Topeka friends, admirers to celebrate Elmer Green’s life, wisdom

Menninger scientist Elmer Green was an early innovator and leader in the American biofeedback field, making a national impact in partnership with his wife, Alyce Green.

 

Yet in Topeka, months after his death, it is Green’s inspiring and thought-provoking mentorship that will be honored Sunday when friends, co-workers and admirers gather to offer gratitude for his life.

Before he died in March 2017, Green asked that no funeral or memorial service be held for him, said LaVetta Westphal-Rolfs, leader of the Learning for Life Center in Topeka where Green taught many classes and held discussions. But now, on what would have been Green’s 100th birthday on Sunday, many who worked with and admired him are coming together for what she calls a “Gratitude Gathering.”

“We will gather as a community to connect with each other to share ways in which we have been influenced by Elmer and his teaching, research and writing,” she said on a distributed invitation. “We will have an opportunity to express our gratitude for his contributions to us personally, in the world, and in service to the planet.”

Westphal-Rolfs is one of many people who learned from Green about biofeedback, or using electronic equipment to measure bodily processes and learn to control those processes, but also about consciousness and life lessons. Green’s fans will gather from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka, 4775 S.W. 21st.

Green’s worked spanned multiple subjects, but Westphal-Rolfs said that in talking recently with Green’s daughter, it was the work he did in hand-warming that stands out.

“What he brought to the world was teaching people to be in charge of their own health, through the idea that they can learn to warm their hands,” she said.

It was a simple technique, using a thermometer held against the palm and meditative types of thoughts, to teach people that they can control what is often considered an automatic body function, Westphal-Rolfs said.

“The voluntary control center that Elmer did a lot of his research with Rex (Hartzell) was how to look at these things that yogis could do — control their breath, sit on a bed of nails. How could they do that?” she said.

Utilizing his doctoral work at University of Chicago in biopsychology, a combination of biology and psychology, and harking back to his undergrad degree in physics, Green gathered hard data to show that people can voluntarily control and change the temperature of their hands by relaxing.

It sounds simple, but doing so taught people with anxiety to calm their autonomic nervous system, Westphal-Rolfs said, and even to lower blood pressure and increase blood flow in their hands.

Topekan Rex Hartzell was the head of the biomedical engineering group at Menninger, and he worked with Green and others on campus to design and build the electronic instrumentation they needed to support their research.

Rex Hartzell and Carol Snarr talk about Elmer Green and biofeedback.

“He was one of the very first people in biofeedback,” said Hartzell, 85, adding that meant the machines being designed for the research projects were the first of their kind, too.

“Everything was a challenge because most of it was brand new,” Hartzell recalled of those exciting days.

But Green, in a way that seems true of many of his interactions, didn’t just impact Hartzell at work.

“What he was trying to do with biofeedback and self-training, and utilizing your brain for problem solving, and this kind of thing, it made you stop and think what you could do and what you couldn’t do,” Hartzell said. “And mostly what you could do, if you really wanted to. I think it shifted my way of thinking. I was pretty much of a hardware guy who followed instructions, and it got me thinking about how you could improve upon yourself along the way. That was a big thing.”

Green’s work expanded to the national and even international stage. Francine Butler served as executive director of the Biofeedback Association from 1971 to 2010, today the Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, and she worked with Green, and also his partner, Alyce Green, during the early years. Green was president of the association in 1978.

“He had a delight in science and the world around him. He inspired people to think differently,” she said. “He brought a perspective, a hard-sciences perspective, to this new world of alternative medicine. His effect has been long-lasting. To this day, people still quote him and his work.”

Fred Shaffer and Erik Peper, both scientists in the field, wrote a biofeedback history and gave credit to Elmer and Alyce Green for their roles in the fledgling field in the 1960s, calling their contributions “unequaled.” The two wrote “Beyond Biofeedback,” Shaffer said, a book that served to popularize biofeedback to the general public.

“Their Voluntary Controls Program at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan., developed many clinical applications that are widely used to treat addiction, hypertension and migraine and to enhance creativity,” the authors wrote.

Carol Snarr is a retired nurse who worked at Menninger for years, working closely with the Green couple, whom she called her mentors. She was interested in Green’s biofeedback work, seeing the potential for use in the nursing field.

“Teaching people to become part of their own well-being, it really appealed to me,” she said. “The whole purpose of what Elmer taught was to teach people self-awareness and then teach them skills to self-regulate, and then encourage people to practice it long enough until it becomes more of a way of being.”

He was, Snarr said, someone with wisdom beyond the usual.

“He could always see the whole picture, and he had wisdom far beyond what many of us do,” she said. “His idea always was that we all have the capability of tapping into everything that ever was or ever will be.”

Green’s work continues at Westphal-Rolfs center, where the books he’s written are utilized for “deep” discussions. She laughed as she recalled Green refusing to do any more book talks with people who weren’t willing to dive deep into the topics of consciousness, how life is to be live and how death is to be understood.

She recalled a time of confusion in her own life, when she sought his advice.

“He said you can have anything you want in the universe. The universe is waiting for you to be clear,” Westphal-Rolfs said.

Heroes
 

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