What is Neurofeedback?

What is Neurofeedback?

Neurofeedback is a process which uses technology to provide real-time information to the person or user about what’s going on in their brain and nervous system. It is a very specific sub-type of feedback (brain wave feedback) within the larger field of Biofeedback, which can include feedback on muscle activity (EMG), skin temperature, skin conductance, heart rate, etc.

Typically, tiny electrodes are attached to a subject’s scalp to measure brainwave activity. These brain waves, tiny electrical signals, are then translated into a signal the subject can use to steer brain activity into more desirable patterns.

Neurofeedback may have benefits against:

  • Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Addiction and alcoholism
  • Depression

It has also been shown to enhance creativity and improve performance in a wide range of activities.

Here is a detailed beginner’s guide to Neurofeedback.

How Does Neurofeedback Work?

Neurofeedback is a scientific process that uses powerful electronic amplifiers to boost the very tiny electrical signals in your brain called brainwaves. The amplifiers make the brain- waves about 100,000 times bigger so that computers can read them.

The computers then process the brain waves, and then via digital or analog filtering select one or more types of brain waves which are then turned into musical sounds or some kind of signal that the person can be aware of in real time. The goal is to externalize the most subtle activities of your brain to make the activities accessible to your senses. This in turn allows you to be trained to increase beneficial types of brainwaves (such as Alpha Waves) while decreasing other, less desirable, types of brainwaves (such as Beta Waves). A fuller explanation of the different brainwaves appears below.

What Are the Benefits of Neurofeedback?

 With practice and training, people can learn to lessen or minimize many common and undesirable conditions, such as:

Unlike pharmaceutical approaches to these problems, Neurofeedback has minimal undesirable side effects.(1)

Some practitioners are testing Neurofeedback on more specific problems like seizures, Stroke, Concussion, Bipolar Disorder, the Autistic Spectrum, and Cerebral Palsy.(2)

Others believe children can be helped with issues like sleep disorders, bed wetting, sleep walking/talking, teeth grinding, nightmares, and night terrors.(3) (4)

Work is also being done with adolescents to address issues like Drug abuse and Suicidal behavior. There is also good news for people who are aging, because Neurofeedback is useful in maintaining, and even restoring, good brain function among older people, which suggests it may have applications against Alzheimer’s, memory loss, and dementia.(4)

But the benefits of Neurofeedback aren’t limited to therapeutic applications. Positive gains can be expected in healthy people. Professional athletes use it to improve peak performance. CEOs and executives take Neurofeedback training to improve their interpersonal skills and Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Artists, writers, and a wide range of subjects have demonstrable improvements in creativity after Neurofeedback training.  (5) (6)

What’s the Difference Between Neurofeedback and Biofeedback?

Neurofeedback is a specialized subdivision of biofeedback. Neurofeedback studies the activity of the brain and nervous system, whereas Biofeedback, is a more general term that covers feedback on any biological function, such as muscle tension (EMG) heart rate, body and skin temperature, skin conductance, blood pressure, and other indicators.

Biofeedback is a broad scientific field that developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, and others experimented with this new technology that allowed them to the various body functions listed above. The hope was that by training subjects to control these activities which were previously thought to be autonomic (self-regulating), benefits could accrue.

Neurofeedback is that specific area of biofeedback that deals with the brain (and the nervous system). It developed more slowly than peripheral biofeedback on body functions because the technology required to measure and work with brain activity is much more subtle and sophisticated than that used in generalized biofeedback. Brain waves are tiny signals, just a few millions of a volt (microvolts), whereas muscles create electrical activity thousands or tens of thousands of time bigger that are measured in millivolts. Greater care must be taken in placing and maintaining the accurate connection of brain wave (EEG) electrodes than what is needed for electrodes that measure muscle electrical activity (EMG) or for temperature sensors. Lack of precision and care in placing and maintaining good contact of the brain wave (EEG) electrodes can lead to large artifacts, which are big signals that contaminate the EEG signal and lead to inaccurate readings and wrong conclusions about what is going on in the brain. (7)

What Are The Different Types of Brainwaves and What Do They Do?

