Avram's Past

Joe Kamiya; My Most Impactful Mentor Died

Joe Kamiya

I have had five mentors throughout my career and am grateful for their efforts. After learning of their deaths, I have written about Mort Ruderman and Ken Olsen. Unfortunately, I have just learned that Joe Kamiya, the most impactful of all my mentors, died last year.

Joe Kamiya made me a scientist.

Paul Hugenholtz made me a manager.

Mort Ruderman made a businessman.

Ken Olson made me a leader.

Les Vadasz made me a strategiest

I was 21 when my friend, Mel, introduced me to Joe. Mel, a medical resident at UCSF Medical School, had done part of his residency working with Joe at his lab on the 3rd floor of the Langley Porter Institute. I met Mel, an orthodox Jew when hanging out with Shlomo Carlebach (a longer story). I had been misdiagnosed with emphysema and had only ten years to live. I was still composing music and had decided to learn to play the trumpet and the clarinet. One day, I thought, how can I be playing these instruments if my lungs were so bad? So I went back to the institution that had given me the diagnosis. They reexamined me and came back with a different opinion: I was suffering from low-grade asthma. Suddenly, I realized that I would not be dying soon. I had been thinking of going to Israel to study to become a Rabbi, but now I was not interested in that.  

At that time, I worked as a pizza restaurant’s night manager. I thought there must be something more gratifying to do and started to ask my friends if they knew anyone that might have a job for me. Mel asked if I knew anything about electronics. I did because of a childhood interest in electronics and physics. So I said “yes,” and he introduced me to Joe, who was looking for someone to help him develop equipment that could be used to monitor brain waves and provide real-time feedback. Joe was interested in the possibility that people could learn to control their brainwaves with feedback. Eventually, we called this brainwave biofeedback.  

There I was, a skinny twenty-year-old with long hair and a beard with no academic credentials. Joe asked if I could put together a way to do the biofeedback using various devices he already had, such as a digital logic patch panel, EEG amplifiers, frequency filter, and more. I told him I would try but wanted him to agree to give me a job if I succeeded. It took me a few days to figure things out, and true to his word, Joe gave me a job.  

So there I was as a research technician. I had a great curiosity, and Joe loved to teach. So, in addition to being my boss, he was my teacher. He taught me about the scientific method, signal processing, neurophysiology, statistics, and more. Without Joe, I would most likely have ended up running a restaurant.

I worked for Joe for three years. During this time, I learned how to design and program computers.  

We stayed in touch over the years, but I think i might be as much as ten years since we last had contact. Yet, I often would ask myself what Joe would have thought about something. I am sure he was proud of his role in my development as he should have been.

Much more about my time working with Joe can be read in my book, The Flight of a Wild Duck.


In Memoriam: Joe Kamiya, 1926–2021 

Cynthia Kerson, PhD, QEEGD, BCN, BCB Senior Fellow, BCB-HRV

Biofeedback (2021) 49 (4): 103–105.


Joe Kamiya was a searcher, a glowing spirit, and a friend to many. He seamlessly merged the purity of his inner life with his work, which had a quality all its own. While others rightfully resolved their questions from a data-driven perspective, Joe’s spirit contributed to this field from the perspective of first-person science. He wasn’t into writing, so too many of his findings didn’t get published. But, through lectures and personal communications, we learned what he had to say. And it was powerful.

Joe grew up on a chicken farm near Sacramento, California, and recalled questioning the meaning of life even then. As a teenager, during World War II, he and his family were forced into internment at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, which furthered his inquiry into his identity as a Japanese American and motivated him to learn how his emotions triggered his body and brain functions….

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