The Biofeedback Monitor

by Peter Shepherd

Psycho-analytical procedures are greatly enhanced by the use of a simple Biofeedback Monitor, a type of psycho-galvanometer. This serves to point out to the practitioner those emotionally "charged" topics which pass through the subject's mind, either consciously or pre-consciously. Without this device the practitioner is relying solely on body language; with the device, therapeutic procedures are so much more effective that it is now possible to use powerful techniques much more efficiently and successfully, and even to apply them upon oneself as the subject. The Monitor operates by the Galvanic Skin Response of the body.

The Galvanic Skin Response

The simple psycho-galvanometer was one of the earliest tools of psychological research. A psycho-galvanometer measures the resistance of the skin to the passage of a very small electric current. It has been known for decades that the magnitude of this electrical resistance is affected, not only by the subject's general mood, but also by immediate emotional reactions. Although these facts have been known for over a hundred years and the first paper to be presented on the subject of the psycho-galvanometer was written by Tarchinoff in 1890, it has only been within the last 25 years that the underlying causes of this change in skin resistance have been discovered.

The Tarchinoff Response is a change in DC potential across neurones of the autonomic nervous system connected to the sensori-motor strip of the cortex. This change was found to be related to the level of cortical arousal. The emotional charge on a word, heard by a subject, would have an immediate effect on the subject's level of arousal, and cause this physiological response. Because the hands have a particularly large representation of nerve endings on the sensori-motor strip of the cortex, hand-held electrodes are ideal. As arousal increases, the "fight or flight" stress response of the autonomic nervous system comes into action, and adrenaline causes increased sweating amongst many other phenomena, but the speed of sweating response is nowhere near as instantaneous or accurate as the Tarchinoff response.

The most advanced layers of the cortex, unique to Man, link to the thumb and forefinger especially, and there is a further complex physiological response which occurs when the forebrain is aroused. Changes in Alpha rhythms cause blood capillaries to enlarge, and this too affects resistance.

By virtue of the Galvanic Skin Response, autonomic nervous system activity causes a change in the skin's conductivity. The overall degree of arousal of the hemispheres, and indeed the whole brain, is shown by the readings of the GSR psychometer, which does not differentiate between the hemispheres, or between cortical and primitive brain responses. Higher arousal (such as occurs with increased involvement) will almost instantaneously (0.2 - 0.5 sec) cause a fall in skin resistance; reduced arousal (such as occurs with withdrawal) will cause a rise in skin resistance.

Thus a rise or fall relates directly to reactive arousal, due to re-stimulation of repressed mental conflict. Initially this may cause a rise in resistance as this emerging, previously repressed, material is fought against. When the conflict is resolved, by the viewing of objective reality - the truth of exact time, place, form and event - there is catharsis and the emotional charge dissipates; the release of energy giving a fall in resistance.

The Being or "Higher Self" is involved, because it is the Being that knows the objective truth and therefore is in conflict with distorted mental contents. The Being, however, is not part of the brain; it is a quality not a quantity, and is essentially not anywhere, except by consideration. The Being is a non-verbal knowingness that lies back of mental awareness and activity, but which is capable of influencing the composite human being, through will and creative choice, by postulate.

Jung and Mathison

One of the first references to the use of GSR instruments in psychoanalysis is in the book by Carl Gustav Jung, entitled "Studies in Word Analysis", published in 1906. Here the Swiss psychologist describes a technique of connecting the subject, via hand-electrodes, to an instrument measuring changes in the resistance of the skin. Words on a list were read out to the subject one by one. If a word on this list was emotionally charged, there was a change in body resistance causing a deflection of the needle of the galvanometer. Any words which evoked a larger than usual response on the meter were assumed to be indicators of possible areas of conflict in the patient, and these areas were then explored in more detail with the subject in session. Jung used observed deflections on the meter as a monitoring device to aid his own judgement in determining which particular lines of enquiry were most likely to be fruitful with each subject.

Without amplification, this device was difficult to use, thus it remained as little more than a laboratory curiosity until the development of sophisticated valve amplifiers in the 1930s. Once a portable psycho-galvanometer with amplification was available, the idea of using a psycho-galvanometer was picked up with enthusiasm by criminologists. These meters became known as "lie detectors", and have been used by various police forces, in this manner, for more than 60 years. On the other hand, little further work was done in psychotherapy with the psycho-galvanometer, until Biofeedback Research in the 1970s using the psycho-galvanometer in connection with meditation and relaxation became popular.

