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Correcting the Incorrigible

From 1970 to 1995, 2776 felons were given brainwave biofeedback. Instead of a 65% recidivism rate after 3 years, this group had a 15% rearrest rate.

Correcting the Incorrigible

From 1970 to 1995, 2776 felons were given brainwave biofeedback. Instead of a 65% recidivism rate after 3 years, this group had a 15% rearrest rate.

George von Hilsheimer and Douglas A. Quirk* 
** (edited down by Gary Ames, 610-668-3223)


From 1970 through 1995 Dr. Quirk supervised biofeedback training of 2776 felons. He trained staff to apply peripheral and EEG biofeedback training methods. 

Results:  70% reduction in recidivism.

15% of the felons were rearrested in the 3 years following release.

Dr. D.A. Quirk was a psychiatrist at the Ontario Correctional Institute (OCI) where he has spent more than 20 years improving an excellent facility. OCI had the lowest recidivism rate in the Western World.   The OCI was recognized by professional correctionists as the "best" correctional facility in North America.  After Quirk died in 1997, the program was abandoned.  Neurofeedback research has been revived in the U.S. Federal prison system.


Starting in 1970, early results showed that 60% and 80% of the treated felons were still free, while only 15% and 35% of the untreated felons had managed to remain outside of prison.

An intriguing finding is that recidivism is a function of the number of training sessions. Half as many felons who were treated for 16 sessions were successful at remaining out of jail as were those who received 32 sessions. There is some effect of training even in a few treatment sessions.

In a careful study of 260 young violent prisoners Quirk was able to demonstrate that it is possible to significantly reduce recidivism from using relatively inexpensive, volunteer applied techniques. In an earlier study of 150 women whose average time on a closed ward had been 9 years Quirk demonstrated that 128 could safely be discharged after using inexpensive, volunteer applied biofeedback technique.

Most conventional biofeedback training involves relatively continuous feedback tracking changes in the physiological responses being monitored. One point of view concerning the efficacy of such training is that the treated conditions are associated with detectable stimuli, and that these stimuli serve as cues to arouse the subject to reinstate the learned self-regulatory behaviour.  It seems likely that most conditions possess some readily perceived cues that might be used to activate learned corrective behaviour.


Joe Kamiya's extension of Shagass' earlier demonstration that electroencephalographic (EEG) activity could be altered and deliberately shaped by feedback of that activity, launched EEG biofeedback as a clinical reality. Kamiya's demonstration also suggested that the electrical activity of the brain is just a kind of behaviour that can be trained like any other. Let's phrase that in another way. We can condition the electrical activity of the brain. If this is true then any recognizable feature of the EEG whether it is pathological or healthy, desired or undesired can be changed. If behavior is associated with EEG activity then behavior can be changed by changing the EEG.

The recognition that brain activity is direct malleable was the seed from which grew Forester's habituation training for triggerable epileptics and Sterman's conditioning of sensor motor rhythm (SMR) to inhibit epileptic seizures. EEG conditionability also made it possible to normalize learning performances of people exhibiting attention deficiencies and hyperactivity.

If Barry Sterman's procedure for SMR training of the EEG is effective in treating some epilepsies, we thought it would be interesting to discover whether or not it could be used to modify future criminal conduct. If their criminality could be reduced then the value of Sterman's method would be substantially greater than mere neurology suggested. In SMR treatment, the training feedback tends to be discontinuous and contingent on SMR occurrences -- that is, it is operant training, rather than self-regulatory training. Consequently, if SMR training reduces criminality, we reasoned that the SMR learning could be said to have become a stable new habit requiring no maintenance exercises. We could detect no recognizable prodrome in these cases to serve as a cuing stimulus to re-activate any learned self-regulatory strategy. So this self-sustaining response is exactly what we needed.


In our first pilot study with offenders, the subjects were 77 incarcerated criminal offenders all males, mostly displaying the most dangerous types of offenses.  Their 'blind' rages, their excessive sex drive and other derangements which were involved in their criminal conduct.


