Hack Your Mind Like a Twenty-First Century Soldier: Using Biofeedback to Become More Resilient

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 28, 2013 · 31 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development


Two important skills for any man, and especially any would-be sheepdog are 1) managing stress 2) and remaining resilient in the face of extreme adversity. In our post about managing stress arousal for optimal performance, we broke down what happens to the body and mind as it deals with increasing levels of stress. Basically, as stress levels rise, our mental and physical performance deteriorates.

During my research about developing a sheepdog mentality, I kept coming across reports on how the U.S. military is spending tens of millions of dollars each year researching the vital question of how to make soldiers more resilient. The research has two goals. First, the military wants to create highly-effective soldiers who can perform at the highest levels, even under extreme stress. Second, they hope that by training soldiers to be more resilient, they can reduce the skyrocketing incidents of PTSD.

In 2008 the U.S. Army developed a resilience training program called Battlemind (now known as Ready and Resilient) in response to increased PTSD and suicide rates among soldiers returning from the frontlines. As part of their basic training, all incoming recruits are given 10 days of resilience instruction designed to fortify their mental toughness. In addition to the usual push-ups and shooting drills, soldiers are also taught how to meditate, how to use controlled breathing to reduce the stress response in their minds and bodies, and fundamental resilience skills such as how to avoid catastrophizing and how to change your explanatory style in the face of failure or setbacks.

Besides giving soldiers basic cognitive therapy tools they can use to manage stress, the Department of Defense has also experimented with technology that allows soldiers to monitor their physiological response to it. The idea is that if soldiers can see how their minds and bodies are reacting to stress, they can learn how to control this response, increasing their ability to stay calm and bounce back quickly in tough situations.

The real-time monitoring of one’s physiological responses is called biofeedback. And it’s straight out of a weird techno-hippie sci-fi novel (or so it seemed to me when I first learned about it).

Proponents would argue, however, that far from being hippie dippie, it’s a highly effective way for soldiers and civilians alike to learn how to manage stress, clear the mind, improve focus, and become all-round more mentally and physically tough and resilient.

Does biofeedback live up to its claims? I decided to experiment with it to see if it could help me improve myself.

Below, I summarize how biofeedback works, give a report of my experience using it, offer a list of tools if you want to try it out too, and then provide my verdict on whether or not biofeedback can help the average Joe become a better man and a more effective sheepdog.

What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback’s origins go back to ancient Hindus and Buddhists, but it wasn’t until after World War II that biofeedback — as it’s used today — came into existence.

Biofeedback works by attaching instruments to your body to measure physiological activity like brain waves, heart rate, body temperature, respiratory rate, and muscle tension. You (and often a trained doctor) can see these measurements in real-time on a computer screen. Because you are able to get immediate feedback on your typically hidden mental and physical responses, you can experiment with modifying your thinking and breathing to facilitate desired physiological changes.

Here’s a simple example of biofeedback. Let’s say you’re chronically frazzled. You hook yourself up to a heart rate monitor, which reveals a resting heart rate that indicates that you are indeed stressed out. So you try different breathing and muscle relaxation exercises to bring your heart rate down. The monitor gives you real-time feedback as to whether these exercises are working.

A typical biofeedback session will measure one or more of the following physiological activities:

  • Electromyogram (EMG). This measures muscle activity and tension. This measurement is often used for patients wanting to get a better handle on back pain, headaches, and incontinence.
  • Heart rate variability (HRV). This measures heart rate. As we discussed in our post about stress arousal, as stress increases, our heart rate increases. According to biofeedback, knowing your heart rate is increasing should allow you to perform exercises to lower it. Heart rate monitoring is typically used to help patients gain control of their stress and anxiety.
  • Neurofeedback or electroencephalography (EEG). This measures brain waves. This biofeedback measurement has been used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, stress, and PTSD.
  • Thermal feedback. This measures skin temperature. Because our body temperature decreases when facing extreme psychological stress, being aware of your body temperature allows you to take steps to manage that stress.
  • Electrodermal activity (EDA). This measures sweat. When we’re nervous and anxious, we perspire more.