Biofeedback is the technique of self-regulation of awareness states by the subject. The level of cortical arousal is central to a person's level of awareness, so a machine that can measure this factor is of the first importance in biofeedback. Many papers have been presented on this subject over the last 25 years, and the most important findings of this research are:

  1. A low level of cortical arousal is desirable for relaxation, hypnosis, and the subjective experience of psychic states and unconscious manifestations.
  2. A high level of cortical arousal gives increased powers of reflection, focused concentration, increased reading speed, and increased capacity for long-term recall.
  3. Cortical arousal has a simple relationship to skin conductivity. Arousal of the cortex increases the conductivity of the skin and conversely, a drop in arousal causes a drop in skin conductivity. With a sensitive meter the level of arousal can be brought under conscious control. With a few hours' practice the level of arousal can be consciously controlled over wide limits.

Volney Mathison was a pioneer in the discovery that all fears, feelings and resentments - all thought and emotion - were electrical in their nature. He found through experiments with lie-detectors during the 1940s that when a person was reminded of certain past events, or when a change of mood was induced in him, the needle in the meter would jump erratically; the degree of jump was in proportion to the strength of unconscious reaction. In skilled hands the meter could be used to locate a particular mental content, the nature of that content, the location of that content in space and time, and the amount of force contained within it.

His researches with lie-detectors in the 1940's made it possible for Volney Mathison to go on and invent the modern type of portable transistorised GSR meter - a type that has survived with very little change, until the present day. The Hubbard E-meter was based on its design; contrary to propaganda, these early types of meter worked well. Mathison went on to develop a word-list to be used in conjunction with the GSR meter. He would ask the subject under analysis, to take hold of the meter-electrodes, then he would read this list of words to him. Without fail, some of these words would trigger a response on the meter, and in some cases violently. Whenever this was the case, Mathison knew that these words were associated with violent and negative fear or resentment that had its origin in unconscious (reactive) complexes in the subject's mind. Most of the time, the subject was completely unaware that he was reacting on the meter in this way.

Reversal Theory

It has long been known in biofeedback research, that meditation and relaxation procedures cause a rise in skin resistance. It has therefore been assumed that high and low skin resistance correlate directly with relaxation and stress respectively, and that a high resistance indicates a pleasant relaxed state of mind, whereas low resistance indicates tension. However, the reverse is true in a psychotherapy session. When repressed material is coming to the surface (e.g. material associated with guilt or pain), the skin resistance rises and the client experiences feelings of tension; thus in a therapy session, high skin resistance indicates tension, and not relaxation as in meditation. Then, when the repressed material reaches the surface and the negative emotion discharges, there is usually a sudden large drop in skin resistance and the client experiences relief. This demonstrates a correlation between low skin resistance and relaxation of tension, which is in contradiction to the pattern of research findings in meditation.

This contradiction has been noted by Dr. Apter of Bristol University in his book "Reversal Theory". He refers to this as Paradoxical Arousal. His discoveries are that high arousal can be pleasant and exciting when a person is in the (active) Paratelic state, whereas high arousal is experienced as unpleasant in the (thinking) Telic state.

Apter's findings are that a person with a heavy traumatic history experiences high arousal as unpleasant, because the cortical arousal is unequal due to restimulation. It can be demonstrated in many cases that one hemisphere is aroused more than the other, as seen on the Bilateral Meter (a special type of Biofeedback Monitor using twin electrodes). In contrast, when cortical arousal is uniform this is experienced as a pleasant state of high energy (the Bilateral meter reflects this).

This is similar to Freud's early findings, that high arousal in a neurotic is experienced as internal excitement, which is unpleasant, whereas a person who is substantially free from neurosis experiences arousal as energy for incitement, i.e. energy for action. Our findings substantiate Freud's early findings. Proportional to a client's erasure or transcendence of traumatic material there is an increased capacity to operate at high arousal, in a relaxed state without discomfort, and at a high emotional tone.

In order to resolve the paradox, I suggest that it would be more effective to correlate high and low skin resistance, not with "relaxation" and "stress" but with "withdrawal and "involvement" respectively; both these terms can refer either to a relaxed or to a tense state. The state of withdrawal is relaxed when it means detachment from worldly cares or abandoning responsibility (Telic); and withdrawal is experienced as tense when it means an inability to confront repressed material (Paratelic).

