Dr. Erik Peper is an internationally known expert on biofeedback (applied psychophysiology), holistic health and stress management. Since 1976 he has taught at San Francisco State University where he was instrumental in establishing the Institute for Holistic Health Studies, the first holistic health program at a public university in the United States. Dr. Peper is President of the Biofeedback Foundation of Europe and past President of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB). He holds Senior Fellow (Biofeedback) certification from the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA) and was the behavioral scientist (sport psychologist) for the United States Rhythmic Gymnastic team in the early 1980’s. Dr. Peper lectures and teaches frequently through-out the world and has a biofeedback practice at BiofeedbackHealth in Berkeley, CA.
This is part 2 of a 3 part interview with Dr. Peper discussing how the tools of bio and neurofeedback are utilized to enhance sport performance, age appropriateness, technological advancements and simple products available for consumers.
Examiner: What age is bio or neurofeedback effective for young athletes to begin using as a training tool?
EP: I don’t think there is any systemized data on this. I can only speculate. Some people can work with young children and some cannot. I would say by 5 or 6 years old biofeedback techniques can be used fairly easily. You have to make it fun. I’ve worked with children 8 years old and younger. You can teach them to warm their hands by using visualization and teach them to shift their breathing. The critical part is that biofeedback equipment shows the child that they have control. That the shifts that they are making in their bodies with breathe and visualization is something that can be quantified. It is in the seeing the change that they believe and know control is possible and that there is an effect.
Examiner: When a child is anxious because he is distracted by worrying about outcomes engaging the child in a visualization or having them focus on their breathing interrupts their worry thought processes by redirecting their attention to an internal awareness.
Examiner: An individuals brain continues to grow well into their 20’s. Does the developmental growth stage of brain development affect the usefulness of utilizing bio or neurofeedback?
EP: In youth neuroplascity is more possible. On the pragmatic side the brain is growing and changing into our mid 20’s. It means if I can give biofeedback feedback of electrical patterns produced by the brain (electroencephaphy feedback/neurofeedback) which are equally behavioral patterns, thinking patterns or changing blood flow patterns the brain. The learning process seems quicker when the person is young, although it may relate more to just doing the practices without judgement with a playful attitude.
Examiner: You are saying at a younger age it’s more effective.
EP: It’s much easier to teach a new habit than to inhibit an old one. When you think of sports athletes have done the same movement thousands and thousands of times. When you are attempting to alter the move you have to first undo it. It’s totally possible and that’s the exciting part. However, it is easier to learn a new movement than correct an over learned response. What makes athletes really easy to work with is there is less of a question of “Should I do it?” Instead, if they experience and know it is useful they are more likely to ask, “How many times should I do it?”
Examiner: To implement the change?
EP: The athlete is more willing. They understand the concept and the type of attention it takes. The underlying theme for some beginning athletes and I’ve worked with many of them, is that the one’s who struggle often are trying too hard. Part of doing well in a sport is having a certain type of trust in your skills.
Years ago I worked with a woman who had to pass a physical for her job that required a running test. She would quickly run out of breath and it affected her ability to pass this part of her test. As I observed her I could see that she was breathing very high in her chest and people who breathe like this often hyperventilate. They may run a couple of blocks and then are too out of breathe to continue. First in the lab I taught her how to breathe lower, she could do it walking but not running. After teaching her to breathe lower and slower while walking and running in place we would go to a track and I would run behind her and remind her of to breathe lower. I essentially became her biofeedback machine for her. After a few practices on the track she was able to transfer the awareness and breathing mastery to do it for herself. She mastered breathing more diaphragmatically without effort by attending to her breathing while running. She passed her physical.
Examiner: What technological advancements in the equipment utilized in bio and neurofeedback have made instruments easier for qualified professional administrators to use with clients?
EP: The computerized systems have become very small. I can take a laptop with me to the location of the athlete. I can use a system of telemetry and see how the person behaves in real time while engaged in their sport. The systems can keep track of multiple signals at the same time and easily quantify the data. What athletes like is feedback, it quantifies what is going on and it demonstrates mastery. They want to know that they are doing better and the equipment can measure how they are doing. More recently there has been a trend to track heart rate variability. We used to think that a heart rate of 60 beats per minute was a good sign. It’s now known that a healthy heart rate should have variability. When the heart beat can go up and down by itself that is a sign of health.
Examiner: Why is this a good sign?
EP: The heart should be responsive to the demands of the body. If it no longer can quickly speed up or slow down then damage may occur. Health is flexibility with the ability to respond to the demands of the body and environment as well as rapidly allowing recovery. The heart rate changes, commonly called heart rate varibility, is easily demonstrated by taking a fairly large breath the heart rate would speed up its natural rhythm. That is sympathetic activation. The during the exhalation the heart rate slows down again it’s shutting down the sympathetic activation, which is called parasympathetic activation. What you want to see is a heart rate variability balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic. Heart rate variability is used to track an athletes ability to center themselves and recover/regenerate after exerting themselves within a physical performance such as scoring points, between races etc. The key is to learn to monitor and modulate your appropriate energy level needed for a performance. For example gymnasts have to learn to modulate their energy level. They have to check in and notice if they are too tight, too anxious or too relaxed and if so bring that level down to or up to where it’s most effective to perform well. They can’t worry about falling. If they worry about a performance they are not present and usually perform worse. This type of destructive worrying can be identified during mental rehearsal of the performance when the athletes brain waves are monitored, as has been discovered by Vietta S. Wilson, Ph.D, in her work with athletes. When a gymnast is connected to an EEG (electroencephalograph) during the relaxation and mental rehearsal, if there is an 18hz pattern in the recording, the biofeedback/neurfeedback practitioner can interpret this as a worry spike. Other biofeedback can also be used to identify unaware muscle tension patterns.
Muscle tension is monitored and also given as feedback with an EMG (electromyography). EMG’s are useful in practicing mental rehearsal as it can indicate the subtle body responses associated with imagery of a performance. For example in baseball a player can imagine taking a perfect swing at a fastball. The player will see it, and feel it and yet the observer may not see any muscles twitch a tiny bit as the athlete is visualizing the movement. The EMG can record the very low level muscle tension which is invisible just looking at the athlete. If the EMG registers movement from the players muscles then it’s likely that the visualization is effective. If no EMG activity is observed in the appropriate muscles that should have been activated by the specific motor skill movement of the performance, then you would then go back and work to train the athlete to visualize more effectively.
Next: Dr. Peper shares ideas for simple biofeedback products and the impact of 3D virtual reality combined with biofeedback.