Addiction, Awakening, and EEG Biofeedback

By A. Martin Wuttke
(This article appeared in BIOFEEDBACK, June 1992, Vol. 20, No. 2)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to share some of my experience and observations in regard to the growing speculation about Alpha-Theta EEG biofeedback and its potential application in the treatment of addiction. My perspective may be somewhat different than the current talk in the field. However I believe this information needs to be brought back into the overall conversation regarding EEG biofeedback.

After twelve years of battling multiple addictions, eight failed inpatient treatments and numerous failed outpatient treatments my recovery began, on October 28, 1978 as a result of a spontaneous awakening experience. There was no doubt, from that moment on my life was dramatically altered. Subsequent awakening experiences served to propel me along the path of recovery and it became clear to me that awakening is where the key to recovery lies. Over the past fourteen years I have been pursuing the awakening process and looking for effective ways that would facilitate the occurrence in others. I have studied and taught clinical hypnotherapy, meditation, NLP, biofeedback, and all types of self-regulation skills. I received personal instruction in the advanced yoga techniques used by Swami Rama to demonstrate conscious volition over his brainwave patterns during the Menninger Institute’s voluntary controls project. My own recovery program has evolved into a major emphasis on daily practice of meditation and various psychophysiologic techniques. My search has been fruitful. I have met many remarkable people and have been blessed with the opportunity to teach the skills and information that I live by. I have been working as a biofeedback/stress management therapist in the field of addiction since 1984, and I have seen awakening occur in different degrees for many individuals. The avenues for awakening have been many, but the result is always a profound alteration in the quality of the individual’s life.

I have come to the conclusion that awakening cannot be caused. However, one can prepare the proper psychophysiologic environment where awakening can occur. To do this requires some skill and special education. Awakening usually does not happen by itself. There must be some guidelines; some specific steps to prepare the way.

The potential of EEG biofeedback fascinated previous researchers including Joe Kamiya, Kasamatsu & Hirai, Barbara Brown, Elmer and Alyce Green, Dale Walters and many others. The question arose: Is it possible that lowered cortical activity sets the stage for the emergence of higher states of consciousness? I think one reason we may have lost this fascination (or do not admit to it being latent within us) is due to the New Age or ‘60s paranoia felt by many biofeedback therapists. I suggest that anyone interested in EEG biofeedback take a second look or first look as the case may be, at the large body if information already available to us.

It is possible to de-mystify “higher consciousness.” Higher consciousness is a state of awareness that provides a medium in which profound insight (sometimes called “awakening”) can occur. Some of the early research on higher consciousness focused on the “paranormal.” While it is true that paranormal phenomena can occur in these states, the phenomena is essentially a distraction. A primary objective of higher states is to use the heightened awareness for one’s personal evolution. This is referred to in Twelve Step recovery as the “Spiritual Awakening” process, and is the basis and goal of that philosophy (Alcoholics Anonymous, World Services, 1939).

A few years ago I came across studies wherein Alpha-Theta EEG Biofeedback was used as a treatment for Alcoholism and PTSD (Peniston & Kulkosky, 1989, 1990). This research is becoming well known in the therapeutic community. Like many, I was exuberant and could sense the possibilities. A short time later I participated in the Menninger workshop on Alpha-Theta Biofeedback Training & Alcoholism. My first session on the EEG feedback monitor resulted in nothing of significance. The second session, I tried a variety of breathing techniques, visualizations and mantras. Again, nothing much happened. Then I decided to do a breathing technique that I performed as a centering device before my daily meditation sessions. The technique is called Kriya Yoga Pranayama and is mentioned twice by Elmer and Alyce Green in Beyond Biofeedback. Over the years this technique has been the gateway to “higher states” I’ve experienced in my meditations. I began practicing the Kriya technique and immediately felt one of those clear-conscious-aware experiences emerging. Then I noticed the signal indicating Theta was constant as I continued to perform the technique. My training partner had to keep raising the threshold as I went deeper into the experience. There is no doubt in my mind that it has been the repeated exposure I have had to these deep meditative states that has firmly established my recovery. In that training session I verified for myself that indeed there is a correlation between “higher states of consciousness” and Brainwave patterns.

