What is Neurofeedback?
Written By: Zack Arnold
I’m a film editor, not a neuroscientist (although I have edited a neuroscientist on TV). My strength is in my creativity and ability to tell stories visually, not my technical skills or vast scientific knowledge. So let’s be clear…I’m just a guy. In this post I intend to talk about neurofeedback from a personal level and how it changed my life.
To be fair, I should at least start with a broad understanding of what neurofeedback is. If I don’t, images from A Clockwork Orange or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may begin flashing through your brain. Rest assured neurofeedback is painless, non-intrusive, and incredibly effective.
Neurofeedback at its most basic level is using real-time measurements of your brain’s electrical activity (measured using “qEEG,” Quantitative Electroencephalography) to teach self-regulation of brain function. It’s the same concept as biofeedback, only instead of measuring your pulse, heart rate variability, or respiration rate, you’re getting real-time “feedback” from your brain and learning how to improve cognitive function with that real-time feedback.
HOW IT WORKS
Everyone is most likely familiar with the term “brainwave.” Brainwaves are just electrical impulses in the brain happening at various frequencies (speeds). The most common frequencies associated with our most common states of being areDelta, Theta, Alpha, SMR, and Beta. For example, if you’re wide awake and functioning at a high level of focus and concentration, most likely your brainwaves are dominantly beta. However, let’s say that you fall asleep a lot during the day (like I used to), have a hard time focusing (like I always used to), and you’re moody, irritable, or even fighting depression (as I did for years). Then most likely you have higher levels of lower frequencies, meaning your brain’s electrical impulses and ability to function are not optimized.
A qEEG measures these various waves at over 20 key points on your brain and then software (e.g. LORETA, BRAIN SURFER) quantifies this data so you have an accurate picture of how your brain functions (and I love me some hard data). So upon completing your first “brain map,” a neuroscientist or neuropsychologist can more accurately understand your brain’s current function, correlate it to your symptoms, and more importantly, individualize your treatment.
Dr. Michael Mark gave the best analogy I’ve ever heard about how neurofeedback works. Imagine you are blind, and there is a staircase in your house that you walk up and down numerous times a day. Now imagine a carpenter secretly sneaks into your house and makes one of the steps in that staircase higher and longer. The next time you descend the staircase you will surely fall when hitting this modified step. This is analogous to a brain injury – the damaged neural pathway is the modified step. Your brain trips when it hits this step and your ability to function optimally suffers.Neurofeedback simply “repairs the broken step.”
WHERE I STARTED
I initially found neurofeedback courtesy of Dr. Edison de Mello at the Akasha Center. I had been dealing with depression and anxiety for years, and while prescription medication helped “take the edge off,” I wasn’t improving or becoming healthier, I was just surviving. Barely. I lived 24 hours a day with a massive pit in my stomach, and I was constantly in overdrive. I had been formerly diagnosed with ADD, and in addition to my antidepressant medication I was also taking Adderall. I felt like a machine was inside of me running 1000 miles a minute, 24 hours a day, and I couldn’t slow it down or control it. That’s when Dr. D suggested I try neurofeedback.
The first round of neurofeedback I did (for about 20 sessions) was a special subset called LENS (Low Energy Neurofeedback System). LENS is a passive form of neurofeeback that uses an extremely low power electromagnetic wave to “jump start” neural activity in specific areas. And before you freak out, this electromagnetic wave is thousands of times less powerful than the electromagnetic field (EMF) your phone generates or even the wi-fi router that’s sitting in your office. And you don’t feel a thing.
Within 3 or 4 treatments the results were nothing short of profound. After walking out from my very first treatment, I felt as if I’d lost 20 pounds (in my brain, not my waistline). My thinking was clearer, and it was as if the machine inside of me finally started to slow down. After 20 treatments, the massive pit in my stomach was gone. 5 years later, it still hasn’t returned. That to me is the cornerstone of why neurofeedback is so effective – the brain learns to fix itself, and that fix lasts. Try finding antidepressants that actually fix you (ps…they don’t exist. If they did, drug companies would go out of business).