Related story: How good is neurofeedback?
By ERIC SEAN WELD, Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2001 — I underwent my first session of neurofeedback training with Catherine Rule in her downtown Northampton office early in November. Rule is a founding member of the Optimal Brain Institute, a consortium of Valley neurofeedback practitioners. She works most often with children, many of whom have afflictions like ADHD, ADD and reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
Though I had nothing so severe, it was an especially stressful time for me, with children’s sicknesses at home and multiple deadlines fast approaching, so a bit of relaxation training was welcome and I was eager to experience results. Prior to my session, Rule interviewed me, as she does all her clients, on personal topics such as the effects of caffeine and alcohol on my behavior, tendencies to have migraine headaches or seizures, whether or not I grind my teeth in my sleep or if I snore (for the record, no), whether I’m a still or restless sleeper (still), and how I would describe my temperament, tending toward calm or often out of control (usually calm).
In her office, I sat inert in a comfortable chair with electrodes affixed to my scalp, a grounding wire clipped to my left earlobe, a “reference” wire to my right. Before me on a computer screen was a scene resembling a desert highway stretching to the horizon. A virtual-dusk sky, filling with triangular stars one by one, hung over the desert floor. A volcano-shaped mountain loomed in the distance.
The scene was part of a game titled “Island,” one of several computer exercises used in neurofeedback training. My job was to maintain as wide a width as possible of the ever-extending highway; doing so meant that I was controlling the relaxation of my brain. The computerized depiction of a highway corresponded with a real-time electroencephalogram (EEG) reading, a measure of the frequencies emitted by my brain waves. The reading was recorded by the electrodes attached to my head and transmitted to Rule’s monitor.
Any minuscule body movement, any breath or utterance, even a shift of my eyes, resulted in a disruption of concentration and a reduction in measurable relaxation. But the calmer I remained, the wider the highway stretched to each side of the screen, indicating a balanced reading of brain-wave frequencies within a specific range. If the highway skewed to the left, I was emphasizing a lower set of frequencies; to the right, a higher range.
So I relaxed. And concentrated.
The competitor in me wanted to spread out that EEG as far as it would go. If that was how this game was mastered, then I was determined to excel. And though I became more interested in mastering the game than in relaxation itself, the concentration it demanded to remain calm served the activity’s intent: to exercise my brain’s ability to establish and maintain calm; to familiarize my brain with the sensation of being in a relaxed state.
I don’t know if it worked. I’ve never had particular trouble remaining relaxed, even during crises. I left the session feeling positive and calm, but that is not out of the ordinary. The game itself was fun to play, but I may have felt that way because I had excelled at it.
During my follow-up session, my last experience with neurofeedback, I played “Space Race,” a spaceship game with the same concept as “Island.” Again I left feeling extremely relaxed yet alert, but still uncertain as to what accounted for the feeling.
Rule warned me that I might not find any measurable change in my demeanor or mental state after only one or two sessions. Early in the training, she said, clients may discern only subtle changes – particularly those clients with no obvious afflictions.
I equate my neurofeedback experience with the sensation I get after I’ve meditated, had a good physical workout or listened to an inspiring piece of music: a positive, energetic sense that suggests that contentment is attainable.
The jury is still out on the legitimacy of neurofeedback as a viable mental-health therapy. But if it’s ever proved that the feeling I came away with was definitely the result of a mere half hour of neurofeedback training, I feel certain that the technique could have wide-ranging uses.