At this point, it may be useful to look at the current thinking in the addiction field, the genesis of addiction treatment philosophy, and how all this may fit together with EEG biofeedback. Addiction manifests itself in many forms. It is a progressive process that can keep the addicted person attached to a substance or a behavior regardless of adverse or lethal consequences. Whether addiction manifests through drugs, alcohol, nicotine, eating disorders, sex, or gambling, the basic underlying addictive process is the same. The particular form addiction takes is really not the primary problem; the form is just the symptom. The adverse consequences experienced are relative to the damage caused by the substance abuse or addictive behavior. However, the motive remains the same: addiction is caused by the perception that the particular substance or behavior somehow relieves emotional pain and/or gives pleasure. The addicted person is attempting to either avoid, enhance or create certain “feeling states.” Over time the process deteriorates; the form of addiction looses its pain- relieving/pleasure-giving power. At this point some people cross-addict (replace one form of addiction with another in a effort to maintain or find that relief). Some will keep a tight grasp on their particular form of addiction, progressively destroying themselves and their lives and yet will continue to blame “the world” for their suffering. Some will get treatment and if they are fortunate, will be exposed to a healing process that can enable them to discover that which they have been searching for so desperately. Most who make this discovery call it “spiritual awakening.” In a letter from Carl Jung, dated January 30, 1961, to Bill Wilson (co-founder of A.A.), Jung wrote, “The only right and legitimate way to such an experience (spiritual awakening) is that it can only happen to you in reality, and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism.” In a commentary of Jung’s letter in the book Pass It On, the author states, “Bill was overjoyed with Jung’s letter. Not only was it gracious and meaningful; it answered in the affirmative a question that many, beginning with himself, had often asked throughout A.A.: was not their excessive use of alcohol in itself a perverted form of search for some measure of enlightenment or higher consciousness?” (A.A. World Services, 1984). Herein lies the key. Can we discover, through EEG biofeedback, the psychophysiologic state that sets the stage for “enlightenment?” 

One promise of Twelve Step recovery is true serenity (A.A. World Services, 1939). But a problem occurs when we expect or look for that serenity to come from a source outside of ourselves; when we make that serenity dependent upon externals. Most who experience awakening, state that they discover the source of serenity within themselves. This awakening is the key to accessing the vast potential within ourselves and this is where the re-emergence of EEG biofeedback training will be of major importance. EEG biofeedback, (with the proper facilitation), provides an avenue to the resources within the human mind. Proper facilitation is important because brainwaves are only correlates of the various states of consciousness. We cannot assume that everyone is experiencing the same sort of consciousness while in an eyes-closed Theta dominant state.

In the short time I have been using EEG biofeedback I have already noted that patients quickly learn through EEG training how to experience states of consciousness subjectively described as serene, peaceful, etc. This provides them with many new abilities and possibilities. They develop a powerful coping skill; they realize that they have access to this inner calm no matter what is occurring in their environment. They realize that serenity is a present possibility and by learning to orient themselves to the particular brainwave state associated with serenity, the individual gradually becomes free of the need for external things to provide relief. The individual literally learns to create serenity within. The stage is then set for the emergence of “higher consciousness.”

After reading Dr. Ochs’ article in the previous issue of Biofeedback, Vol. 20, No. 1, I can sympathize with the challenges mentioned in regard to outpatient motivation. I realize how fortunate I am to work in an inpatient setting where addiction is treated as primary, regardless of the particular form. Our program is based on the Twelve Step Model with biofeedback being a major component of treatment.

