The initial definition and statement that follows was authorized by the professional organizations representing biofeedback practices as recognized by health certifying agencies in the United States. It is followed by Dr. Coffman's comments and descriptions of biofeedback.

What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback has evolved from a fascination in the 1960s and 70s to a mainstream methodology today for treating certain medical conditions and improving human performance. This evolution has been driven by years of scientific research demonstrating that the mind and body are connected, and that people can be taught to harness the power of this connection to change physical activity and improve health and function. Public interest in biofeedback is growing, and with it the need for a clear answer to the question, “what is biofeedback?” The leading professional organizations representing the field have answered with the following standard definition:

Biofeedback is a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance. Precise instruments measure physiological activity such as brainwaves, heart function, breathing, muscle activity, and skin temperature. These instruments rapidly and accurately "feed back" information to the user. The presentation of this information — often in conjunction with changes in thinking, emotions, and behavior — supports desired physiological changes. Over time, these changes can endure without continued use of an instrument.

Approved May 18, 2008 by:
Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB)
Biofeedback Certification Institution of America (BCIA)
International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR)

Biofeedback is a method of learning to modify your physiological responses. It involves feeding back a person’s biological information so that person can learn to alter, modify, and regulate their physiological responses to events or circumstances. Another way of describing this is “learned physiological self-regulation” and biofeedback always involves a person learning to self-regulate a physiological process (i.e., a process in your body) through immediate feedback of information about that process.

We all use biofeedback regularly. Any time we are using immediate feedback of information to modify a physical response we are using biofeedback. For example, when stepping on a bathroom scale to check our weight, taking a temperature to check for fever, or looking in a bathroom mirror to comb our hair or shave our face, we use simple forms of biofeedback. The scale, thermometer, and mirror all provide us with immediate feedback of information, which we use to modify our responses.

Biofeedback was developed through the academic field of applied psychophysiology. Psychophysiology is the study of how the mind (psycho) interacts with and influences the body (physiology). This academic field is rooted in learning theory and psychological research laboratories, and it developed through the intersection of physiological psychology, which is the study of how biological processes affect behavior, and the age-old philosophical questions regarding the mind-body problem.

Applied psychophysiology has two primary subsets: clinical and forensic. The clinical application is biofeedback. The forensic is the polygraph or “lie detector.” They both use similar instruments – measuring heart rate, breathing patterns, electrical activity of the skin, blood pressure, muscle tension, brain activity, etc. – but they use them in different ways.

Biofeedback uses these instruments to give a person immediate information about bodily processes they are normally not aware of so that person can learn to modify and regulate these processes. It is primarily used in psychology, behavioral medicine, and physical therapy to assist in restoring healthy functioning, controlling pain, and reducing a variety of dysfunctional symptoms. Anyone can benefit from biofeedback, and most people can learn to reduce or even eliminate painful conditions, although like any other learned skill it takes time and regular practice to achieve these benefits.

Lie detection uses these same instruments to detect physiological discomfort that a person may not be aware of, under the assumption that when we lie it makes us uncomfortable. However, while this assumption may be valid for most humans, it is not true in the case of psychopaths, who are not uncomfortable with lying and who use this lack of discomfort to manipulate others for personal gain. A psychopath does not respond to a polygraph like other humans. This has created a situation where the polygraph is inadmissible in most courts, as it has many “false positives” when a normal but anxious person appears to be lying, and “false negatives” when a psychopath appears to be telling the truth.

Caution -- some biofeedback is not what it seems

Biofeedback has been scientifically demonstrated to be effective – meaning it has been shown in both laboratory and clinical conditions that a person (or animal) can learn to modify and regulate previously unconscious physiological responses through immediate feedback of information about those processes – and as a result some third party (medical insurance) payers have agreed to reimburse for biofeedback treatments. Because of this scientific and institutional recognition, several other types of treatment that have nothing to do with learned physiological self-regulation are now being called biofeedback.

For example, there is a type of energy medicine that calls itself “quantum biofeedback” (also called EPFX/SCIO biofeedback) which uses a device that places low levels of electric currents in the body and, based on changes in those currents, purports to diagnose and treat a variety of health conditions. While there may be a bright future for energy medicine, and while it’s possible that placing electric currents into a person may enhance healing or restore healthy physical balance, “quantum biofeedback" is not biofeedback as it does not involve a person learning to self-regulate a physiological process. While those using these devices may be pioneer energy medicine practitioners providing experimental energy medicine treatments and opening our culture to a promising new energy medicine future, they are not biofeedback practitioners and are not providing biofeedback services as understood by academic or professional communities. If a person claims to be a certified biofeedback practitioner, check to be sure they are what they claim. The Biofeedback Certification Institute of America, BCIA, is the recognized certification source by government and professional organizations.

In my opinion, every person has the right to seek out and utilize experimental treatments, and every practitioner has the responsibility to clearly label these treatments as experimental. For example, there are several conditions for which biofeedback is currently used experimentally with promising results, including depression, traumatic brain injury, and autistic disorders, and participants are informed the treatment is experimental prior to beginning treatment. However, calling energy medicine treatments “biofeedback” is misleading, at best. We would all be better served if practitioners of experimental treatments clearly label these practices as experimental and make the efforts to document and test the effectiveness of the treatments.

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©2006-2008 Coffman Consulting
Biofeedback modalities most commonly used
  • EMG - Electrical activity of the muscles measured at the skin surface, indicating muscle tension
  • Temperature - Peripheral hand or foot temperature
  • EDR/SCL - Electrical activity of the skin
  • HR - Heart rate
  • Respiration rate
  • EEG - Electrical activity of the brain measured at the scalp
  • HRV - Heart Rate Variability, a measure of heart rhythm flexibility and coherence
  • Derivatives and/or combinations of the above modalities