Independent randomized controlled studies have shown biofeedback is an effective way to reduce high blood pressure, eliminate migraines, reduce anxiety, and even treat constipation. Some studies dispute biofeedback’s effectiveness to treat ADHD and PTSD, but the military feels it has gotten good results on this front.

To see if I could achieve the same positive results found in these studies, I decided to conduct my own personal experiment with biofeedback.

My Own Experiment With Biofeedback

Until recently, if you wanted to take part in biofeedback training, you’d have to find a specialist in your area and visit their facility so you could hook yourself up to their sensitive medical sensors. A typical professional biofeedback session can set you back a hundred dollars.

But during the past ten years, the price of medical sensor technology has decreased enough that they’re now accessible to the average consumer. Heart rate monitors are common at gyms and running trails around the world, and brain activity sensors are becoming so cheap that they’re popping up on toys.

My research into how the military uses biofeedback to increase soldiers’ mental toughness led me to the National Center for Telehealth and Technology (or T2), a division within the Department of Defense that researches the psychological health of military personnel.

T2 has produced several free apps to help current and veteran soldiers reduce stress. While they’re designed for soldiers, civilians can download them too. Tactical Breather is one; Breath to Relax is another.

The one that caught my eye, though, was their BioZen app.

BioZen is a free biofeedback app for Android smartphones that uses Bluetooth-enabled biosensors placed on the body to give patients suffering from anxiety, stress, and depression an affordable biofeedback experience.

BioZen measures EEG (brain wave activity), EMG (muscle tension), skin temperature, respiratory rate, and ECG (heart rate variability).

Besides a real-time chart of the above measurements, BioZen also has a meditation feature in which users manipulate an image on their smartphone screen with their mind and heart rate activity.

It’s pretty cool.

As your brain activity gets in a more meditative state, a sun in a landscape setting starts to get brighter and brighter; as your heart rate gets slower — indicating a low stress level — a tree and birds appear in the foreground. BioZen records your physiological activity during these meditation sessions and gives you a score so you can see how you’re progressing with your meditation and stress reduction practice.

Intrigued by the concept of accessible biofeedback, I downloaded the free BioZen app. While the app was free, the biosensors weren’t. BioZen works with just a few compatible devices, and all of them are unfortunately expensive.


The Zephyr BioHarness. (Not my floating torso.)

To measure my heart rate, respiration, and skin temperature with BioZen I needed a Zephyr BioHarness. It’s a sophisticated consumer heart rate monitor used in the athletic and tactical fields to monitor stress response. The BioHarness set me back $549. Eesh…

To measure my brain wave activity, I needed an EEG measuring device called the Mindwave Mobile. The Mindwave is a futuristic looking headset with a small sensor that rests on your forehead above your left eyebrow. Another sensor clips on to your left earlobe. Wearing it makes me feel like an extra on Star Trek.

After sinking nearly $700 on biosensors, I began to have some buyer’s remorse and serious doubts about this experiment. “Will this stuff even work?” “Am I being bamboozled by 21st century snake oil?”

Doubts notwithstanding, I opened up BioZen to start my first meditation session. An empty and dark landscape scene filled my phone’s screen. As my heart rate slowed and steadied, a tree and some birds appeared.


Heart rate made the tree appear, but because my mind was all over the place, no sun.

But the scene was still dark, with no rising sun in sight.

To illuminate the screen, I had to get my mind in a meditative state. I kept checking to see if a sun had appeared.

Nothing. Still darkness.

I tried to empty my mind and just focus on my breathing. I’d get a second or two of blissful nothingness, but immediately my “monkey mind” would return. Ten minutes into my meditation session, I still wasn’t able to create light on my landscape scene. Just when I started to think I had wasted my money on this silly looking headset, it happened.


Hark! Yonder light! I’m becoming more meditative.

