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The Ghost in the Box – Chapter 3



Unsuccessful Biofeedback Training

Because so many methodological errors have occurred in the majority of biofeedback studies, it is difficult to determine whether or not biofeedback training has failed. What fails is a methodology based on the mythology of a ghost in the box.


There are many ways to facilitate the failure of biofeedback training. The inclusion of a single error in research design or in clinical practice could induce failure, meaning failure of the trainee to learn, failure in symptom reduction, or failure to establish a connection between training and treatment effects. We wonder why it was expected that learning to regulate a psychophysiological process controlled by the “involuntary” nervous system (and in some cases symptomatic) would be so easy, and the machine so powerful, that all the errors described above would not prevent the experimental group from learning. The answer of course, is that these conceptualizations and methodologies are not considered to be erroneous. Indeed, the category mistakes are blinding.

With these many errors in mind, the puzzling and often contradictory results of many biofeedback training studies can be understood: the control group shows greater change than the biofeedback group; knowledge of the target response hinders learning; statistically significant learning is not associated with symptom reduction; and differences between the no-treatment control group and the experimental feedback group are not significant.

In considering these contradictory findings, questions are automatically raised: What is it that fails? Did the trainee fail?

Shellenberger and Green 56

Did the information fail? Did the experimenter or clinician fail? Did the method fail? Did biofeedback training fail?

Feedback of information cannot fail, nor can it succeed. Just as a mirror neither fails nor succeeds, information feedback is not a phenomenon that can fail or succeed. As discussed above, however, many researchers and reviewers of the field believe that the feedback of information called “biofeedback” can succeed or fail. This has led to confusion in the field of biofeedback training. Because biofeedback training is the use of the information by the trainee, in conjunction with systematic training techniques that generate the feedback, there is a process that may fail or succeed.

Because so many methodological errors have occurred in the majority of biofeedback studies, it is difficult to determine whether or not biofeedback training has “failed.” What fails is a methodology based on the mythology of a ghost in the boxa mythology based on category mistakes and false assumptions about the power of feedback and feedback machines. Ancoli and Kamiya (1978), Johansson and Ost (1982) and Thompson, Raczybski, Haber and Sturgis (1983) use different terms but come to similar conclusions and recommendations in their respective reviews of alpha training studies, biofeedback training studies for migraine headache and studies on muscle contraction headache.

It is important to note that an excellent discussion of research results at the end of a report does not “save” poor methodology and the erroneous conclusions derived from distorted results. Many authors have mentioned these methodological errors in their studies, but do not take them into account in their conclusions. Also, authors reporting poor results repeatedly make reference to other studies with similar results, attempting to justify their work. Another serious problem for the field of biofeedback training arises from these conclusions. Reviewers of the field seem to read abstracts and conclusions only. From these uncritical reviews the medical and scientific communities are led to believe that research has shown that biofeedback training is not useful or is of minimal use for many disorders (Runck, 1980). In fact most of the biofeedback research literature has not contributed to our ability to assess the efficacy of biofeedback training, in clinical or laboratory settings.

[End of Chapter 3]

Attention: The Ghost in the Box is “Shareware”!
Please Register Your Copy Today

This internet publication of the historic monograph “From the Ghost in the Box to Successful Biofeedback Training” is itself an historic event — the first known publication of a masterpiece previously-published document as “shareware”.

For years computer software has been published under this “honor system”.  You can download a program for free, try it out, and see if you like it. And, if you continue to use the program, you are honor-bound to send the modest registration fee to the author.

If you download and read this Internet Edition of GHOST, either the whole book or any one or more of its chapters, and if you allow its message to influence your thinking about Biofeedback, you are asked to submit the modest sum of FIVE DOLLARS directly to the book’s authors, Bob and Judy.  That’s even a bargain, since the original 1986 publication, which is herewith reproduced in its entirety, cost $9.95!  Unfortunately, it has been out-of-print for several years, but would surely cost more if reprinted today.

License.  Payment of the $5.00 registration fee entitles the reader to print one (1) copy of the entire text, or any part of the entire text, for personal use.  Up to ten additional copies may be printed, provided that this notice is always included (once) and each recipient understands that the shareware fee applies to each and every printed copy of the book or any chapter of the book.   Reproduction beyond the scope of this license is a violation of US and International Copyright Laws.

To Register your copy of “Ghost”, print this page and send it with your check or US$ 5.00 cash to:

Bob Shellenberger & Judy Green
c/o Psychology Department
Aims Community College
PO Box 69
Greeley, CO 80632 USA

Dear Bob and Judy:

Thanks for making “The Ghost in the Box” available again. 

Name: _________________________________________

Address: _______________________________________

City/State: ______________________________________

Email Address: __________________________________

Remember, send only one registration per person, regardless of how many chapters you have.

A revised edition of Ghost is in the planning stages; if you do include your name and address, you will be notified if and when it becomes available.

A brief description of your professional involvement in biofeedback would be of great interest to the authors.

Comments, suggestions and criticism are most welcome.  Please feel free to make your suggestions or comments here.

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