Involvement is experienced as tense when it means over-reach or anxiety (Telic), and is experienced as relaxed when it means enhanced awareness, or when there is a flash of insight and the sudden clearing away of a mental blockage caused by repressed material (Paratelic). A client who is involved in the session of analysis will be in the Paratelic state; if he goes "out-of-session" this will be a reversal to the Telic state:

It is for the above reasons that a fall of the meter needle, i.e. an increase in arousal, is usually more useful than a rise, i.e. a decrease in arousal, when a list is being assessed to find a case entry point - the most appropriate item to handle. Usually, unless the arousal is too high due to overwhelm or terror, the fall of the needle indicates involvement, hence increased awareness and the ability to access and confront charged material. However, when the needle rises in response to a particular word or concept, this indicates withdrawal; it indicates in most cases that the client does not wish to take responsibility for this area of address.

Towards, Against & Away

Suppressed emotional conflict causes a build-up of stuck energy in the mind, where conflicting flows (such as 'must do' versus 'can't do') form a mass or 'ridge' of energy. When such material is restimulated by events or by bringing up that topic in a psychotherapeutic session, the Biofeedback Monitor may respond in several ways. If the material is too hard to experience or confront, it is repressed and there will not be an instantaneous response on the meter, but as the energy builds up the client becomes dissociated and falls in arousal as a defense, and there is an increase of basal resistance. The ridge will remain in restimulation but out of consciousness, until attention is directed to the item and it is confronted. This is a flight away from the material.

If the client is able to view the material, some of the suppressed emotional charge is released, causing a fall in resistance. This happens instantly and means that the material is accessible to the client. However the mental defenses may kick in and cause a backing off or resistance to the material, because its content may be hard to face with equanimity. This stops the release of charge and the resistance may then rise. The material is still accessible but the client is fighting against it.

A rise, then, relates to material which is being confronted but is also fought against. If viewed directly, the contents may overwhelm the client, and the client moves away from it in fear, which causes a high emotional arousal and fall in resistance, followed by a blocking off of the material and subsequent rise in resistance and suppression of the experience. This is what might happen outside the safety and guiding control of a therapist. But if the material is discharged gradually and safely by appropriate therapeutic techniques, the client becomes able to move toward the material, confronting and experiencing it openly, and gradually letting go of his defences against it. The release of charge - energy previously used in suppression - increases arousal and there is a fall in resistance that is experienced pleasurably. The client is able to integrate the experience and so is not fighting it or fleeing from it but rather going towards it.

FAQ about Galvanic Skin Response

Q: What is your basis of assumptions that values lower than 5K ohms indicate a high level of brain arousal ( tense level) and values higher than 25K ohms indicate low arousal and withdrawal from the mind (calm level)?

A: The use and callibration of the GSR meter is based on experience with many subjects undergoing psychotherapy. When a topic is encountered that causes tension, such as the remembering of a traumatic experience, the basal resistance falls, sometimes quite dramatically. Similarly a 'fall' occurs if some information that is withheld is nearly being found out, or if a serious upset is being recollected (from current experience or the past). There are many other such 'case' issues which cause this instantaneous meter response.

At the point of overwhelm by such emotional arousal, the resistance measures about 5K ohms; below that the person is unable to look further at the topic or experience. What can happen then is a complete shut-off where the resistance climbs up to 25K ohms or beyond; the person is in a state of dissociation, unable to confront the issue and in this 'safer' space, may feel subjectively better, although still suffering from the repressed undercurrents of the issue being addressed. This highly suggestible state is similar to that achieved by deep hypnosis or certain meditatation practices where consciousness is much reduced. (Note that Monroe techniques that attain a 'body asleep-mind awake' state do not suffer from this dissociation and accompanying high basal resistance, and neither do truly enhancing meditation techniques).

A client may indeed begin in this low consciousness state, with a high basal resistance, and as the right topic is found and he is gradually directed to confront the issues or experience involved, the resistance will lower. With guidance, though, he will not become overwhelmed but be able to look fully at the experience and become neither tense nor overly relaxed about it, as he realizes how his subsequent thoughts had not been rational, resulting in the bad feelings associated with it. So a mid-range resistance is the healthiest state.