A small, dim sun rose above the horizon. I was excited – hope at last! I tried to harness all my brainpower to maintain the sun, but it disappeared as quickly as it appeared. For the next ten minutes of my meditation session, I would make the sun appear and disappear with nothing but my mind. I felt like Neo learning how to manipulate the Matrix.

When my session finished, I reviewed my results. While I had normal resting heart and breathing rates throughout my session (indicating low physiological stress), my brain wave activity indicated that my mind had been quite scattered.

Over the next few weeks, I trained two times a day for 20 minutes a session with BioZen. After the third day I started seeing improvements in both my heart rate and brain wave activity. It’s hard to describe how I did it, but I sort of figured out how to indirectly control my involuntary bodily functions. The instantaneous feedback that BioZen provided allowed me to experiment on the fly with different techniques and strategies to relax and focus.

I lowered my resting heart rate to 45 BPM and could maintain it there for the entire meditation session. Before the biofeedback training, my normal resting heart rate during a meditation session was 70 BPM, which is average. A resting heart rate between 40 and 50 BPM is what you see among well-trained athletes.


Now I can use my brain to make the sun shine brightly for the entire meditation session.

My scattered brain improved as well. After three days of biofeedback training, I successfully got the little digital sun to fully rise and illuminate the screen, indicating that I reached a highly meditative state.

After weeks of training, I’m now able to keep the digital landscape fully illuminated for almost the entire meditation session. The chart that tracks my meditation score has pretty much followed an upward trajectory. I had a few distracted sessions, but for the most part my mind is much more Zen.

Overall, I’ve been happy and surprised by the results of biofeedback training with BioZen. According to the data, I’m much less stressed and more even-keeled than before I started biofeedback training. My resting heart rate — even when I’m not meditating — is lower and my brain activity shows I’m much more relaxed and focused.

Subjectively, I can report I feel much more calm than I did before biofeedback training. I’m sort of anxious and neurotic by nature, so it’s nice to feel less on edge

I also feel much more focused and present in all my daily activities, be it working or hanging out with my family.

I think the biofeedback exercises have boosted my resiliency too. Getting agitated in the face of little work-related annoyances has long been a weakness for me, and I feel like I handle setbacks better than I did before. I still have a tendency to be impatient and get frustrated quickly when a lot of Q3 demands come rolling in, but I shake it off and get back on track much quicker than before. Would this increase in my resiliency carry over to more of a crisis situation? Only time will tell.

Were these perceived benefits the result of a placebo effect, however? With all things like this, there’s certainly a chance that these little gizmos act like Dumbo’s Magic Feather. I’m open to that possibility. Even if that’s the case, I’m okay with it. If it works, it works. However, as mentioned above, research suggests there’s more than a placebo effect going on.

Whether it’s placebo or honest-to-goodness efficacy, I’ve made biofeedback training a regular part of my life. I treat my sessions with BioZen sort of like my workouts at the gym. It’s just something I do, no matter what.

Biofeedback Tools for the Average Joe

Has your curiosity been piqued and you’re thinking you’d like to give biofeedback a try?

If you’d like to practice biofeedback regularly and don’t want to plunk down the thousands it costs for multiple sessions at a professional facility, below I highlight a few of the biofeedback devices available to consumers.

Heart Rate Sensors

Zephyr BioHarness. What I use. It’s compatible with the BioZen app, but also has its own app that you can use to monitor your heart and respiratory rate. As I mentioned above, I’ve been impressed with the results using my BioHarness, and it’s now an everyday fixture in my life.

While it’s cheaper than a professional heart and breathing rate monitor, the Zephyr BioHarness is still freaking expensive at $549. If you just want to dabble with biofeedback, go with something cheaper. Once you decide to go full hog with the training, then you might consider investing in this device.

eMwave2. This is a small device that measures your heart rate and then helps you become more “coherent” (basically lowering your heart rate and making it more steady) though a simple breathing exercise. The eMwave2 seems to be popular among the New Age/Secret folks. I haven’t used it personally, but I can see it being an effective tool for reducing your physiological stress response.

