Brain Waves

Brainwaves December 2014 Reed magazine cover

My wife and I laughed when we saw the cover of the latest (excellent) Reed magazine. In 1968, when she and I first met, I was working with an ancient EEG machine in the basement of Eliot, exploring the potential of biofeedback as a tool for exploring human consciousness. (You wrote about my thesis in “What Life Can Compare with This? Sitting Alone at the Window, I Watch the Flowers Bloom, the Leaves Fall, the Seasons Come and Go”—the thesis title — in Gary Wolf’s February 2002 article (in Reed) about me.

The use of brain waves as a tool for exploring and controlling consciousness was a new idea in 1968. Joe Kamiya at Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute had reported that trained Buddhist meditators had exhibited high levels of the 8-12-cps “alpha frequency” as measured by electroencephalography, and that untrained subjects had learned to emit higher levels of alpha when a tone was sounded whenever alpha appeared. Not only might we be able to use electronic methods to map consciousness, but it appeared that by becoming aware of our brain’s unconscious processes, we might be able to learn how to control them.


There was an ancient EEG machine in the psych department. These days, brain waves are recorded digitally and displayed on a screen. In 1968, these machines spewed out fan-folded reams of white paper at a frightening rate. I knew nothing about electronics. My roommate, the late Richard Crandall ’69, built the feedback apparatus.

It turns out that EEG neurofeedback has real but limited usefulness, and using it to map consciousness is akin to sitting on Neahkahnie Mountain and attempting to map the ocean floor by looking at the waves—useful, yes, but extremely limited.

I do have some authentic photos of me and some of the apparatus. Although it appears that they were taken in a lighthearted moment.

—Howard Rheingold ’68

Mill Valley, California