Science generally recognized six types of brainwaves in the continuous EEG. These are tiny electrical signals that are produced by neurons and pacemaker cells deep within our brains. The types are classified by the speed at which they vibrate.

We all create brainwaves at all times – waking and sleeping. In fact, the clinical definition of death (as in “brain dead”) happens not when the heart stops beating or breathing stops – it happens when brainwaves stop. Like all waves, brainwaves exhibit different frequencies. Some vibrate faster, while others are slower. Researchers have divided brainwaves into certain classes, each of which is associated with different activities and mental/emotional states.(8)

Here are the brainwaves and their frequencies, in order from slowest to fastest:

  • Delta (0 to 4 Hz, the slowest)
  • Theta (4 to 7 Hz)
  • Schumann (7 to 8 Hz)
  • Alpha (8 to 13 Hz)
  • Beta (13 to 40 Hz)
  • Gamma (40 to 100+ Hz, the fastest)

Most of us, when we’re awake, function primarily in the Beta brainwave state. These waves are associated with rational thinking, planning, problem solving, time management, and related activities. Unfortunately, Beta waves are also associated with stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, and some other negative states, such as irritation and anger.

The most important work in Neurofeedback indicates that significant benefits can be gained by slowing down the brain from the Beta state into Alpha waves. Alpha waves are associated with well-being, euphoria, peace, creativity, and positive emotions. Simply learning to shift into a condition where Alpha waves are increased can dramatically affect one’s mood and thought patterns.

If this sounds like the benefits of meditation, you are right. But researchers believe that suitably intensive Alpha training can greatly speed up and enhance access to the benefits of meditation. Mediation benefits can be elusive and can sometimes take months or years to show up.

Theta Waves are even slower in frequency than Alpha waves and are sometimes equated with daydreaming, and with Hypnogogic and Hypnopompic imagery, or the brain states associated with repetitious “automatic” activities like freeway driving or watching TV. Theta states can be positive and creative. Problematically, it is also associated with sleep, Stage I and Stage II of sleep, and without proper Neurofeedback training, attempting to access a Theta state can often result in a very nice nap (not recommended when driving on a freeway!). Theta is also associated with vivid dreaming.

Delta waves are the slowest of all and are most present in deep, dreamless sleep, Stages III and IV of sleep. Some researchers believe that waking Delta waves (which are rare) are associated with paranormal activity and unusual abilities, interpersonal influence, end even control of external events. The military has experimented with brainwaves, and at times have sought out individuals who show high Delta waves while fully awake.

Can Neurofeedback Help Reduce Anxiety?

The discovery that anxiety is associated with Beta waves and lessened by Alpha waves has given researchers a considerable volume of positive evidence that brainwave training can be very effective in reducing anxiety and keeping it low(9), particularly among subjects who are high anxiety to start with.(10)

One of the first effects trainees note in Neurofeedback sessions as they begin to experience Alpha feedback is a drop in nervousness, tension, and stress. While some of this may be related to “brain tiredness” (Neurofeedback training is sometimes called “brain exercise”), there is no doubt that inducing and experiencing Alpha brain wave states results in a lowered sense of stress and tension and increased feelings of calmness. (11)(12)(13)

Can Neurofeedback Help With ADHD?

There is a growing body of evidence that Neurofeedback provides positive relief to the symptoms of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder.(14)

Often an ADHD subject will be asked to perform a cognitive task such as playing a game so that the Neurofeedback practitioner can view a baseline of the subject’s brainwave patterns. Once this is established, the Neurofeedback training can be customized to remedy deficiencies or excesses in the subject’s brainwave patterns. Application of Neurofeedback to ADHD is a fairly recent development; results and permanent changes may take time to show up. But considering the side-effects and problems associated with pharmacological therapies, Neurofeedback provides a safe, non-invasive treatment path for those of us looking for alternatives.  (15)(16)(17)

Can Neurofeedback Reduce Depression?