A plain old heart rate monitor. You don’t need some fancy-pants BioHarness or heart rate trainer to get the benefits of heart rate biofeedback. Any heart rate monitor will do the trick. There are plenty of sub-$100 devices on the market. While most of them can’t measure respiratory rates nor work with BioZen, you can still use a heart rate monitor to learn how to control your stress response to day-to-day activities.

Brain Wave Activity Sensors

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Consumer devices that measure brain wave activity are not as sensitive and accurate as the devices you’ll find in a professional laboratory. However, I imagine in the next five to ten years, we’ll see more accurate and affordable consumer brain wave monitors. Nonetheless, the devices on the market now do a decent job considering what you’re paying.

Mindwave Mobile. This was what I used, and still use when I can get it to work. It will set you back $127. It works with BioZen, but is also compatible with several other apps on the market. However, the other apps are terrible.

My biggest gripe about Mindwave Mobile is its flaky performance. When it works, it works fine. But sometimes I’d have trouble connecting the device to my smartphone. I don’t know what caused the Bluetooth troubles. I’m looking into it, but it appears other people have had this problem too.

Brain Athlete. Does pretty much the same thing as Mindwave Mobile. It’s geared more towards athletes wanting to use bio/neurofeedback to increase focus and mental speed.

Within the next year, several affordable neurofeedback sensors will hit the market. Here are three I’m looking forward to learning more about:

  • Melon Band. The Melon will launch early next year. It measures your brain activity and the accompanying app lets you know if you’re focused or meditative.
  • Muse Band. Set to deliver at the end of 2013. Measures EEG and has an accompanying app to help you interpret the results. You can pre-order one now for $269.
  • Brain Sport. The Brain Sport is an EEG device geared more towards athletes to help them improve their focus, mental speed, and stress response.

Do You Really Need All This Stuff?

I’m sure some of you reading this are thinking, “Bah! You don’t need all these high-tech gizmos. Just meditate and do some breathing exercises and you’re good to go.”

I agree 100%.

You don’t need these gadgets and apps to become cool, calm, and collected. By doing basic meditation regularly and being mindful of your body’s responses to stressors, you’ll be well on the path to developing your mental and physical resilience.

But based on my own experience with these devices and apps, biofeedback can help facilitate this process. While warriors and philosophers have been training their minds with only their minds for thousands of years, I think there’s a case to be made that in a time of unprecedented technological distraction, sharpening your focus has never been more important, or difficult. Any extra tools that can help increase your ability to concentrate are invaluable in my book. Fight fire with fire I say.

Mental and physical resilience is an ethereal thing. It’s hard to judge whether you’re improving because you can’t see whether cognitive exercises like meditation are having any actual effect on your physiology, other than what you may feel. And for this reason, it’s hard to get motivated to do those exercises. Biofeedback provides hard numbers and data you can use to see your progress, which both enlightens and inspires. I definitely feel like my progress with meditation and mental resilience increased more in the few short weeks of biofeedback training than it has in the past two years I’ve regularly meditated.

Whether you feel stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed, or you’re looking to up your mental game, and perform at your best on the battlefield or in everyday life, give biofeedback a try to see if it works for you.

Have you tried biofeedback? What’s been your experience? Any tips for people interested in getting started? Share with us in the comments!

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew October 28, 2013 at 10:26 pm

I spent a little time learning about biofeedback in my class on stress at University.

In class one day I was hooked up to the computer through a contact that attached to my earlobe, and one on my finger. There was an image up on the screen, but I didn’t end up using it. I found that closing my eyes and focusing on my breathing (in for four seconds, hold for four seconds and exhale for four seconds) was more than sufficient.

As Brett says, try meditation before you go out and spend the cash. While seeing sparkly unicorns in a forest clearing (the scene shown with the computer program I was using) might help for some, I didn’t find it particularly benefitial.

2 Brock October 28, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Awesome article. I’m a graduate student in clinical psychology, focusing on treatments in the military setting, and biofeedback is definitely getting a lot of attention in the field. While it is certainly showing a lot of promise with veterans, your article did a great job of highlighting its usefulness for everyone. As always, great article!

