What is neurofeedback?
First, neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback. So, what is biofeedback? In the literal, it is feeding back information that your biology is giving off. In simpler terms, it is creating a mirror for something that is going on inside your body. The idea being, if we can see it, we can learn to control it. This is why we see mirrors in gyms, yoga studios, and even in your bathroom. Being able to see a reflection of what you are doing, allows you to adjust form, posture, and even style your hair differently in the morning. We can continue to make adjustments, in the mirror, in an effort to get maximum results from whatever we are doing. With technology, we can see and monitor the activity inside of us such as heart rate, blood pressure, and even the electrical activity in your brain. So, neurofeedback then, is a mirror for the electrical activity (brainwaves) in your brain.
Why is having a mirror for the electrical activity in your brain helpful?
Brainwaves are the electrical impulses generated when the billions upon billions of neurons inside your head communicate with each other. Looking at brainwaves (their frequency and amplitude) allows you to see how your brain is functioning and what state it is in. For instance, if you are in a “stressed” state, you can watch this happening in real time, and in front of a “mirror”, learn to practice a more relaxed state. Repeated patterns, over time, can be learned and engrained in the brain and become the brain’s new “normal” (also known as homeostasis). This is great when it is your brain learning joy, relaxation, contentment, calm – cool – collected focus, amongst many others. However, if repeated often enough, your brain can learn other patterns such as anxiety, hypervigilance, and distractibility as well. These patterns can arise from trauma, PTSD, brain injury, repeated overstimulation, and inflammation just to name a few. If this happens, we can use “the mirror” to exercise the brain back into a more regulated state. Remember, your brain is designed to call familiar, ‘good’. Once it has become familiar with a negative pattern, you will have to work to unlearn it and learn a new normal.
So, what exactly does neurofeedback look like?
In our office, before an actual session begins, a client will have an evaluation that consists of a qEEG (quantitative electroencephalogram aka: ‘brain mapping’), a comprehensive symptom inventory, and a health history questionnaire. We use all of this information to decide exactly what area of the brain and the frequency ranges that are going to be trained. There will be anywhere from one to several sensors that will be placed on the scalp and one on each ear. The sensors are held in place by electroconductive paste. They are then plugged into the EEG amplifier which sends the brainwave signals to the computer where they are turned into several different visual images. The client, with coaching from a neurotherapist, learns to control, regulate and normalize their brainwaves. We reward the brain over and over again as it gets closer to meeting its “electrical goal”. This takes multiple sessions and time, to learn. Remember, the brain LOVES repetition. It takes some time for it to learn a new pattern. If you want big muscles, you have to go to the gym and repeat the exercise of lifting weights over and over again, increasing the resistance as you go, until you achieve the result you are looking for. One trip, or even several trips, is not enough to build big muscles.
And that’s it? All I have to do is learn to control my brainwaves and I’m done?
Absolutely not. This is just a VERY brief discussion of what neurofeedback is. We have such a high success rate in our office, because we practice neurotherapy not just neurofeedback. Neurofeedback, while a very powerful tool, is only one of many that we use to help the brain learn a “new normal”. It’s not enough to just change the brainwaves.
OK, I think I get it. But, if I am honest, I am still a little confused.
That’s ok. And you definitely aren’t the only one. This is why we offer a free, hour-long, consultation to all that are interested. There is no substitute for sitting down with a professional and getting to ask all of the questions you need to ask. But let me give one more example in the hope of clarifying… this is a dialogue we have used thousands of times in our office…
Let’s say I were to offer you $10,000 to learn how to wiggle your ears over the next two weeks. Does that sound like a good idea? *client nodding head, excitedly* So now, I send you off for two weeks… how would you go learn to wiggle your ears?
The client chimes in;
“I would go and talk to a friend who knows how to do it…. I would look up videos”.
Smart! You would check in with people who already know what it is you’re trying to do. That way, you’re getting information on what you want to accomplish.
Now that you know what it looks like and have studied some techniques… what’s the next step?
“I would practice”
How would you practice?
“Maybe go look in a mirror and see if I’m doing it?”
Exactly! The mirror would be the tool you use to see if you are truly wiggling your ears. It would be a way for you to receive feedback on any movement. As you are experimenting with flexing facial muscles, and making all kinds of faces, you might see a little movement and say to yourself, “Ooooooh I did something!! I don’t know what I did, or how I did it, but I did something!”
Now, if you came back in a couple of weeks, after wiggling your ears just one time on let’s say, day two out of 14, how well do you think you would remember how to do this?
“Probably not very well.”
Right, because the key is to practice. Lots and lots of repetition. By getting feedback on wiggling your ears and practicing it over and over again, you begin to learn what it is you need to do to wiggle your ears. In reality, what is happening is that you are rehearsing a very specific set of neural connections in your brain and forming a new, engrained, neural pathway. In the case of wiggling your ears, it’s what we call a “muscle memory”. Through practice and feedback, you would be able to bring up this new skill at the snap of your fingers. The primary principal of how your brain learns best is “repetition”. When neurons fire together often enough, eventually they wire together and become much easier to use. After you have ridden a bike for a while, how often are you actually thinking about all of the things you need to do to actually ride the bike? How many times have you driven to work? If it has been a lot, how many times have you driven to work and later can’t recall your ride in? That’s your brain on “autopilot”.
This is basically what you are doing with your brain during neurofeedback. The system you are practicing on is essentially a mirror that is giving you visual and auditory feedback, allowing you to create, practice and engrain new neural pathways, using more regulated levels of electrical activity. If your brain’s electrical activity becomes dysregulated (which can happen in many ways) it can create engrained pathways that cause dysfunction. Neuroplasticity tells us that we can teach you to make new neural pathways, that use more regulated levels of electrical activity, to alleviate the dysfunction, and engrain those pathways instead. Practicing this in a brain “mirror” allows you to build deeply engrained, functional neural pathways, that when used regularly, last a lifetime.
OK, great analogy! That makes sense. So, if I learn to make a healthier brain and can prove it using neurofeedback do, I get the $10,000?
No, but you get a team of great people that are here to support you as you move down life’s road and a really healthy brain!