Normally, though, when an issue is first brought to a client's attention, the subject itself will cause an increase in arousal (instantaneous drop in resistance) that is 'reactive', i.e. a stimulus-response reaction from the pre- or sub-conscious - this suppressed emotion one can call 'charge'. Then he will back off from it somewhat, causing a rise in resistance. Then, as it is therapeutically addressed, the resistance moves back to a mid-range position. With competent therapy, a client is not so badly overwhelmed when addressing the issue that the resistance 'falls out the bottom' as described above.

So you can see that the GSR meter is a valuable aid in the psychotherapeutic process, both in detecting the most 'highly charged' issue to address (usually the most accessible, though with suppressed emotional undercurrents); and also to guide the handling of the issue, leading to an equanimity in facing up to it fully.

In the optimal balanced state it is also found that left and right brain hemispheres are equally aroused and synchronous in their wavelengths - this can be monitored with the Bilateral Meter. There are no suppressed 'fight or flight' emotions and at the same time there is full involvement and alertness. States of genuine 'high consciousness' that are not dissociative but rather insightful are indicated by balanced measurements on both the GSR and Bilateral Meters, and a needle movement that gently 'floats' or oscillates in an unforced manner.

Q: How and where you get these values? (experiment,statistical analysis and etc.)?

A: The range 5K-25K is from practical observation of many clients; below 5K and above 25K the client is less able to address any issue objectively.

Q: Can you site the medical explanation on how skin resistance is being measured?

A: The level of brain arousal affects emotional state and fortuitously this affects skin resistance - a symptom convenient to measure through two electrodes in contact with the skin, across any two points on the body. For example, the two points may be adjacent on one hand or across from one hand to the other. If an EEG is used simultaneously, you will observe the increase of brain arousal corresponding to the changes of measured skin resistance. The best point at which to measure skin resistance is the thumb and forefinger because this part of the body is most heavily represented neurologically in the evolutionarily advanced thought centres of the brain used to manipulate objects, and therefore closely in touch with will, left brain focused action and right brain contextual holding.

Q: Can you give other reasons for the occurence of tensions?

A: The initial 'backing off' of reduced confront (rising resistance) is the result of denial of responsibility in the area addressed, a feeling of being at receipt of another's cause. The aim of the case handling is to turn this around so that the person takes responsibility for his own decisions, actions and feelings; this increased confront results in a mid-range resistance. The kind of things that can make a person feel at effect are painful experiences and outcomes, suppression of needs and wants, withheld communication, frustration through attempted manipulation of another, or another refusing to listen, or a problem that seems insurmountable. When emotional tension is suppressed, it doesn't go away, it festers and affects rational thought. When the suppressed topic is touched on again in therapy, it will be clearly visible as an instantaneous fall in resistance, corresponding to arousal of the sympathetic nervous system 'fight/flight' response, and visible on the meter through the psychogalvanic response affecting skin resistance. Relaxation of this tension occurs much more slowly through the parasympathetic nervous system, as homeostasis is restored.

A useful illustration of how tension and relaxation need to be balanced for optimal functioning is seen in the sexual response. Sexual arousal is a parasympathetic function and so is destroyed by tension, such as may be caused by anxiety or upset and the associated suppression of feelings and communications. At the same time there has to be enough tension - interest and involvement - for sexual arousal to occur, so a dissociated withdrawn state is equally unfunctional. When these issues are resolved sexual function returns to normal.

Q: What biological component(s) of our body carries the skin resistance?

The skin is just the surface contact with electrodes; in fact it is the entire body resistance that is being measured, and this is affected by nervous system reponses as a whole - it isn't just a response of increased conductivity caused by increased sweat emission. In addition the nervous system is an electrical system affected by the more subtle energies of the body's chakra system as well as thought energies and communication flows and blockages. The mind and the spiritual consciousness (to a greater or lesser extent) directing it is not merely contained in the physical brain; rather the nervous system is a conduit between the etheric or metaphysical and the glandular and muscular actions of the body. The body, too, has its own dynamics, genetically based and centered on survival, and this body-mind interacts with the etheric; indeed in many persons it is dominant.

As a psychologist I use the meter as described and from long experience I know the description is accurate in practical terms. However I am not a scientist and the exact biology involved is not my area of expertise. Nevertheless, I hope the above information clarifies the reader's understanding, as well as introducing some concepts that will probably be new to most biofeedback exponents. I would be happy to correspond with readers who would like to discuss any of these areas in further depth: mail to Peter Shepherd.

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