Leave Your Degree at the Door, Dude By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 11/19/13 - 5:55 PM

The late 1960s and 1970s were exciting times for the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. Much of the enthusiasm was spawned by a body of landmark research. At the time experts postulated that humans had two distinct nervous systems: the voluntary and the involuntary. The voluntary nervous system allows you to brew your morning cup of Joe or take out the trash before you leave for work. The involuntary or autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, blood pressure and the temperature of your baby toe. According to the existing theory, a human being could not control his or her involuntary or so-called autonomic processes. But all that was about to change.

Enter Neal E. Miller, a prominent psychologist and a past President of the American Psychological Association. By paralyzing animals, and hence knocking out voluntary responses, with curare (often dubbed South American dart poison) Miller demonstrated that involuntary or autonomic/automatic responses could indeed be controlled. And although later research would sometimes fail to replicate Dr. Miller's results, the implications for the human potential movement were staggering. If indeed Miller was correct, humans could do things to control their behavior that were heretofore considered impossible!

During this same era, the Menninger Foundation, a longstanding psychoanalytic foothold, located in Topeka, Kansas was doing some experiments that seemed to back up Miller's assertions. Subjects were asked to hold glass mercury thermometers and told to raise their hand temperatures. Not only did many subjects accomplish this, but as an added benefit, these same individuals often experienced relief from migraine headaches. When Miller was informed of this fact, folklore has it that he smiled and merely quipped: "I believe that in this respect men are as smart as rats."

Slowly but surely, thermometers and the like were replaced with sensitive electronic devices called biofeedback meters that gave subjects and clients the superior feedback necessary to make bodily changes at will.
With Menninger at least partially leading the charge, biofeedback seemed to be the coming thing in our field and I wanted to be on the cutting edge of the breakthrough. Luckily Menninger was offering brief biofeedback training sessions and as a graduate student I immediately applied.

I mean how fun would that be? I would get in my favorite car of all time and drive from St. Louis to Topeka—310 miles—to receive the best training of my life. The make and model of my favorite auto of all time are irrelevant to this discussion . . . okay, okay you twisted my arm . . . it was a 1965 Oldsmobile 442 and yes it was fast enough to get even the most conservative driver in a heap of trouble.
But as John Lennon once quipped, life is what happens when you are making other plans. Certainly, it proved true in my situation. I blew the clutch out on my 442 dream machine and thus an intercity bus transported me to the Mecca of biofeedback training.

The training was blow-away awesome and reached a zenith when at the end of the day's workshop we were given the exact temperature feedback monitor units Menninger was using to train clients to take home and experiment with. These biofeedback devices were manufactured in Lawrence, Kansas. Yes indeed, these gems were made in America and resembled a lunch box Larry Mondelo might have been toting in a classic Leave it to Beaver episode. In reality, the unit was a ultra sophisticated thermometer with 3 3/4 inch meter on the front. It would take a baseline, track the client's progress (or lack of it), and even had onboard calibration capabilities. We had the option of purchasing the units if we liked them and I did just that.

As for me, you won't find mine for sale on Ebay. After my brief training at Menninger I used this little gem to help hundreds and hundreds of clients with anxiety, habit control issues, and migraine headaches. It also came in handy for performing hypnosis and systematic desensitization; but that's a tale for another blog.

But here's where the story gets very interesting. On the night I took my unit home I had fairly good success raising the temperature of my hand. This practice was theoretically helpful in combating anxiety and once again helping those with migraine headaches.

As I was walking from my hotel to Menninger the next morning I spied a psychiatrist who was in my training class.

"Hey how's it going?" I asked.

"Not well. This biofeedback stuff is junk," he told me.

"What do you mean?"

"Well," the psychiatrist asked," were you able to make the temperature on your meter go up."

"I was," I proudly announced, "but I take it you could not."

"Right. My meter did nothing," lamented the psychiatrist.

"Look," I said trying to be nice. "It could be the biofeedback meter they gave you is defective."

"Ha. I don't think so," he responded. "I let my five year old son play with it and he was pegging the meter on super hot so easily I had to reset it several times for a higher temperature."

"Okay," I calmly responded. "I think I have an answer for you. You know too much. I mean look. Your five year old doesn't know squat about the nervous system. You tell your five year old that his hand is getting hot or to imagine that he is outside on a warm sunny day and presto . . . his hand temperature genuinely goes up. You, on the other hand are a medical doctor. Therefore, you know all these facts about the central nervous system versus the autonomic nervous system. You know the traditional theory forward and backward. You can tell me with great detail why a person should not be capable of raising his or her hand temperature. Too much traditional knowledge can be a dangerous thing."

"Al-right Rosenthal, maybe, just maybe, you are correct. So what in the heck should I do about it?"
"That's easy," I replied, "Just leave your degree at the door dude!"

"Hmm. Well what about you Rosenthal. Are you going to leave your degree at the door?"

"Not me." I said. My degrees are nonmedical and not focused on physiology. I might just know less about the nervous system than your five-year-old son. So, to put it bluntly, I'm good to go."

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist