What is Neurofeedback?
In virtually every area of our lives, we are able to improve our performance when we get clear and immediate feedback about how we are doing. That is one of the key reasons why athletic performance has shown such dramatic improvements recently—sophisticated physiological monitoring technology has enabled the athlete to gain a much greater degree of information about all aspects of physical performance, and this allows for sharpening of skills.
The same sort of technological sophistication now enables us to directly alter the functioning of our brains to improve performance. Neuroscience has shown repeatedly that the brain is capable of enormous change or plasticity; the brain is amazingly adaptable. Advanced EEG biofeedback technology provides instantaneous (real time) information to the brain about how it is functioning along with continuous hints or cues about how to make adjustments toward improved functioning. And repeated studies have shown that our brains are able to use this information to re-regulate its function.
Neurofeedback is a way to train brain activity; it is biofeedback for the brain. To understand neurofeedback, first we need understand a little about brainwaves.
Brainwaves are the electrical impulses produced as your brain cells communicate with one another. Brainwaves tell us a great deal about how you feel and function; your thought habits, stress levels, underlying mood and overall brain function. Using sensors on the scalp, we can measure and monitor this activity.
During a neurofeedback session, we compare what your brain is actually doing to what you’d like it to be doing. When your brain is nearing a more comfortable state, you are rewarded with a positive response on a computer screen. Usually this ‘neuro-feedback’ is in the form of a video game, music, or movie. The sounds and images tell you immediately when your brain approaches a more efficient place and when not. When the movie plays, it is because your brain is approaching the desired state. When the movie stops, it is because your brain is heading the other way.
Much like physical exercises develop specific muscles, the more your brain is exercised into reaching a more comfortable, more efficient position, the better it gets at it. As with learning any new skill, it simply requires time and repetition.
Neurofeedback, also called EEG biofeedback, is the first therapy that takes what we have learned about brain function in the past three decades and uses this new knowledge to change the way the brain processes information. Neurofeedback is a research-supported treatment to sharpen attention, relieve anxiety, enhance mood, and improve learning and behavior—without medication. Neurofeedback makes use of the brain’s natural capacity to change by reshaping brain networks. Although we are all born with “hard wiring” – networks of neurons and connecting fibers – our brains are constantly being shaped by experience. Repeated experience results in increased connections among neurons and in greater strength in the existing connections. Small changes that are repeatedly reinforced lead to changes in how our brains work. EEG biofeedback involves monitoring and analyzing brain signals picked up by surface electrodes placed on the scalp. Brainwaves are generated by individual cells in your brain called neurons that communicate by electrical changes. We can visualize these electrical changes in the form of brainwaves, as recorded on an electroencephalogram (EEG). The EEG itself is used to guide the feedback you receive.
In neurofeedback, a person is effectively playing video games with his or her brain. Eventually the brainwave activity is “shaped” toward more desirable, more regulated performance. The frequencies we target, and the specific locations on the scalp where we listen in on the brain, are specific to the conditions we are trying to address and specific to the individual. During a session, people usually report feeling relaxed. They sit in a chair and listen to sounds and/or play a video game on a computer screen using their brain to direct the action. When the desired brain wave state is achieved, the game continues and points are accumulated. Nothing is being put into your brain– we are simply “listening” to your brain wave activity through sensors. You get instantaneous feedback about changes in your brain’s electrical activity by comparing your brain activity to a desired goal for change. When you meet that goal, you receive an auditory and/or visual signal and “reward.” In neurofeedback, we provide positive feedback to increase desired brain activity to teach self-regulation of brain function. Self-regulation is fundamental to healthy psychological functioning. New patterns of neuronal communication tend to result in changes in thinking, emotions, and behavior. Over time, these changes can endure without continued use of an instrument