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alpha waves

Stephen Black sblack at UBISHOPS.CA
Wed May 7 16:19:36 EST 1997

On 7 May 1997, Curt Siffert wrote:

> Thanks for the tips and I'll do the research.  This isn't a flame:

Then I guess I'm not trying hard enough. :-)  How's this?

>     Ok, sure, but how can I explain the readings that I get, where 
>     I have (at least, this is what I think it is, I'm not trained)
>     extremely high-amplitude alpha waves even when my eyes are closed
>     and I'm trying to relax?  Is this just because of anxiety and 
>     because of the lights flashing through my eyelids (from the eeg
>     neurofeedback device)?  And why is it that it's triggered more 
>     easily when the electrodes are placed at certain places on my
>     head, while when they are placed at other points the lights put
>     me in a deep relaxation?
>     I'm not approaching this wondering if alpha has some kind of 
>     paranormal benefit, I just want to know what they mean.  The
>     point is that the machine tracks my "dominant frequency" and 
>     I never seem to get beyond alpha.  The clinician tells me that
>     it's playing a major part in why I can't focus at work, why I 
>     have problems with lapses in attention spans and times where I 
>     "check out" and go vacant, and why I have major mental blocks
>     when trying to be creative.

What are you using to measure alpha? Do you have a state-of-the-art Grass
polygraph which probably costs in the neighbourhood of $30,000 (could be a
low estimate)? Or have you gone down to your friendly "Brainwaves 'R' Us"
store and bought some gizmo which flashes pretty lights at you for 50 
bucks or so?  

If it's the latter, chances are you're not measuring anything resembling
alpha. More likely, if the device is detecting anything at all, it's the
activity of garage doors, elevators, vacuum cleaners, and so on.  Any
resemblance between the ouput of these machines and what's going on inside
your head is purely coincidental. Those devices are only for the gullible.
In general, I wouldn't trust anything that wouldn't let you see the
brain waves themselves. 
> >The National Academy of Science (USA) also convened a high-powered panel
> >to look at this and other similarly flakey claims (Druckman & Swets,
> >1988). I seem to recall that they disposed of the alpha-wave craze as
> >well. Worth a look. 
>     You don't have a listed source that is more recent than 1990.
>     That's kind of a long time ago for this field, isn't it?  This
>     particular technology has only been invented in the past five
>     years, I thought.

Old quackery is always recycled for the next generation of the gullible. 
Current estimates are that one is born every minute. No matter how many
times a claim is debunked, it keeps coming back as a "new" invention. In
this case, I think these older reviews (they're not _that_ old) are still
informative. If researchers spent all their time debunking every
outlandish claim that pops up, they'd have no time for anything else. 

>     I would love to hear more response.  I'm in this treatment just 
>     to try anything that might work, but I am a skeptic myself.  I 
>     want to explore all sides in the research I'm doing so I can feel 
>     like I have a very informed opinion.  I hate believing in something 
>     without being able to give a rational explanation as to why.> 

I'd start by asking your clinician some really hard questions about the
validation of the "treatment" and your supposed disorder.  Ask for
published papers in reputable journals. If there are none, beware. If your
therapist gives you some, check them out. They may have nothing to do with
the therapy. 

Does this therapy and your disorder have names?


Stephen Black, Ph.D.                      tel: (819) 822-9600 ext 2470
Department of Psychology                  fax: (819) 822-9661
Bishop's University                    e-mail: sblack at ubishops.ca
Lennoxville, Quebec               
J1M 1Z7                    Bishop's Department of Psychology web page at:                                                      
Canada                        http://www.ubishops.ca/ccc/div/soc/psy

                        "I'm a scientist. Certainty is a big word for me."
                                 -from the movie "Volcano"                

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