Creating A Self-Regulated Brain
Neurofeedback is the process of improving the brain's ability to regulate itself by teaching it to enforce functional patterns and reduce dysfunctional patterns.
Most mental health issues have a neurological component and a behavioral component. The brain may be working too fast, too slow, overly connected or not allocating resources well. That's where neurofeedback comes in!
Neurofeedback: It's all about the brainwaves.
How is your brain functioning?
The concept behind neurofeedback is that the brain, which is both electrical and chemical, is designed to do two things: learn and stabilize itself. Homeostasis (or stabilization) is a fancy way of saying that what the body and brain try to maintain the current functioning state at all times. This is why your body temperature stays at 98.6 degrees when you are healthy and why you develop behavioral habits. As you grow and learn, the brain creates connections which drive your behaviors and become the pathways through which we experience the world. Once a pathway is used repeatedly, it becomes part of the brain's homeostatic set point, and becomes more frequently and easily utilized.
Most of the time, this is a good thing. We learn how to do and feel in a beneficial way and what was once impossible (like a 1 year old driving a car) becomes possible (driving as a teenager or young adult). However, when you experience trauma (emotional, physical, or mental), develop dysfunctional behavioral habits, or find yourself struggling to do something that should be easy, there may be a problem with the way your brain is functioning electrically. There are three basic problematic states that your brain can be in: over activated (too fast), under activated (too slow), and unbalanced (bouncing back and forth between fast and slow). Each state results in behavioral difficulties.
Neurofeedback is a computer assisted method for encouraging the brain to reduce these states through auditory and visual positive reinforcement. Neurofeedback has been around as a therapy since the 1960s, when a NASA study found that training cats to increase a specific brainwave caused them to physically calm. These cats inadvertently became resistant to seizure activity, and the possibility of changing the brain, and therefore physical and psychological behavior, was born. Shortly after that, various researchers and clinicians found that this technique could be used with a wide variety of brain-based clinical issues! However, in the 1960s, a computer capable of running the computations quickly enough to engage learning were the size of a building! Outside of research facilities and university settings, it wasn't widely available. As the computers have improved, gotten smaller, and become more accessible in the past few decades, the use of neurofeedback in a clinical setting has finally become practical.
Neurofeedback is one of my specialties, and I have been using this technique since 2001.
How Does It Work?
In a neurofeedback session, I use several pieces of technology which allow me to watch your brainwaves and provide visual and auditory rewards when your brainwaves are within an acceptable range. I have four of the most respected and researched systems in the field: the BrainMaster Atlantis 4X4 with Brain Avatar, Thought Technology's ProComp Infiniti with the Neurofeedback and Physiology Suites for Thought Technology, EEGer created by EEG Spectrum, and the NeXus 10 Mark II with BioTrace+ software created by Mind Media. All four systems have similar components, but they have some differences as well. I am also pleased to have added the Myndlift Neurofeedback System utilizing the MUSE 2 or MUSE S headsets for remote training.
If I decide to use any of these systems with you, you can expect to see several electrode sensors, which will be attached to your scalp. These sensors will NOT shock you! They receive data from the brain and are not able to transmit anything into your brain. This is a safe therapy. The location that the electrodes are placed depends on which part of the brain I need to train. Those sensors then attach to a small amplifier. That amplifier is similar in purpose to a guitar amp. Where the guitar amp makes the sounds waves bigger to make them louder, the neurofeedback amplifier takes the brainwaves and "zooms in" on them so that they can be displayed and read on the computer screen.
The amp is then connected to the computer. If I choose to use the Brainmaster, Thought Technology, or EEGer systems with you, this is through a cord. If I decide to use NeXus, it is by Bluetooth. In both cases, however, the brainwaves are displayed on my computer screen so that I can see both their amplitude and frequency. Physics time! A fast wave (higher frequency) in the brain should occur when you are concentrating or using that part of your brain. Fast waves are, by nature, smaller in amplitude. A slow wave (lower frequency) naturally has a higher amplitude (bigger). Slow waves happen, usually, when we are asleep. I look at the frequency bands, and provide auditory and visual stimuli when the bands you make are within the boundaries I set.
