the information of the biofeedback instrument she simply has to find a substitute object of attention to the one offered by the instrument which has the same property as the latter. The property in question is the property of only being present when the person is in the required feeling state. The attentive model explains how it is possible to find such substitute objects of attention. In concrete terms what we are referring to here as object of attention are such things as mental images, visual or auditory images, perceptual objects, memories, or thoughts. Some among such objects of attention will have the propensity to change the subject's underlying feeling state in the direction she determines (the alpha state if that is the choice). They have this propensity since it is the assumption of the attentive model of consciousness that every object of attention influences the quality of the underlying feeling state, and every change in underlying feelings state influences the selection of each succeeding object of attention. All the subject needs to do, therefore, in learning to manage without the instrument is to find by trial and error which objects of attention is supplied by the instrument.

Indeed, the desired instrument reading itself, when imagined may be all

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that is necessary to induce the appropriate feeling state. For insofar as the subject has been conditioned to experience that particular object of attention while in the feeling state in question (and this is insured by the biofeedback equipment set- up) subsequent entertaining of that object of attention can be expected to induce the desired feeling state. This has been shown in a related experiment in which Brown conditions subjects to respond to a particular color with a specific feeling by the simple procedure of having them merely attend to the hue of a light which (unbeknownst to the subject) shone with that particular color only when, and every time, the subject happened to be in that specified feeling state (as determined by a biofeedback instrument). 108 The case in which the subject by imagining a desired dial reading of a biofeedback instrument is effective in bringing about that reading in reality is not essentially different though it may appear a more surprising, perhaps magical occurrence. For in principle we might diagram the process occurring in both cases like this:

object of attention
entertained
——>feeling state
induced
——>dial reading
registered

When the entertained object of attention is the imagined dial reading the process is no different from when it is something else. And as long as the entertained object of attention, no matter what it is, induces the requisite feeling state the dial reading will register accordingly. However, when, in analyzing what happens in the case in which the imagined dial reading brings about the reading in reality, mention of the intermediate term (the feeling state) is suppressed, it appears as if the movement of the dial is the immediate effect of thinking it so.

With this understanding of the biofeedback process we arrive at the

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conclusion that in biofeedback training we are not learning to do something we have never done before with consciousness. We are on the contrary learning to do in a new context what we do with consciousness all the time. We might add, however, that the biofeedback instrument is of course indispensable for identifying the physiological correlates of particular feeling states. We have no other way of arriving at the knowledge, for instance, that a particular feeling state is accompanied by alpha brain waves. We might also add that the biofeedback instrument insures the experimenter's capability of presenting objects of attention of his choice to the subject which he can be sure will concur with a particular underlying feeling state. This is because the instruments supply the experimenter with independent information regarding the subject's feeing state -- namely, information about her physiological processes. We shall now turn our attention to a more precise formulation of this relationship that exists between underlying feeling state and physiological processes.

In order to investigate, in greater detail, how an individual's underlying feeling state is related to the physiological processes measured by the biofeedback machine, we need to understand, to begin with, how the measures of different physiological processes relate to one another. At first thought we could formulate the idea that each biofeedback instrument would give the reading of a different physiological process, as if they were independent of one another. But another hypothesis is the supposition that all these physiological measures are really indicating total changes of response of a single biological system. Thus we can conceive all these measures as different methods of making a single measure and that measure can then be supposed to

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be the measure of the biological system operating as a whole. So interpreted every biological instrument measures a single factor and that factor is the factor of change in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). References to the ANS can then be understood to be references to the single phenomenon every biofeedback instrument gives information about.

Now let us turn attention to the fact that the ANS is a property of a biological system, a person, and ask whether anything in experience correlates with the total systemic response of the ANS. The attentive model allow us to formulate the theoretical claim that measures of ANS activity are measures of changes in underlying feeling state. Here would be a correlation between physiological process and subjective experience of the sort we are looking for. It would make it clear that just as measures of ANS activity are measures of changes in a system as a whole, so also the measures of changes in feeling state are measures of changes in consciousness as a whole. For a feeling state must be thought of as a state of feeling in which what is felt is the whole state of the person. It is one and continuous. Of course it may be divided up in distinct moods and there is reason to mark off different phases which the feeling state undergoes as it changes in response to changes in objects of attention. However, once different feeling states are marked off from one another it is easy to overlook the fact that these remain demarcations of a single continuous process and, overlooking this, to land up with several feeling states which seem mutually unconnected with one another.

The hypothesis that all biofeedback instruments measure changes in ANS activity is not explicitly made by Brown in her authoritative general work on

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biofeedback, but it is a conclusion which can be drawn from her observations.