For people who are suffering from depression, Neurofeedback can provide a welcome alternative to traditional psychiatric and medical approaches.(18)

While medical treatment of depression has come a very long way in this century, many sufferers are still wary of the duration, dosage, and side-effects of the medications. Brainwave training can be used as a companion treatment to conventional protocols or sometimes as a stand-alone option for dealing with depression.(19) If you understand that depression can be associated with a particular pattern of brainwaves, it makes sense that learning to alter that pattern would alter the mechanism of depression too. Naturally, depression is a serious condition. But in consultation with a Neurofeedback practitioner or therapist or clinician, Neurofeedback is definitely something to consider and explore.  (20)

Does Neurofeedback Help With Addiction and Alcoholism?

Many treatment centers for addiction and alcoholism are beginning to recognize and recommend the benefits of Neurofeedback to their patients and subjects.

Proponents of Neurofeedback agree with the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s assessment that addiction is a complex brain disorder and a mental illness.  (21) As with other disorders, addiction has its own pattern of brainwave disruption, which may either, lead to relapse or allow a subject to realize when they are in danger of a relapse. This knowledge is power, and training to change one’s typical brainwave patterns into a pattern where the drive for experiences of the drug of choice is lessened may have a significant positive effect on chances for recovery.(22) (23) (24)

Can Neurofeedback Increase My Creativity?

There are some dramatic studies which indicate that increased Alpha Waves (which can be increased by proper Neurofeedback training) can significantly enhance creativity.

Neurofeedback is not meant only for the treatment of problems and disorders. Doctor James Hardt of the Biocybernaut Institute performed a well-documented study on researchers from the prestigious Stanford Research Institute and validated sharp increases, averaging +50%, in their creativity.(25) This improvement pertained not only to problem-solving within their own fields (“thinking outside the box”) but was also reflected in the subjects’ choice of pastimes, hobbies, and aesthetic pursuits (art, poetry, music).  (26) Research in the field indicates that brainwave training can also improve mental clarity, physical and emotional well-being, athletic performance, and work productivity.

What is the Connection Between Neurofeedback and Spirituality?

Neurofeedback is a scientific process which trains subjects to take control of their brains’ production of different kinds of brainwaves. But there are corollaries between Neurofeedback and Spirituality – largely because any experience requires unique patterns of brain waves. Spiritual experiences, just like non-spiritual experiences, have specific patterns of brain waves that can be taught to people with Neurofeedback training programs. Early Neurofeedback researchers chose to study the brainwaves of Zen Meditators and Yoga Masters, whom they discovered produced brainwaves far different from the average person’s.(27)(28)

Neurofeedback is not meant only for the treatment of problems and disorders. Doctor James Hardt of the Biocybernaut Institute performed a well-documented study on researchers from the prestigious Stanford Research Institute and validated sharp increases, averaging +50%, in their creativity.(25) This improvement pertained not only to problem-solving within their own fields (“thinking outside the box”) but was also reflected in the subjects’ choice of pastimes, hobbies, and aesthetic pursuits (art, poetry, music).  (26) Research in the field indicates that brainwave training can also improve mental clarity, physical and emotional well-being, athletic performance, and work productivity.

The average Neurofeedback Trainee starts out with

– Too much Beta Waves

– Too few and too weak Alpha Waves

– Very low power in Theta, Delta, and Gamma Waves

When studying the brainwaves of the Masters of Zen and Yoga, Doctor James Hardt discovered that they had significantly higher Alpha Waves than the average person. Moreover, as meditation or practice continued, the Masters’ Alpha Waves would rise higher and higher. Most interestingly, Dr. Hardt and the Zen Master, Ryuho Yamada Roshi concluded together that Neurofeedback was a faster and more effective way of training than the traditional monastic practice of Zen meditation, with better progress and a zero “burnout rate.”

Some of the training practices in Dr. Hardt’s Biocybernaut protocol involve activities like Forgiveness, which is an action most often thought of as spiritual or religious. But Hardt uses it not because it is ethically superior or morally pleasing. He uses it because it produces the highest gains of Alpha Wave production among the broadest range of his trainees. It also leads to more happiness and less of the negative mind states.