In my application of the EEG biofeedback I use much of Peniston’s protocol with some distinctions (Peniston & Kulkosky, 1989, 1990). Instead of six preliminary skin temperature training sessions, our patients receive daily thermal training sessions throughout their inpatient stay. The patients are also prepared for Alpha-Theta training with preliminary protocols to enhance Beta and/or sensory motor rhythm (SMR) as a means of neurocognitive rehabilitation. I also teach my patients a classic form of meditation and upon discharge from treatment they receive a cassette recording of a “guided” version of the technique. They are expected to continue practicing meditation as a support tool for their recovery. The EEG training gives a tangible experience of Alpha-Theta states and the meditation technique provides an avenue to re-experience those states on a daily basis.

One method I firmly endorse is the use of visualization. Through the rehearsal of visualizations of abstinence, being neutral to triggers, etc., during the Theta dominant (crossover) stage of brainwave biofeedback training sessions, the patient develops alternative behavior that will be available in real-life situations. The visualization process works similar to post- hypnotic suggestion; i.e., situations that in the past would have triggered negative behavior literally become triggers for the new mentally rehearsed positive alternatives. Constructed visualization as a tool by itself is extremely valuable and when combined with Theta Brainwave states, the visualized images are impressed deep within the mind. The mentally rehearsed images become “real” to the subconscious and eventually replace old patterns of conditioned responses.

Another important factor is the imagery that spontaneously occurs in Alpha-Theta hypnogogic states. A goal of psychotherapy is the integration of repressed material into conscious awareness. This self-integrative process occurs quite often during brainwave training sessions as the individual maintains a semi-conscious awareness, (referred to as reverie), while producing brainwave patterns normally associated with unconscious states. The result is a natural integration of repressed material, usually through symbolic mini-dreams. The individual with the aid of the therapist can then process these experiences. The experiences do not necessarily have to be analyzed, but, rather, acknowledged as a natural therapeutic process. Meaning and interpretation will usually come to the individual when encouraged by the therapist to “free associate” with the symbolic images that occur during the hypnogogic states. I have observed PTSD and abuse patients experience remarkable resolution through these mini-dream experiences. They report, after one of these experiences, that they feel a sense of “being complete” with a particular person or situation and that they are now ready to move forward in their lives. However, I believe it is important to note the difference between “reverie” and “clear-thoughtless-aware” states of consciousness.

Although I acknowledge the value of reverie states, I coach my patients to remain as alert as possible as they orient to the Alpha and progress to the Theta signal. If images occur spontaneously we will process it. However, “reverie states” are not the objective. This brings us to another aspect of EEG biofeedback that is perhaps the most difficult to explain because it is in the realm of subjective experience. The experience is almost impossible to describe to someone unless they have had a similar one. It has to do with getting beyond or ‘transcending’ thought processes. The paradox of Alpha-Theta EEG training is that while you orient to a signal indicating the presence of the desired brainwave pattern, if you think, “Oh, now I’m producing Theta!” you loose the pattern due to the increased thought activity. With training you eventually develop the ability to consciously observe and witness internal and external stimuli, without judging or thinking. This is similar to the experience Zen meditators describe as a state of “knowing” rather than “thinking.” This skill brings with it a new volition in regard to cognitive processing. Thought influences emotional states and emotional states generate corresponding behavior.

Through Alpha-Theta training the patient develops a new awareness of thought processes. This is somewhat analogous to a goal of Albert Ellis’ RET (Hansen et al., 1982). One eventually develops choice in regard to thought content and thereby gets at the root of negative trigger emotions and the associated behavior. This gives a new sense of awareness in every situation.

I do not believe in any new or fast cures for addiction. The cure has been known for a long time. In my view, awakening through higher states of consciousness is the key to freedom from addiction. By creating an opportunity to experience higher states of consciousness, EEG biofeedback may be one of the few ways to aid in the process. It is the viability of the methods used that is important and whether EEG biofeedback provides a shortcut or not, only time and further research will tell. The current trend in the recovery community is an evolution from self-help to Self- realization. We are collectively evolving from the desperation of, “I’m an addict forever!”, to the inspiration of discovering the true Self within. I believe EEG biofeedback will be a part of an evolutionary trend, not only in the treatment of addiction, but also in the whole future spectrum of health and healing. 

If you have any specific questions you would like to have addressed, feel free to contact Martin Wuttke.