Imagine playing the game Pacman. But instead of moving the yellow Pacman through the maze with a joystick, you direct the Pacman with your brain – simply by looking at the computer screen.
Now imagine if playing this game could help correct a variety of mental illnesses that are on the rise today: depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, etc.
I didn’t believe it until I tried it myself and it finally healed my persistent symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, depression, anxiety and ADHD.
This “video game” is called neurofeedback. But it’s not just a video game. It’s the best way to get to the root cause of mental disorders and actually heal the brain.
The Ins and Outs of Neurofeedback: What Exactly Is It and How Does It Work?
We all have electrical activity and impulses in our brains called brainwaves. Our brainwaves play a huge role in controlling our attention, thoughts, behaviours, and the regulation of our bodily systems. Therefore, any changes in our brainwaves can have a profound impact on our health.
Our brainwaves fall into five distinct “bandwidths” depending on their frequency - delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a particular test that can detect these brainwaves. EEG research shows that some people have excessively high or excessively low levels of brain activity in one or more of these bandwidths, leading to mental and behavioural abnormalities.
Neurofeedback (also known as EEG biofeedback) is an advanced training technique that provides real-time information about your own EEG activity.
It enables people to develop and strengthen healthier brainwave patterns and rewire the electrical functioning of the brain over time.
It’s essentially exercise for the brain.
Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain has the ability to repair itself. In order to stay physically fit, you would exercise to strengthen your muscles. Similarly, neurofeedback training helps you get mentally fit.
Here’s the workout plan:
Small metal discs with thin wires (electrodes) are placed on your scalp in various positions to measure your brainwaves. These electrodes send signals to a computer to track and record your brainwave patterns.
The brainwaves then show up on your therapist’s computer, and the therapist uses this information to set thresholds.
You then “play” a simple video game using your brainwaves. Your brainwaves must remain within the healthy thresholds set by the practitioner in order for you to win the game. For example, Pacman will move quickly through the maze and eat dots if your theta brain waves stay within a certain range.
As you start winning the game, there are signals of success – dots, beeps and points. Your brain learns to recognize these signals as rewards and seeks them repeatedly. As a result, it strives to maintain the beneficial brainwave patterns that are being rewarded, which leads to the emergence of a healthier, better-functioning brain.
However, if you tense up, or lose focus, Pacman stops moving, stops beeping, and/or turns black. Your brain recognizes that it’s no longer getting the rewards, and tries to correct itself.
The therapist continues to adjust thresholds, and makes them more difficult over time, to encourage further learning.
In other words, neurofeedback functions as a feedback loop. The electrodes on your scalp pick up your brain activity, and the game encourages your brain to make the right frequency of waves in the right places. When your brain complies, it gets rewarded.
Over time, you learn to increase brain-wave patterns associated with concentration and relaxation, while simultaneously decrease those associated with tension and inattention. You produce new, positive brain patterns, and let go of old, maladaptive patterns.
The Benefits of Neurofeedback: What Is It Used For and Who Could Benefit?
Neurofeedback has developed over the last 30 years, and a great deal of research has tested the usefulness of neurofeedback for a variety of conditions.
It’s been shown to be effective in treating a number of conditions commonly seen in clinical settings, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, sleep disorders, addiction, and learning and developmental disorders, among many others.
Years ago, I was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety, ADHD and PTSD. But today, all of my symptoms are gone and I no longer would be diagnosed with those disorders today. Ask any of my close friends and family members, and they will explain how I struggled for many years. Neurofeedback has given me my life back.
Considering the research, this makes perfect sense:
ADHD: Studies have shown improvements in impulsivity, distractibility, and hyperactivity, which can lead to much more successful learning and school performance. In several controlled studies, increases of 10 points in IQ score were found for a representative group of ADHD children (9, 10, 11, 12).
Anxiety: Individuals are more able to control/regulate their emotions and can see a reduction in the frequency and severity of panic attacks (6, 7, 8).
PTSD: Individuals notice a decrease in their anxiety symptoms and an improvement in their sense of relaxation and relationships. An exciting and recent study also shows that neurofeedback results in changes in the brains of PTSD patients that correlates with their increased sense of calmness (1, 2).
Yet no doctor told me about neurofeedback. I suffered for years before I discovered it myself and sought out a practitioner.
But why does controlling or changing brainwaves have such a powerful effect?
The conditions that respond best to neurofeedback seem to be related to the brain being “stuck” in certain brainwave patterns. It helps the brain learn to make normal transitions between brainwave states, rather than being habitually stuck in one state most of the time.
Gradually, the brain learns to regulate itself, just like it learns anything else. And like with other learning, the brain tends to retain the new skill.
When first learning how to ride a bike, for instance, we had to think about each part of the process. Eventually, however, these movements became automatic because our brain had learned them. Over time and with consistent training, your brain will learn how to achieve desired brain waves, and this new skill will transfer into your daily life.
Using substances or behaviours to manage our demons is only a temporary fix.
Neurofeedback provides a natural and permanent solution.
The brain holds onto the gains it has made after a sufficient number of sessions, and sustains them long-term.
Dr. Lubar, a pioneer in the field of neurofeedback, has reported clients enjoying the benefits of brain training 20 years after they completed a full course of treatment (13).
And unlike meds, there are no side effects, no weight gain, sleeplessness, or diminished sex drive.
I know it sounds too good to be true.
Not surprisingly, neurofeedback is controversial. Some are threatened by it. Some believe it to be completely unfounded and impossible to prove. But those who have tried it know something is happening that isn't explained by placebo effect or wishful thinking.
Like many alternative treatments that work, many physicians will be skeptical of this approach because they haven’t heard of it or they are unfamiliar with the evidence-based studies supporting it.
But on top of the studies I’ve linked to above, an extensive list of published studies on neurofeedback can be found at isnr.org, and an evaluation of its effectiveness for different disorders at aapb.org.
Regardless of the research, the pharmaceutical industry and mainstream medicine will likely never support it. Pills are much more scalable and easier to spread among the masses.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t take control of your own life and mental health and find a BCIA Board Certified Practitioner in your area. Don’t let any doctor tell you that you’ll need to be on medication for the rest of your life.
I’m living proof that it’s not true.
The brain is a lot more adaptable or “plastic” than originally believed, meaning that our brains can form new connections and we can dramatically enhance our potential and performance.
And you don’t have to suffer from a mental disorder to benefit from neurofeeback. Most people have room for improvement and can benefit from it. It can enhance performance, boost creativity and improve mental functioning in normal, healthy individuals. It’s been used by athletes, Opera singers, powerful business people, Hollywood celebrities and the U.S. Army Special Forces.
It teaches you how to put your brain in the same state of mind as an advanced Zen meditator. This is something that usually takes between 20 and 40 years of daily practice to achieve. Neurofeedback will help you make progress at a rate that you could never achieve with traditional meditation.
As technology accelerates, the gap between science fiction and fact is only getting shorter.
So in these final few weeks of 2015, take a moment to consider: What might you be able to achieve in the year ahead that seems practically impossible today? What breakthroughs might let you push your physical and mental boundaries in new and exciting directions and live the optimal life that you know you should be living?
Let me know in the comments. And please share with anyone you know who struggles with mental illness.
From 1965 comic book fantasy to 2015 reality.
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Reviewed by Dr. Michelle Presniak, PhD, C. Psych, BCN