Handbook of Health Psychology

By Andrew Baum; Tracey A. Revenson et al. | Go to book overview
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Biofeedback and Self-Regulation
of Physiological Activity:
A Major Adjunctive Treatment Modality
in Health Psychology
Robert J. Gatchel
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas

Before Harry Houdini performed one of his famous escapes, a skeptical committee would search his clothes and body. When the members of the committee were satisfied that the Great Houdini was concealing no keys, they would put chains, padlocks and handcuffs on him …. Of course, not even Houdini could open a padlock without a key, and when he was safely behind a curtain, he would cough one up. He could hold a key suspended in his throat and regurgitate it when he was unobserved …. The trick behind many of Houdini's escapes was in some ways just as amazing as the escape in itself. Ordinarily, when an object is stuck in a person's throat he will start to gag. He can't help it-it's an unlearned automatic reflux. But Houdini had learned to control his gag reflex by practicing hours with a small piece of potato tied to a string. (Lang, 1970, p. 2)

Through the years, there have been other unusual instances of the exercise of voluntary control over physiological functions noted in the scientific literature. Such was the case of a middle-aged male who had the ability to control the eruption of hairs over the entire surface of his body (Lindsley & Sassaman, 1938), or the case of an individual who could willfully produce complete cardiac arrest for periods of several seconds at a time (McClure, 1959). Numerous instances of voluntary acceleration of pulse rate were reported by Ogden and Shock (1939). Luria (1958) described a mnemonist who had obtained remarkable control of his heart rate and skin temperature. This individual could abruptly alter his heart rate by 40 beats per minute. He could also raise the skin temperature of one hand while simultaneously lowering the temperature of the other hand.The modification of physiological activities such as those described has been the subject of practice and investigation by mystics and scientists for a considerable period of time. The goal of such control of physiological functions has been nursued for at least three reasons:
1. To achieve spiritual enlightment. Yogis and other mystics of the Eastern tradition have shown that through certain physical exercises or by shear act of will they are capable of producing tremendous physiochemical changes in their bodies resulting in perceived pleasant states of consciousness (Bagchi, 1959; Bagchi & Wenger, 1957).
2. To test theories of learning. Within psychology, learning theorists have long debated the issue of whether autonomic responses could be operantly conditioned.


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Handbook of Health Psychology
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