It is a curious fact of the marriage between physiology and psychology that only one bit of physiology and one bit of psychology are studied at one time. In quite separate experiments it has been found that heart rate, blood pressure, brain waves, muscles (and probably much more) of the physiologic being all react to dirty words. In the above experiment, however, we are restrained to the electrical changes in the skin and are not informed about the possible influences from other bodily changes. 109

And

The skin may be the key to learning how to "feel" the deep interior. While the skin needs electronic inventions that amplify and record to voice its awareness best, it is the skin that can serve as the spokesman for the body organs buried underneath. 110

And the claim that from the point of view of subjective experience every biofeedback instrument also measures changes in feeling state is very compatible with Barbara Brown's description of the biofeedback process. It is interesting, in this context, that in the above passage she chooses the word 'feel' to describe one's experience of the deep interior; but it is particularly important to note that she makes explicit use of the concept of a feeling state in her description of the biofeedback process. Speaking about a person who has just been connected with a biofeedback instrument she says,

When the desired brain wave occurs, the monitor faithfully signals its presence. At this point in time the subject has no prior knowledge of how that particular brain wave relates to his subjective feelings. He does, however, have a store of memory information by which he can relate the subjective feeling state present to previous similar subjective feelings when the light signal is on. 111

But although her observations support the claim that biofeedback instruments measure changes in ANS activity and although she speaks of feeling

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states that correspond to these changes she does not suggest the hypothesis that we have just suggested; namely, that the changes in the ANS which the biofeedback instrument registers are subjectively experienced as changes in the subject's underlying feeling state. And this is because, as shall be proved beyond doubt in what follows, her concept of feeling state is not the concept of feeling state felt as subsidiary. In other words, she treats the feeling states as objects of attention according to the spotlight model.

Nevertheless, the attentive model, in providing the concept of an underlying feeling state, invites a unique interpretation of the following passage. As this interpretation unfolds the advantages this concept affords in respect of a description of the biofeedback process will become apparent.

Not only can the skin talk profile personality and cultural backgrounds, it also reflects mood, that emotional tone of the individual around which his more immediate emotional reactions swing. Like the voice from the larynx, the voice of the skin rises and falls, becomes loud and soft, hesitates and delays, explodes with vigor. Every emotional nuance is reflected in transposing relationships of its electrical components, weaving them into ever more complex patterns to be puzzled over by psychophysiologists. 112
The attentive model invites us to interpret Brown's references to emotional tone, emotional reaction, and mood, as references to underlying feelings states or to subsidiary awareness. We might also comment that the model allows us to see the 'complex patterns...puzzled over by psychophysiologists' in terms of an underlying unity by seeing these complex patterns as the patterns of functioning of a single biological system, the ANS. It also allows us to understand that in the case of conscious beings like ourselves (i.e. conscious living systems) we have experience of the activity of the ANS, and that experience is our experience of an underlying feeling state. We deduce from

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the application of the model that ANS activity is always experienced by the subject whose ANS is under discussion. It is experienced as the underlying felt quality of being alive. It is the quality we address ourselves to when we seriously try to tell how we are feeling.

The way we feel-- in which we know the way we are feeling but cannot put it into words for someone-- is identified in phenomenological terms with a subject's underlying feeling states. The model makes it clear why we cannot verbalize the way we feel. We can only describe or put into words an experience which has become an object of attention. But a feeling state experienced as subsidiary cannot be an object of attention. Hence it cannot be described or put into words. Notwithstanding this, a subject may make the attempt to put into so many words the way he feels (the condition of his underlying feeling state). According to the model this attempt to turn attention to the feeling state itself succeeds only in singling out some feature of it for relevation as an object of attention. Thus the subject will mention something about his sensations and feelings. Typically certain sensations will be mentioned;; of pain in certain parts of the body, of pleasurable sensations, and so forth. Given that the sensation singled out in this manner is produced when the subject is set upon the task of making his feeling state itself his object of attention, it is natural, though mistaken, to conclude that the sensation singled out is in fact the whole of the feeling state. Thinking in this manner, as do those like Brown who have the spotlight model, it would also be natural to conclude, again mistakenly, that the only occasions on which feeling states are consciously experienced are occasions on which they are objects of attention of the sensation variety.

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We suggest that these two mistakes are found in a passage in which Brown maintains that we normally have no conscious awareness of normal ANS activity.