3 Greg October 28, 2013 at 10:40 pm

I tried biofeedback for a few months and honestly it did not work for me. I’m not saying biofeedback is a myth or a scam, but the way I was presented to it I immediately had a red flag go up. Now, I went to a licensed biofeedback guy who plugged me into a machine and said that after an hour or so it will be done. Now, what is “it”? He kept on saying “You are stressed out” and when I asked to see the results he basically said “no can do”… Great… I went back a few more times but it was always the same idea and when he would tell me the results they would always be the same “you are stressed, etc.”. I just failed to see the point as 1. it was not working for me and 2. this guy was not working. So I decided to go to a different biofeedback place and they showed me the results of every session, the results never changed. I didn’t feel any more or less relaxed and the graphs always looked very similar which they even admitted was weird as my brain wave functions should be more stable which was not happening. Anyways, I tried these guys a few more times and it was always the same, but in the end it just didn’t work for me. I mentioned earlier that I thought biofeedback would be a scam and what prompted me to come to the conclusion is that the machines monitor your heart rate, brain wave activities, and so forth while not doing much to you (meaning not sending out signals or anything to your body) which in the end just results in your own self controlling your own body and your own mind.

All in all, biofeedback may work for some but it did not for me even after multiple sessions but I do agree 100% that meditation does help clear the mind and helps the brain function more smoothly. I’ve been meditating since July and I honestly feel more relaxed and my thoughts are not as rushed.

I guess you just need to try things until you find what works for you.

4 Ben Greenfield October 28, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Nice. Killer post. Anything close to the BioZen for iPhone?

5 logan October 28, 2013 at 11:51 pm

I really appreciate the aspect of biofeedback, but I wonder if you might be better served by having a meditation or trained teacher help you with reaching a relaxed state through breath control so that you could repeatably do it without equipment. I have a friend that has been teaching mediation and yoga to vets with PTSD with good effect. I’d love to see the combination of biofeedback and a trained teacher.

6 Sebastian October 28, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Fascinating article. Some of my favorites articles are where you experiment with something and share your results. This seems like something where the new technology is initially expensive, and then the price will fall dramatically in a few years. Until then, I’m going to try using my regular heart rate monitor to see if I can drop my resting heart rate.

7 Dan October 29, 2013 at 1:27 am

I have been curious about Biofeedback but from a performance standpoint. Bioforce HRV seems to have the same deal but for something more measurable. Given your positive results you may want to give it a shot as well. I don’t think any of your current gear is compatible but it may be worth the investment.

I love the idea of having any kind of metric to give a second opinion on whether I am legitimately tired or just being lazy.

8 Joseph Rogers October 29, 2013 at 7:08 am

Brett, or other commenters, I’m looking to see if there is research into using this and meditation for chronic pain management. You gentlemen have anything?

I have added my email to this post. Please feel free to send me something if you have anything.

Brett – Great post. I mentioned this before, but I REALLY like the direction you’re taking the site in.

9 Grant October 29, 2013 at 7:23 am

Is there a way to wear all the biofeedback equipment, put yourself under real duress, and then train yourself to be calm “while you are under those high stress circumstances”? I can see getting your mind and body into the calm state while sitting by yourself in a room is an important first step, but I would like to learn to maintain that calm when the heat is on.

10 Nicholas October 29, 2013 at 9:34 am

I’m a soldier at Ft. Lewis who just finished basic 4 months ago. We did about 3 days of resiliency training and I would love to have seen the look on the DS’ face had I asked for meditation instruction. We would have done so in the front leaning rest.

11 Ethan October 29, 2013 at 10:12 am

I love this post, please keep us updated on these kinds of things!

12 Brad October 29, 2013 at 11:13 am

@Brett McKay
Biofeedback seems likes a great tool to give you some kind of feedback in order to manipulate technique and frankly encourage persistence when in doubt of meditation’s utility. I was curious what meditative technique you are using, just mostly focusing on your breathing?

