Warning: The Journey to Wild Divine is no shoot-'em up computer game for twitchy-fingered adrenaline junkies.
To play the game, I clip three purple biofeedback devices onto my fingertips. The devices will monitor perspiration and beat-to-beat changes in my heart rate. Using my mouse, I can take a leisurely virtual tour of the lush gardens and sacred mountain temples of Wild Divine's mystical Sun Realm while being serenaded by soothing, chirping birds and flute music.
But the mouse is useless for conquering the game's real challenges. To feed a white rabbit in the Temple of Compassion, to delicately balance one rock on top of another or to light a fire in a cozy cottage, my biofeedback sensors first have to conclude that I am relaxed. At the cold fireplace, nothing happens as I follow the instructions to coordinate my breathing with the slow opening and closing of a bellows.
I get impatient. I get nowhere. Finally, I give up trying to get anywhere and just inhale and exhale very slowly. The fire appears. I feel a sense of accomplishment and, yes, peace, even in the face of looming deadlines.
A Brave New World
Wild Divine and other user-friendly desktop technologies have revolutionized the once monochromatic world of biofeedback, intersecting with ancient mind-body techniques in new ways. Such technology can "accelerate the learning curve" for these ancient techniques, says Adam Crane, author of Mindfitness Training: Neurofeedback and the Process. When would-be meditators, despite their best efforts, have not been able to approach the mental states that are second nature for yogis, biofeedback can help: "You can take them right to it if the teacher and the equipment are right," says Crane.
One advantage of technologically aided mind-body exercises is that they provide quantifiable data. "It's objective," says Deborah Rozman, CEO of Quantum Intech, a technology licensing and manufacturing company, "you can't fool yourself." Unlike pharmaceuticals, these cyber-zazen sessions help you shift rather than mask negative emotions. "You can drug the emotions, but that's like disarming the fire alarm without putting out the fire," says Rozman. "You've got to give people tools to harness the power of their physiology."
Wild Divine's creators, animator Corwin Bell and biomedical engineer Kurt Smith, promise that "with patience and persistence," mastering the game's challenges will help you "discover a deeper understanding that can be applied to your life and your own personal journey." The game, which lists at $159.95, is only the first in a planned trilogy by the ambitious Colorado entrepreneurs, who met while rock climbing. The next installment, scheduled for release next spring, will feature the electronic avatar of author and teacher Deepak Chopra as a spiritual guide named Rama.
Another computerized biofeedback tool, Quantum Intech's Freeze-Framer, also uses a finger sensor to monitor heart rate variability. Developed by Santa Cruz-based Institute of HeartMath, the $295 (list price) Freeze-Framer features a five-step training exercise to teach players how to shift into a more relaxed state and three games that help you hone the technique. Those who prefer their de-stressing exercises devoid of mystic imagery will prefer these straightforward games to Wild Divine's elaborate Sun Realm. In the Freeze-Framer games, you can "heart power" a hot air balloon over obstacles or fill a pot with gold, but only when you shift into a relaxed state.
Freeze-Framer is being used in 200 schools to help students overcome test anxiety. Carmel High School teacher Diana Govan taught HeartMath's de-stressing technique before the computerized version was developed. She prefers the high-tech version because it provides accurate quality control: "It is so much more powerful to use the software because the students get immediate feedback." Preliminary results in the schools are so promising that the federal government has awarded HeartMath $1.7 million in grants to study the technique's impact on students and teachers.
Science or Witchcraft?
New research also supports the rationale for another form of biofeedback that monitors brain activity. State-of-the-art brain imaging has found that the adult brain is "plastic" – i.e., capable of generating new cells and new connections among those cells. The new science is no surprise for proponents of brain biofeedback, which is commonly called neurofeedback. Its researchers have claimed that altering the brain's electrical patterns (categorized from slowest to fastest as delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma waves) can help treat conditions as varied as attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression, epilepsy, and migraine headaches.
There have been so many anecdotal reports of cures that San Jose psychologist Colin Wright once put neurofeedback in the same category as copper bracelets: "I thought it was witchcraft. It meets all of the criteria for quackery. It claims to work for everything and also claims that it does no harm." But Wright was won over by his success in using biofeedback to treat his ADD patients. He has also become convinced that neurofeedback produces minimal side effects: "The brain is pretty good at protecting itself. It just isn't going to allow you to blunder into a bad circumstance."
Jay Gunkelman, longtime neurofeedback entrepreneur and executive vice president of Burbank-based Q-Metrx, says there is solid research to support neurofeedback for the treatment of epilepsy and ADD, but there is not enough quality research to back up its use for most other disorders. "People are making claims well beyond the research," says Gunkelman, who believes that patients should be informed when the treatments are experimental.