One of the most difficult worlds to achieve awareness of is the autonomic nervous system, the regulator of automatic, life-supporting body activity. As with brain waves, we rarely have the opportunity or take the time to see or hear or touch or have any sensation at all of the normal operation of the ANS. Breathing continues without effort, the heart continues to beat, the gut digests food, the bladder fills and empties, all with little, if any, conscious awareness and direction. 113

The crucial sentence in the passage is the one in which she says that mostly we have 'no sensation at all' of the activity of the ANS. On the spotlight model, the absence of any sensation at all can only be construed as an absence of any sensation qua object of attention, and this would imply absence of any conscious awareness of ANS activity. Furthermore, if the researcher with the spotlight model were to ask subjects for reports of their objects of attention (particularly their sensations) it would be no surprise to find that ANS activity was not among them. The spotlight model would then force the researcher to conclude (as we have just seen Brown do) that the normal subject has no conscious awareness of his or her ANS activity.

But we claim that this would be a complete mistake. From the perspective of the attentive model, every subject has conscious experience of ANS activity, and the experience of it takes the form of experiencing an underlying feeling state, or, subsidiary awareness. The attentive model enables us to understand references to ANS activity to be references to physiological correlates of subsidiary awareness in the same way in which references to REM states (rapid eye movements) are understood to be references to physiological correlates

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of dream states. 114 Just as a person experiences dreams without knowing of their correlation with REM states, so too a person experiences subsidiary awareness without knowing of its correlation with ANS activity. Accordingly, when a subject learns of ANS activity from a biofeedback instrument she has acquired her first awareness of ANS activity as an object of attention. This puts her in a position, however, to recognize that she has been familiar with ANS activity all her life since it is but the physiological correlate of her underlying feeling state.

Suppose we are right about its being a mistake to say that people normally have no sensation at all of normal ANS activity. How, we might ask, could this mistake show itself in a researcher's interpretation of subjective reports given by biofeedback trainees? (We assume, of course, that we are dealing here with a researcher who makes this mistake.) Such a researcher would be forced to construe a subject's references to feeling as references to objects of attention of the sensation variety. But considered from this point of view the subject's reference must appear to the researcher to be insufficiently specific to permit an identification of the sensation. The researcher would conclude that people are singularly bad at discriminating sensations connected with ANS activity. It is in this context that we should read the following remark in which Brown seeks to moderate a dispute which appears to exist between researchers and biofeedback trainees.

It seems to be a bit early in the development of biofeedback to criticize the relative inability of individuals to describe in fine detail their subjective sensations. 115

While this is doubtless a moderating remark it perpetuates the dispute by assuming that the deficiency lies in the subjects, and that subjects, in

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referring to their feelings, are referring to subjective sensations (conceived as objects of attention). What is more, Brown foresees the dispute coming to an end when subjects acquire greater skill in describing in fine detail their subjective sensations. But what effect would a researcher's request for finer descriptions of sensations be expected to have on a subject who on her own had come to identify responses of the biofeedback instrument with changes in underlying feeling state? It could only have the effect of making the subject doubt that she had been right in believe that the response of the instrument has something to do with her feeling state. The subject would then be likely to begin looking for new and previously unexperienced sensations to correlate with the instrument's response. If we are right, however, the researcher's request for finer descriptions of sensations correlated with instrument readings heads the subject in the wrong direction entirely, and guarantees a misunderstanding of the biofeedback experience.

The attentive model helps us to sort out the misunderstanding revealed by Brown's remark. Let us understand what Brown describes as the subject's failure at accurate reporting to indicate, in reality, a tacit disagreement between Brown and the subject about the way the biofeedback experience is to be described. The disagreement can be seen as resulting from the fact that the parties in disagreement are applying two different models of consciousness to experience. One, which the attentive model makes explicit, according to which the crucial experience in biofeedback learning is the experience of underlying feeling states, and the other, which the spotlight model makes explicit, according to which the crucial experience is one of finer perception of new objects of attention.

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From the point of view of an individual who implicitly adheres to the attentive model of consciousness the request for more detailed descriptions of subjective sensations would be taken to miss the whole point about the biofeedback experience; namely, that it is not what occupies the mind in focal attention that counts, but the underlying feeling state. A subject who recognized that this was what was important may tacitly understand the researcher's request for information about her subjective sensations to be a confused request for information about her underlying feeling state, only to find herself, in attempting to comply with the language of the request, running into the problem of communicating the ineffable when it comes to feeling.


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Footnotes

107. K.R. Pelletier, Mind as healer, mind as slayer: a holistic approach to preventing stress disorders (New York:Delta,1977), ch. 8.
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108. B.Brown, op.cit., ch. 11.
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109. Ibid., p.75 note.
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110. Ibid., p.97.
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111. Ibid., p. 362.
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112. Ibid., p.61.
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113. Ibid., p.96.
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114. R.M Jones, The new psychology of dreaming (New York:Viking Press, 1970). ch. 3.
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115. B.Brown, op.cit., p.337.
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