13 Geoff October 29, 2013 at 12:53 pm

@Grant – that would be pretty neat, but the EEG sensors in particular are highly susceptible to motion artifact. If the subject is moving around the signal degrades too much to be considered reliable.

14 Ryan October 29, 2013 at 1:07 pm


If you are ever in the Chicagoland area, you should come by our office at Urban Brain and Body and we will show you how neurofeedback is done properly! We use BrainPaint, which studies your brainwaves through the use of neurofeedback with the goal of improving the way your brain functions. It is becoming a very popular with athletes, young professionals, and those in need of mental health services. There are only a few practices currently utilizing this tool across the country and we build on the benefits of this service by also providing Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors, LCSWs, and PCGCs, so you aren’t simply watching how your brain functions, but are learning from the results and the professionals cater the following sessions to your personal results, needs, and goals.

@Brett & Kate McKay, great article. You two also have an open invitation to Urban Brain and Body. Feel free to check out the new content we are writing (http://bit.ly/18KWmz5) or our website (logical reasoning can guide you to our website!).
I’m excited to know that there is more national awareness and content being written about this innovative service.

15 Eliathah October 29, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Any idea when BioZen will be available on iTunes? Great article btw! cant wait to try this out

16 Jason October 30, 2013 at 10:33 pm

That’s the Manliest picture I’ve ever seen!

17 Joseph Robinson October 31, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Great Post.

While we He-men have been dealing with stress via biofeedback skills for centuries, it is great to see a modern list of tech to help us out. Like you said, fighting fire with fire is a great start.

I’m on a mission to help guys (and girls) build resilience into their lives in an on-going way.

One thing I would confirm about wear-able devices is they do work. There is a huge movement in this area called “the quantified self”. It is a combination of data, tech, and old-school philosophy and techniques that help you lose weight, be healthier, and be happier.

Another thing I’d add from my studies of emotions and the topic of resiliency is that the brain now can be shown how to make even more of the stuff that gives happiness, joy, and pleasure in life.

Some of us guys are naturally more resilient than others and like climbing a ladder, we can always go up a rung or two to make things even better.

Resiliency grows when we gain these skills and improve the area of the brain that produces this capability. Think about it like a gym workout for the front portion of your noggin. It acts like a muscle and grows when you put some stress on it and then give it time to relax.

Call it improved resiliency via trail by fire. The more stress, and problems you’ve endured successfully, the more you can endure later. Unfortunately the more you are forced to endure unsuccessfully to a point of failure or overwhelm can cause some pretty serious damage. IF you think a torn muscle is bad, a war-torn Mind of Soldier is tragic.

I’m glad people are thinking of this stuff to help these guys (and their female comrades) with dealing with these stressors.

I’m equally happy to see we can use them in our daily battle with traffic, the boss, and being stressed about work and life.

18 Lawrence Manns November 1, 2013 at 12:16 am

I can vouch for this wholeheartedly. When I was younger, I had a mild case of autism, and was put on medication. After that failed to produce results, I was taken to a biofeedback center, where after a year of treatment, I was fit as a fiddle. Talking a bunch, going out, meeting friends, improving schoolwork…the list goes on. Its good to see such an awesome technology get more widespraed attention.

19 Scott November 1, 2013 at 9:49 am

Great article. I really appreciated your willingness to test your skepticism through direct experience.

I have to say, though, that your discussion of the placebo effect reveals a certain misunderstanding. The placebo effect refers to the mind’s ability to heal the body. When you’re talking about the mind’s effect on your mental state, there’s a bit of a circular reference happening, if you take my meaning.

In other words, if you think that you feel better, then it’s true – you do feel better. Putting it in reverse might show the absurdity, “Well, I FEEL calmer, but I am I really calmer?” If you feel calmer, then you are really calmer. Part of the issue is being able to accurately evaluate your own mental state. If you want to check your results, you can ask others around if they see your actions as calmer, but only you can tell how you feel.

When you have a stressful dream, the stress you feel is real, regardless of the reality of stimulus that created the feeling. When you feel calm, the calmness you feel is real, regardless of the means by which you attained it. The feeling is always real, even if it is not necessarily an appropriate response to external circumstances.

