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Electronic Eyes

Mind Over Machine

A Heart of Titanium

Building Hi-Tech Exoskeletons
in the classroom

Mind Over Machine

Could you train your brain waves to drive a car or pilot a plane? The idea may sound like science fiction, but some researchers at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base think it might be possible. They are participating in a unique project that uses brain waves to operate the controls of a plane. So far, the researchers are confined to earthbound flight simulators, but could this be a preview of things to come? Frontiers invites you to keep an open mind. The results may surprise you.

Curriculum Links
Notes & Discussion
Activity: Biofeedback Challenges
Report From the Field: Dave Tumey, Medical Engineer



nervous system



brain waves

  • What applications for brain-actuated controls would students like to see? For example, in the movie Firefox, the hero, Clint Eastwood, steals a Russian experimental airplane. All its functions are controlled by a pilot's brain. Can students name other examples of science fiction that are becoming fact?

  • Dave Tumey, featured in this guide's Report from the Field, comments that what's happening as a pilot controls the flight simulator "looks psychic, but it's pure science." Tumey makes an analogy with telekinesis, the apparent production of motion in objects without contact and explains how entertainers like Yuri Geller seem to be able to bend spoons with their minds. Yet, the spoon-bending performances are unpredictable and often nonrepeatable, whereas brain-actuated control of a simulator is a consistent and repeatable phenomenon, typical of advanced technology.

  • Compare and contrast hypnosis, self-hypnosis, relaxation response, meditation and biofeedback. Resources include: Your Maximum Mind by Herbert Benson (Random House, N.Y., 1987); Where Mind Meets Body by Harris Dienstfrey (Harper-Collins, N.Y., 1991).


Find out if you can control physiological processes with these exercises. Some people become so proficient they can alter brain waves, slow or speed up their heart rates and regulate blood flow to hands and feet.

  • Do hiccups bother you sometimes? Throw away the spoons of sugar and don't bother to drink that water backward out of the glass. Try this simple biofeedback method instead.

  • A hiccup is a spasm of the diaphragm muscle. It makes you inhale suddenly and violently and gives you a great excuse to leave class for the water fountain! Hiccups are frustrating because sometimes they just don't want to go away. Once you learn to control your diaphragm muscle, relief is only seconds away.

Locate your diaphragm muscle in 3 easy steps:
  1. Sit in a comfortable chair or lie with your head propped up slightly. Completely relax and think your most pleasant thoughts (try it with relaxing music).

  2. Slowly, inhale then exhale through your nose. Don't breathe too rapidly or too deeply. You don't want to hyperventilate. Wait a few seconds and repeat the procedure 4 more times. Concentrate on the movements of your chest muscles as you breathe. If you are completely relaxed, that's all you'll feel!

  3. Now tilt your head back so your airway (trachea) straightens. Repeat the above procedure with your head back. With practice, you'll feel your diaphragm as it relaxes and contracts. Now, next time you're bothered by hiccups, recline slightly and tilt your head back. Breathe in shallow, slow breaths. Be sure not to inhale too deeply! You'll feel your diaphragm as it tries to spasm. Concentrate on the spasm and exclude unpleasant thoughts. Your diaphragm will relax when you want it to. When you're good at it, the process will take less than a minute. When you perfect the process, hiccups will stop in a few seconds (don't try this while driving or while you're around machinery and other moving objects).


Develop a questionnaire to collect data on the effectiveness of this method among different people. Some of the variables to consider are: age, sex, grade, grade point average, favorite subject, number of siblings, stress level (1 to 5), etc. Add your own criteria to the list. You can put the information into a data base or spreadsheet and analyze it statistically.


  • Lab thermometer
  • 3x3x3-inch (or similar size) styrofoam block
  • cotton balls
  • #16 construction nail

Can you control your body temperature? Work with a partner on this project.
  1. Starting about one inch in on a side of the block, make a hollowed out area in which you can insert your index finger up to the second joint. Be sure the fit is tight, but you can insert your finger easily.
  2. On the other side of the block, use the nail to puncture a hole that connects just to the edge of the finger hole. Remove the nail.
  3. Carefully insert the thermometer in the nail hole. If the fit is too tight, don't force it. Make size adjustments with the nail if necessary. Insert your finger in the finger hole. Carefully adjust the thermometer so the bulb touches your fingertip and the scale is easily read by your partner. Pack any open areas with cotton balls.
  4. Relax for 5 minutes. Don't move or talk. At the end of that time, your partner will record your temperature. This is your baseline. Try various thoughts to try to raise or lower the temperature in your finger. Spend no more than 5 minutes at a time. Do not speak to your partner. Your partner will record temperatures every 30 seconds and will only tell you if the temperature has risen or fallen. Identify the thoughts that result in changes.
  5. Switch with your partner. Repeat the procedure as often as you like. Don't be discouraged. It can be done, but it takes a lot of concentration.

  1. In the exercises you did, you may have gotten few or no results. Is this an important scientific finding? Why?

  2. Does the absence of data disprove an idea? Why?

  3. What body functions are easiest/hardest to control? Why?

  • Try these two biofeedback experiments to see if you can control physiological processes.

  • Research has shown that stress causes decreased blood circulation in the extremities. The effect of this poor circulation can be felt as skin temperature drops. Students may have experienced this discomfort just before a speech or a science test. Usually, the hands and feet sweat profusely, then they get really cold and just won't warm up! Biofeedback exercises can help people recognize stress signals so they can control the effects.

  • Monitor the hiccup biofeedback experiment in class or encourage students to try it at home. They can decide for themselves whether it works.

  • The body temperature exercise can be accomplished by few, if any, students. Data can be used for discussions on mind control; whether special training is needed to accomplish biofeedback; and whether the actual data obtained has any value. To make the exercise more open-ended, ask students to devise their own experiments.


Dave Tumey demonstrates on Frontiers how he uses brain waves to control the movement of a flight simulator. Since this segment was taped, he has moved into the civilian sector, where he continues experiments with brain-actuated control. His goal is to help physically challenged people by combining this technology with functional electrical stimulation (FES), the subject of another segment in this show.

Tumey's vision is that a physically impaired person will use brain-actuated control to "command" muscles to move. Here's how: The person wears goggles that allow him to see his surroundings as well as a virtual reality "menu" displayed in "free space" about 12 to 14 inches in front of his eyes. This menu displays functions that the person can select, through brain-actuated control, to stimulate electrodes implanted in his muscles. So instead of programming a computer to fire the electrons, as seen on Frontiers, the human brain will be taught to manage this task directly.

Tumey has achieved success with raising and lowering a colleague's normally functioning arm through brain-actuated control. To do this, electrodes are taped to the surface of the co-worker's arm and attached to wires leading to sensors on Tumey's head. Using brain-actuated control, he is able to command the biceps to move.

When Tumey was growing up, his role models included astronauts, and he decided at an early age to become a scientist. He'd like kids to know that they can have an extremely satisfying career as a scientist and, he says, "with current advances in technology, the sky's the limit for today's scientists." He likens scientists to artists. "That's how I think of myself," he says. "Only instead of working with clay or paint, I'm working with electrons."


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.