The biofeedback professional adds to this nomenclature the term SMR deriving from Sterman's discovery that while 13 Hz is dominant through the brain, training 13 along the Fissure of Roland results in resistance to epileptic seizure - even that produced by toxins such as hydrazine (an normally infallible producer of seizures of fatal intensity). The amplitude of 13 Hz is notoriously small in epileptics over the Rolandic Fissure (aka Sensorimotor Strip or sulcus centralis).  {The very top of the head in the center.}

We began to up-train SMR with an EEG. All of our subjects were also trained to produce an increase in skin resistance (GSR) and skin temperature.


The dependent measures for the main effects of the studies of felons were re-occurrences of condition relevant behaviour during an eighteen month follow-up interval after discharge. Offenders were followed up through their cumulative justice system offense records a year and a half after release from the sentences in which they were treated.


(1) The justice system records of the offenders accepted into this biofeedback treatment programme were reviewed an average of a year and a half after release from their treatment sentences. Of the 17 offenders who received 0 to 4 half-hour training sessions (i.e., essentially no treatment), 65% had been re-convicted of criminal offenses. Of the 10 who had received 34 or more half-hour training sessions, only 2 or 20% had been re-convicted of criminal offenses. Intermediate amounts of training were found to be associated with intermediate recidivism rates. Among these subjects, neither follow-up interval nor age were related to recidivism rates.


The death of the senior author (Quirk) in December of 1997 after he completed a second draft of this paper, and read my third draft, made impossible our plans for a leisurely reporting of a long (25 year) series of studies done with SCARS and Quirk's Sterman treatment of a large (nearly 3000) number of jailed felons.

From 1970 until his retirement in 1995 Quirk continued to work at the Ontario Correctional Institute near Toronto, Ontario with the daily collaboration of his colleague at the OCI, Reg Reynolds. Those of us with more mobile staff may envy the fact that Reynolds and Quirk had lunch together every working day for more than 20 years. Quirk and Reynolds did significant work on Cognitive Behavior Therapy with felons; and Quirk carried out the EEG studies essentially enjoying the benign neglect of his nominal superiors. Reynolds is Quirk's executor and has been most helpful in organizing and mining Quirk's papers.


In a series of reports to the Corrections officials Quirk indicated that the three-year recidivism rate from the biofeedback unit (using these techniques) had never been more than 45%, and in some groups had fallen to 15%. Overall, among nearly 3000 felons trained by Quirk's volunteers, the rate of recidivism was consistently close to 15%. In every comparative group, the rate of success of the biofeedback group was significantly superior to the results in the Ontario Correctional Institute (OCI) in groups which did not use biofeedback.  

If you consider the violent crimes which the felons trained by Quirk would have committed and did not because of their training at OCI the Quirk Sterman protocol has saved thousands of lives.  


42 journal references omitted. 

Quirk, D. A. (1995). Composite biofeedback conditioning and dangerous offenders: III. Journal of Neurotherapy, 1(2), 44-54.

The original paper is available online at: http://www.hyperactivekids.com/sections/library/articles/incorrigible.html

* D. Quirk died after working on two drafts of this paper, and reading a third. George von Hilsheimer is responsible for the form of the final draft on the web site. Canadian spellings, e.g. "behaviour" and "centre" and a few circumlocutious paragraphs have been left intact in memory of Quirk. Editors and readers are asked to forgive this sentimental touch. 

 ** Gary Ames abridged this paper by half for ease of reading.  It is my opinion that the technology described above has improved significantly. I have omitted discussion of prisoner categorization, diagnosis, and theory of mechanism of action.  I believe these are irrelevant or dated in the fast moving field of neurofeedback.   

See also Ch. 19 in No Child Left Behind Goals (and more) are attainable with the Neurocognitive Approach by Kirtley Thornton.

   Gary Ames, Licensed Psychologist 
   Alert Focus.com - 
   28 Rock Hill Road, Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004
   Phone 610 - 668 - 3223


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