I guess all I’m saying is that you’ve found a method that helps you achieve a certain measure of peace, and I hope you continue. I also hope you don’t undermine any progress you might have made through doubt that doesn’t serve you.

20 vpostman November 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm

The DIY-man among us will appreciate the OpenEEG project, an open source thing I heard of once, which can surely be combined with a bit of software to make ultra-cheap EEGstuff if you don’t want to shell out for the expensive equipment. It might also make you feel like Frankenstein…just don’t get electrocuted, and don’t let the power get to your head :D.

Disclaimer: I’ve never tried any of their tutorials/stuff, so who knows…

21 Brett McKay November 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Yes, just focusing on my breathing as I try to clear my mind.

That’s a great point — I hadn’t thought it about it that way and you’re right.

22 Eric November 5, 2013 at 5:17 pm

This looks like a much cheaper way to do this:

Anyone have any experience with them?

23 Snake Oil Baron November 9, 2013 at 2:23 pm

It sounds like something I would be interested in trying when the price of sensors drops significantly. I have noticed that heart rate monitors have come down in price greatly in recent years but since they’re designed for exercise rather than meditation you either have to check them by actively putting your finger on part of them or keep your eyes on them as they display. A simple tone that could be put through headphones would be ideal as you could listen to your heart rate with your eyes closed but few cyclists and joggers seem to want such a feature in a heart rate monitor.

24 Rob November 11, 2013 at 12:39 am

Brett, great and timely post! I stumbled onto it following links from a different post on LewRockwell.com about charisma and presence, then found this one that is even more interesting.

I’m with the “no equipment–no crutches” contingency. You have to be able to maintain a calm and resourceful mood in the heat of battle, not just when connected to the biofeedback machine. Neverthless I suspect the machine teaches you fast.

In addition to mindfulness training, you might want to investigate reframing your experiences. Your unconscious mind recognizes a pattern, and responds, recognizes a pattern, and responds. That’s all it does, though the patterns and responses can be and typically are extremely complex. You can “hack” your responses to be more optimal, by optimizing the way that you interpret your experiences.

@Joseph Rogers, yes, you can use it for pain mediation, typically packaged as “self-hypnosis” but similar techniques making use of a lot of the same strategies such as relaxation, focus, de-catastrophization, and so on.

One of the things I’ve found is that just going into a trance, I could make post-surgery pain quite tolerable. That was about it, though–none of the hypnotic suggestions worked for me. But I was listening to a recording. I think what would work better would be to go into a trance without help (no crutches), then imagine plunging the painful body part into ice-cold water of a stream, and imagining it going numb, while in a deep trance.

Mark P. Jensen has been doing research and development on hypnosis for pain management. He has a clinical specialist framework in mind, but the same techniques apply to self-hypnosis.


David R. Patterson at a burn center at Harborview Hospital in Seattle has also been doing research on hypnotic pain management. He also has a book out but it is too theoretical not a practical “how to” guide.

Wish you the best dealing with chronic pain, Bud!

25 mike November 13, 2013 at 12:56 am

I went through the TRACK program with the Wounded Warrior Project for severe combat PTSD. Part of the program was bio-feedback sessions 3x a week. Unfortunately I don’t remember the specifics of what programs we used or what bio-feedback devices we used, but I remember doing several meditation sessions whilst holding a memory in my head of particular situation that made me feel the most anxious or invoked my fight-or-flight response. I have to say that those sessions really did help to reduce my stress when put in those situations after the biofeedback training.

There was another exercise I remember doing where a large grid of numbers would pop up on the screen. The objective was to find the number “1″ and to progress sequentially as fast as possible in 2 minutes. Every time you find the next number on the screen, the grid scrambles so you can’t memorize the locations of the next numbers you need. Well it gets quite stressful to find that next number. The point of the exercise was to practice mindful breathing and let the next number pop out at you instead of trying to scan the whole grid.