Your job is to sit and pay attention to the video or sound feedback that I provide to you. Often, you will either play a game or watch a DVD. However, the game or movie only works if you are within range. Because your brain wants the reward of the game, movie, or sound, it will adjust the brainwaves so that it receives the feedback.
Because the brain naturally returns to what it thinks is normal, changes have to be small and repeated several times in order for them to stick. Also, most clients have multiple locations that need to be addressed. Because of this, Neurofeedback sessions generally come in the 20-40 session ranges. Research and my experience says that it takes about 20 sessions for changes to become stabilized and for the brain to recognize the "new normal". If there are co-morbidities, or more than one issue going on, then more changes need to be made and more sessions are required. The blessing, however, is that once the brain is stabilized at a new normal, it will hold that for the long haul.
What to Expect in a Session
Before starting Neurofeedback:
Before your start Neurofeedback, you will probably have a qEEG and a qEEG review session. This tells me where we need to start! Then, when you come in for your first neurofeedback session, I will take the time to show you the equipment, explain exactly what will occur in session, and answer any questions before actually hooking up the sensors.
Time: Approximately 10 minutes
Sensors will be attached to your scalp. These sensors receive information from the brain and send that information to the computer. Although these sensors are often called electrodes, they are NOT able to send electricity into the brain. This is not electro-shock therapy!
Step 1: I will clean your scalp and earlobes with alcohol, this helps the sensors to get a clean and clear signal, as well as allowing it to stick on the scalp.
Step 2: Some paste will be put on the sensor. This paste is a kind of conductive adhesive that can be washed off easily. It allows electrical signals to pass through it, so the sensor can pick up an accurate wave.
Step 3: I will place the sensor on your scalp on at least one of sixteen different spots on the brain, depending on where you need the training. Sometimes I need only one sensor, other times 2 or 3, again depending on what our goal for that session is.
Time: Approximately 30 minutes
This is when the real work is done! This process is presented in steps here so that you can see the process, but really these things are all happening at the same time.
Step 1: The sensors will tell the computer what frequencies and amplitudes they are picking up from your brain.
Step 2: I will tell the computer what frequency and amplitude it should reward, and which ones it should discourage as well as how easily the rewards should be given. I will adjust this throughout the session based on how you are responding.
Step 3: The computer then sends you almost instantaneous feedback in a visual and/or auditory way.
Step 4: Your brain learns how to receive the reward, thereby creating the correct waves.
One example of feedback is a "game" in which you look at a skateboarder traveling through a drainage ditch. The computer shows you feedback in several ways. First is a set of thermometers which show you if you are making not enough, or more than enough of a certain frequency band. too much of the slower frequencies, and your skateboarder will slow down, too much of the faster frequencies, and the character will crash. If you are making a smaller amount of the slow and fast, and you are making at least a certain amount of the healthy frequency, then the character will do tricks. As I watch the EEG readout on his computer screen, I will tell the computer to reward you, usually between 60-70% of the time that you are meeting the goal. This percentage is not me being stingy with the reward, it is because if the reward is set at less of a percentage, you will feel frustrated and give up, where if the reward is given too often, your brain will not understand that it is having an impact on the character moving.
Clean Up & Process
Time: Approximately 20 minutes
In these 10 minutes, I will go over what happened in the session, clean up your scalp (after all, you don't want to walk around with goop in your hair!) and discuss future goals. We will talk about what you need be looking for, both positive and negative. Side effects of neurofeedback are very mild: you sleep more or less than normal, you have more energy than normal or a little less than normal, etc. You may be asked to watch for headaches, hyper focus, or drowsiness. If the side effect is bothering you too much, you can always call, and I will get you in and take care of it quickly.