Neal E. Miller (August 3, 1909 – March 23, 2002) was an American psychologist, instrumental in the development of biofeedback. His productive career involved important studies of a variety of psychological issues. Together with John Dollard, he combined psychoanalytical theory with behaviorism, trying to scientifically explain Freudian ideas of inner drives that motivate and influence human behavior. Miller was one of Clark L. Hull's students. His early work (Dollard and Miller 1950), attempted to apply a Hullian analysis to behavioral issues derived from psychoanalytic literature.
Dollard and Miller's research on frustration and psychological conflict has become classic, lending direct support to behavior modification techniques of altering an individual's behaviors and reactions to stimuli through positive and negative reinforcement such that adaptive behavior is increased and maladaptive behavior extinguished. Turning to physiological substrates, Neal Miller made significant findings concerning the relationship between reinforcement mechanisms and the control of autonomic behavior, pioneering the field of biofeedback which today is used successfully to treat a variety of medical problems.
Neal E. Miller was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 3, 1909. He received a B.S. degree from the University of Washington (1931), an M.S. from Stanford University (1932), and a Ph.D. degree in Psychology from Yale University (1935).
Miller was a social science research fellow at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, Vienna for one year (1935-1936) before returning to Yale as a faculty member in 1936. He first worked in research in psychology, and later as a researcher in the University's Institute of Human Relations.
During World War II, Miller served as an officer in charge of research in the Army Air Corps' Psychological Research Unit #1 in Nashville, Tennessee. After that he was director of the Psychological Research Project at the headquarters of the Flying Training Command in Randolph Field, Texas.
In 1950, Miller returned to Yale to become a professor of psychology and in 1952 he was appointed the James Rowland Angell Professor of Psychology. He spent a total of 30 years at Yale (1936-1966).
In 1966, Miller transferred to Rockefeller University, where he spent an additional 15 years of service. He became Professor Emeritus at Rockefeller in 1981 and Research Affiliate at Yale in 1985.
Miller served as President of the American Psychological Association from 1960-61, and received the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1959 and the APA Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology in 1991. He also received the National Medal of Science. Miller was also president of the Society for Neurosciences, the Biofeedback Society of America and the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research.
Neal Miller died on March 23, 2002, in Hamden, Connecticut, survived by his second wife, Jean Shepler and two children. His first wife Marion E. Edwards, died in 1997.
During his early career Miller focused on research of Freudian psychoanalytical theories and the combination of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. He wanted to translate psychological analytic concepts into behavioral terms that would be more easily understood and that would be based in scientific facts. He particularly focused on studying unconscious drives, which according to Freud greatly influenced human behavior.
Along with John Dollard, Miller combined Freud’s ideas with learning theory. The two scientists recognized Freud's concept of anxiety and fear as secondary drives (in contrast to primary drives which are directly related to survival). As a secondary drive fear is learned, claimed Miller, it could be modified through instrumental conditioning.
Miller and Dollard coined the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis. In its original form it stated that frustration always causes aggression and aggression is always a consequence of frustration. However it was modified later into: “frustration can lead to aggression, and aggression can be caused by things other than frustration.” Miller proposed psychotherapy for aggression, frustration, or anxiety, in which people would learn more adaptive behaviors and unlearn maladaptive behaviors. Teaching relaxation techniques, coping skills, or effective discrimination of cues would be part of such therapy.
After his work on anxiety, Miller started to investigate other autonomic behaviors, trying to find out if they could also be modified through instrumental conditioning. He investigated hunger and thirst, using behavioral methodologies and neurophysiological techniques. He concluded that the autonomic nervous system could be as susceptible to classical conditioning as the voluntary nervous system. This led to his work on biofeedback.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as Miller started to work on his theories of biofeedback, he also started to face significant criticism in academic community. He claimed that people could directly influence their bodily mechanisms, such as blood pressure, and that everybody could be taught to do so. The idea was so radical and novel that it bordered on scientific heresy. In his obituary in the New York Times, a 1997 statement by James S. Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, was quoted to remind readers of the atmosphere surrounding Miller’s work:
In 1961, when Neal Miller first suggested that the autonomic nervous system could be as susceptible to training as the voluntary nervous system, that people might learn to control their heart rate and bowel contractions just as they learned to walk or play tennis, his audiences were aghast. He was a respected researcher, director of a laboratory at Yale, but this was a kind of scientific heresy. Everyone 'knew' that the autonomic nervous system was precisely that: automatic, beyond our control.
Miller was eventually able to prove his point, and biofeedback became gradually accepted in scientific circles as a method to help treat high blood pressure, migraines, and other medical conditions.
Miller’s work contributed to our understanding of behavior and motivation and laid a foundation for modern neuroscience. His work on biofeedback influenced generations of researchers in behavioral medicine and other fields. Biofeedback became recognized as a form of alternative medicine and is now used widely to help with different medical problems, including high blood pressure, epilepsy, ADHD, and other conditions.
In 1993, the Board of Scientific Affairs honored Miller by establishing the Annual Neal Miller Distinguished Lecture, dedicated to neuroscience and animal research and presented at each convention of the American Psychological Association. In addition, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research established the Neal E. Miller New Investigator Award in his honor.
All links retrieved October 28, 2014.
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