The results of this were amazing. I noticed that I would get stressed and my breathing would become shallow and arrhythmic. I had a whale of a time trying to find the next number because my own stress responses were getting in the way. When I practiced the mindful breathing, everything came easier. I think it was becoming aware of my stress responses that helped me most to manage my stress. Most of those process are automatic and involuntary. When you focus on them, you are able to manipulate them. When you become conscious of your physiological responses, you learn a new sort of intelligence that supercedes the reptilian brain.

My experience with bio-feedback was overwhelmingly positive and I’m glad to see it reaching the mainstream. It holds a lot of promise in helping us manage the stress in our lives.

Semper Fi

26 ichaleynbin November 17, 2013 at 8:34 am

My only disagreement with you is that I don’t think using these tools will help you in your quest, they’ll hinder.

You made the comment that people have been doing this without these tools for thousands of years. You also implied that due to our technological advancements (the primary difference between yesteryear and today) we are less focused. If technology makes us less focused, how can it help here?

It really doesn’t. I can understand how giving you something to put your focus on might make it easier to start doing something you never have before, and I can also understand how for someone who doesn’t understand meditation because they’re new to it, a teacher can help. But the problem is that instead of focusing on yourself, you’re focusing on the app.

All of these biofeedback mechanisms are available to you without gadgets. The brain can be trained to monitor heart rate, oxygen levels, even glucose levels in the body. That is the purpose of our neural system, is to give us these biofeedback loops which you don’t need to look at a phone to see. If you can’t tell if your heart rate is elevated or not while just sitting there, you really should meditate on it more.

With proper meditation you can monitor and even control basic bodily functions. I can, through the power of thought alone, lower my heart rate by 50%, or raise it by 100%. I can mentally dump a dose of adrenaline into my body at will. Exercising your natural biofeedback loops rather than getting a bunch of gizmos to do it for you results in the ability to send information in the other direction over those same loops too. Having this closed circuit, entirely internal biofeedback, means you aren’t dependent on your gear.

Taking the easy way out here by buying gizmos might help with the very basics of meditation, IE learning when you are and aren’t meditating, but I think we all know that the easy way out is never the most rewarding way. Yes it will be harder to gain control of your biofeedback mechanisms though meditation alone, but putting in the work here will pay off a thousandfold, by comparison with the gains made with artificial biofeedback.The difference is that you’re ALWAYS in control if you do it naturally, as your internal biofeedback mechanisms will soon become second nature to control.

27 Savannah December 6, 2013 at 9:24 pm

I’m really surprised at this article. It sounds like the complete opposite of manliness. You dropped nearly a thousand dollars on some office doctor tools because you read about them and thought they sounded cool. It’s

28 Savannah December 6, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I’m really surprised at this article. It sounds like the complete opposite of manliness. You dropped nearly a thousand dollars on some office doctor tools because you read about them and thought they sounded cool. I dunno, isn’t that kind of impractical and wasteful? Isn’t that money that you could have donated to a charity, food kitchen, art museum, library….? That’s a lot of money! I don’t have that kind of money to toss out and I never will.

29 Frankie Faires January 3, 2014 at 11:36 am

There is a totally different approach towards biofeedback.

Here it is defined:

Here it is in practice:

Our biology still rivals technology in the realm of “biofeedback.”

30 Rory April 9, 2014 at 10:19 pm

You wonder about placebo effect, but there is no such thing in this scenario. You are setting out to control psycho- physiological factors and the minute you control them, you are succeeding in the task. The devices are not like a pill; they are recorders or your mind, not manipulators of it.

Therefore, a result is a result, and your intentions and the resultant physiological response are all that matters.

31 Bob April 10, 2014 at 11:57 am

A pulse oximeter device will show your heart rate and oxygen saturation for 15 bucks on amazon.

Also http://www.ted.com/talks/tan_le_a_headset_that_reads_your_brainwaves this is a biofeedback headset that is fairly inexpensive and will allow you to control many devices by thought. Train your biofeedback and get an awesome tool/toy. $300 http://emotiv.com/store/headset.php for that one.

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