In a typical neurofeedback session, the patient sits in a comfortable chair with electronic sensors attached to the scalp. The sensors, which read the electrical activity of the brain, are hooked up to a computer. The computer amplifies, analyzes and translates the electrical activity into displays such as multicolored graphs, video games or sounds. It's the therapist's job to program the games so that the desired brain waves are rewarded.
Therapists, for example, often determine that their ADD patients exhibit too many slower brain waves (alpha/theta) in the frontal lobe of the brain and not enough faster (beta) waves associated with concentration. Their treatment includes programming the games to reward the production of beta waves. These patients make progress with the computer game only when they shift to a mental state conducive to concentration and homework.
While it may look to the observer as if the patient is just sitting in a chair doing nothing, Cynthia Kerson of Marin Biofeedback explains: "It is a very tangible experience. You let the computer talk to you. You just need to be present." And Gunkelman observes that once the brain learns to master the shift, it doesn't forget: "It's like riding a bicycle. You may wiggle a little bit when you get back on after not riding for a while, but you still know how. It is a skill that you have learned, as opposed to something that's been done to you."
There is, however, no unanimity among practitioners about the best way to teach the brain these new skills. Says Kentfield-based neurofeedback practitioner Julian Isaacs: "It's a young field, and there are a whole bunch of people doing different things and they're all claiming that they're getting good results."
Isaacs suspects that one explanation for the fact that practitioners with "wildly different" protocols are reporting good results is found in the "exercise" theory of neurofeedback. That theory holds that any kind of neurofeedback improves brain function and thus may alleviate a variety of symptoms. "Maybe just learning how to control your brain waves is enough," says Isaacs. "It doesn't matter what [the] specific protocol is."
Many clinicians believe, however, that to be most effective, it is first necessary to use electroencephalographs (EEGs) and the more detailed quantitative electroencephalographs (qEEGs) to figure out which brain waves are deficient or excessive in different areas of the brain. Dallas-based naturopath and EEG-researcher Marvin Sams says such readings allow him to determine where the brain is operating inefficiently. When Sams trains patients to change their problematic brain waves, he finds that whatever symptoms they are suffering from abate.
At Mirasol, a residential treatment program in Arizona, psychologist Peter Smith is pioneering the use of neurofeedback for notoriously difficult-to-treat eating disorders. Smith has found the targeted use of EEGs and qEEGs to be essential. Unless you figure out what is going on in an individual's brain before you start, he says, "it is like trying to put a Band-Aid on without understanding the nature of the bleeding."
The Perfect Alpha Tan
For his part, James Hardt of the Mountain View-based Biocybernaut Institute, zeroes in on alpha waves to treat a variety of symptoms. Hardt says that after a week of learning how to suppress and increase alpha waves, many participants can create brain wave patterns comparable to those of advanced Zen meditators. Hardt claims that his clients can boost their creativity, resolve psychological problems and lower their anxiety so much that, after treatment, they look as if they have spent a week on a tropical island – a phenomenon he has dubbed the "alpha tan."
Participants spend six to eight hours a day for seven days doing neurofeedback and more hours processing their experiences with a therapist. This boot camp approach is more effective than two-or-three-day-a-week neurofeedback, according to Hardt. Hardt uses the analogy of a jet plane, which will move down the runway when you move it 100 feet a day, but will never fly.
Hardt's intensive program costs an eye-popping $14,000. Other therapists charge anywhere from $50 to $100 for 30-to-45-minute sessions. They are likely to recommend at least 20 sessions and often more. Because most consumers pay for these neurofeedback sessions out of their own pockets, proponents say that they should be wary. Dr. Daniel G. Amen, a Fairfield, Calif., psychiatrist and author of Healing ADD, notes that while neurofeedback can be effective for ADD, neither drugs nor neurofeedback are panaceas.
New neurofeedback research that will aid consumers in separating the hype from reality is underway. But there may be a limit to the public's willingness to embrace even the most user-friendly new technology. Biofeedback can be daunting for Americans who like instant results. "You need persistence," says Wright. "It's boring, and it's hard work."
Wild Divine fans think the game has gone a long way toward alleviating biofeedback boredom and making it easier to incorporate cyber-assisted meditation into their daily lives. Ace gamer and writer Robin D. Owens, for example, bookmarks her favorite Wild Divine spots. When her writing isn't going well or she just needs to relax, Owens revisits the fireplace for some deep breathing practices or patiently feeds the white rabbit. These game sites are not only pleasant places to revisit but, with her purple fingertip biofeedback sensors in place, "you can get immediate feedback, which is what most Americans prefer."