A Biofeedback Device Built for your Mind
I’m going to try to take us out on a limb to try and appreciate the potential impact of a more holistic biofeedback system design. To explain my view of the future of biofeedback though, I’ll have to navigate through some issues one might not initially associate with things like wearables and athletic training. I’m going to discuss psychological models because, at the heart of it, biofeedback is about behavior, and further, about regulating behavior and learning new behaviors or habits. More particularly, I’m going to be focusing on one model I’ve grown fond of, and it stems from a computer science background more than it does psychology, but it is an attempt at explaining the mechanisms of human personality and natural intelligence. The model to which I refer is called the Society of Mind (SoM) and was introduced by Marvin Minsky (and his colleague, Seymour Papert) in the 1970s. Minsky, who passed away just this past January, was a cognitive scientist and prominent researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence at MIT.
The Human Mind Functions like a Network
Minsky suggests that one’s mind is composed of a population of smaller, simple sub-minds, which interact and evolve and from which our mind-as-a-whole emerges. Although it could seem far-out, it is actually a very compelling model because it doesn’t require some transcendent element of mind to explain intelligence. Minsky describes this in a popularly quoted segment from his book on the theory: “What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle.” [1, p. 308].
Minsky calls these simple sub-minds agents. Think of them as specialists on a multi-disciplinary team. One agent may be very apt at correlating memories with audio cues, another agent may be highly proficient at orienting an arm quickly in response to sudden visual cues, another yet may regulate self-motivation. It is assumed that these agents have evolved over time and alongside culture to create a human psyche rich with useful functionality. Now, imagine what this society looks like—groups of agents who learned to work well together ‘live’ in neighborhoods together, with channels of communication weaving through the society, connecting individual agents to entire groups of very different kinds of agents, and so on. It looks very much like a network in human society in the sense that some individuals are hubs connecting a wide variety of others, while others are much more isolated or have a small circle with which they are very close.
The Problem with Biofeedback Design
Now, let’s imagine we want to implement a policy within our society to modify some aspect of its functioning. There is no single communication channel to reach all of the agents, nor is there a straight-forward way to anticipate the consequences of the policy change on those ‘quieter’ agents and the agents downstream of them. This is the essential design problem of biofeedback—what information in what form in which way will lead to the most effective training or behavior modification. The SoM theory gives us a very interesting way of framing this problem and I believe it has the potential to lead to much more effective biofeedback designs. The crucial implication of this theory that goes beyond the many common-sense biofeedback designs currently proposed is that the ‘black box’ of the mind is actually very heterogeneous inside, meaning that our modes of biofeedback should either be similarly diverse or should cleverly leverage this aspect of the mind.
The Unconscious Mind & Athletic Performance
I’m going to take one further step and it concerns the unconscious mind. Let us just simply define the unconscious as mental processing which is never elevated to the level of self-awareness or is hidden from introspection. This has been empirically suggested to include areas such as implicit knowledge, intuitions, biases, automatic reactions, habitual tendencies, and may certainly extend to much more . Consider it to be all of the mental activity happening which isn’t explicitly brought to your conscious attention1. Yes, that is a whole lot of unconscious processing!
Consider what the notion of unconscious means when taken in conjunction with Minsky’s SoM. Some agents may be apparent to the executive self, which could be understood as conscious, and other agents may not be in direct or explicit communication with the executive self, which could be understood as unconscious.
If you’re not convinced that the unconscious has anything to do with athletic performance, simply consider one of the most fundamental cases of biofeedback, heart rate training .. On the face of it, heart rate is an autonomic function which ordinarily one has very little, if any, direct control over. But, if you provide an external, information pathway (e.g. real-time heart rate visuals) and a trainer, then the mind can process that information in a new way and can train that unconsciously-driven behavior. The biofeedback device is creating a new, closed-loop of information. This can be extended to many aspects of athletic training such as other autonomic system effectors, form & technique, frustration & motivation, under-commitment & over-exertion, and many more.
The full potential of biofeedback, I believe, is yet to be truly demonstrated. Its value lies in the ability to form new connections, that is, feedback loops between the mind and its extensions. There is a breakthrough in biofeedback waiting to happen and I believe that it won’t occur until systems are explicitly designed for and applied to the problem of connecting the unconscious to the conscious. This is what I have referred to as holistic biofeedback design and I believe it is the future of our field.
 Minsky, Marvin (1986). “The Society of Mind”. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 Westen, Drew (1999). “The Scientific Status of Unconscious Processes: Is Freud Really Dead?”. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Volume 47, Issue 4, pp 1061–1106.
 Lehrer, Paul ET AL. (2003). “Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback Increases Baroreflex Gain and Peak Expiratory Flow”. Psychosomatic Medicine, Volume 65, Issue 5, pp 796-805.
 Nolan, Robert P. et al. (2005). “Heart rate variability biofeedback as a behavioral neurocardiac intervention to enhance vagal heart rate control”. American Heart Journal, Volume 149, Issue 6, pp 1137.e1 - 1137.e7.