Neurofeedback is a technique in which we train the brain directly in its basic competences. The brain not only regulates all bodily functions, but also must take care of itself. In fact, most of the brain’s activity refers to itself. This activity must be organized, and we can attribute many of our problems in mental functioning to failures in such organization.
The EEG (Electroencephalogram) allows us to see the brain at work, and when the brain is not functioning well, the evidence often shows up in the EEG. We can analyze the EEG into a variety of constituents, each of which appears to be responsible for some regulatory activity. By challenging the brain, much as you challenge your body in physical exercise, your brain can learn to function better. But in contrast to physical exertion, in this particular exercise only the brain is working hard—and you don’t feel that!
What happens in practice is that we extract from the EEG the essential information on which we want you to train. Typically this means showing you how large the EEG is at particular frequencies, what we call its amplitude. We ask you to try to change that amplitude over time, and we reward you for succeeding. How do you succeed, you ask? We let your brain figure it out, and you have to “let” your brain do it, too. We don’t really know how learning of any kind takes place, but we know that it does so. And the brain can also learn about controlling itself better.
The brain manages many things with cyclical movement between the state of activation, and the state of relaxation, and we can observe this process in the EEG. As we ask the brain to change its own activity level, we are effectively putting it on a “stair stepper.” We ask the brain to change, it does so, and it also resists the change. We ask it again, and it resists again. In this push-pull fashion, the brain strengthens its regulatory capacities, and eventually the brain may be able to function well without the help of biofeedback. It will have learned better internal control.
Where does this matter? First of all, it helps in managing our arousal level, our sleep-wake cycle. When you sleep more efficiently, you are more alert during the day. It can help with anxiety and depression, and with pain syndromes like migraine or chronic pain. Secondly, it can be helpful in managing attention–how well you can persist even at a boring task, for example. Thirdly, it can help you manage the emotions. Emotions may feel like the real you, but your brain has something to do with how you feel and react. If the emotions are out of control, that’s trainable. If they aren’t there—as in lack of empathy, for example—that, too, is trainable.
Finally, there are some specific issues where the EEG training can be helpful, such as in cases of seizures, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, autism, and dementia. In these instances the training does not so much get rid of the problem as it simply organizes the brain to function better in the context of whatever injury or loss exists.
Once you accept the possibility that this training might be effective for you, the next question is: Will this training change who you are? Well, yes and no. If a child is known for his temper outbursts does the training, and the rages fall away, he is certainly different. But the parents would say, we have our real son now. A person should not be defined by their worst features. The training takes you closer to who you really are. That is our experience. And because this training really allows your true self to emerge, others may notice the changes in you even before you do.
You may wonder, is there a completion to the training, or does it go on and on? In order to reach a specific objective, the training generally just goes for a certain number of sessions. If there is back-sliding after that, due to stresses in your life, a few booster sessions may be recommended. However, just as concert pianists practice more than the rest of us, rather than less, EEG training can be used without limit to enhance performance. This may be of interest to professional athletes, corporate executives, and performance artists who live in a very high-stress world.