Neurofeedback uses information about your brain’s electrical activity to enable your brain to change from inefficient patterns to more efficient ones.
Traditional neurofeedback, which has been around for over 50 years, often uses a brain map to diagnose what electrical patterns might need to be corrected, and then rewards the brain for moving more and more in that direction.
While this approach is effective, especially in the hands of a very experienced clinician, it has a few limitations:
- brain maps are very expensive, and may need to be repeated when the brain makes changes as a result of the feedback it is getting
- It often produces unwanted side effects. For example, as the brain is trained to move away from patterns associated with depression, the depressive symptoms begin to decline…but then if the training continues, depression may be replaced by anxiety. Superb clinicians constantly tweak the program they use in order to maximize positive results and minimize side effects, but less experienced clinicians may leave their clients suffering from unwanted and unnecessary side effects.
At Cleveland Neurofeedback, we started with this traditional neurofeedback, but have switched to a system called NeurOptimal. Let me tell you why.
Traditional neurofeedback is “state-oriented.” That is, it trains the brain to move away from undesirable states like anxiety or depression or “unfocused” (for someone with ADHD). NeurOptimal is dynamically-oriented. “Dynamical” here refers to “HOW the brain is moving or changing from one state to another.”
Think about it. There is nothing wrong with being worried or sad or having your mind wander. But when worry moves into such an extreme loop that it has become anxiety, or sadness moves into such an extreme loop that it has become depression, or a child is absolutely incapable of focusing on what the teacher is saying—no matter how hard she tries—that IS a problem.
So NeurOptimal is designed to maximize the brain’s flexibility (its ability to move easily and gracefully from one state or pattern to another) and resilience (its ability to return to appropriate, efficient patterns when its current pattern is less than desirable).
A simple way of distinguishing traditional neurofeedback from NeurOptimal is to say that traditional neurofeedback trains for WHAT the brain should look like, while NeurOptimal trains for HOW the brain should do what it does.
Here’s an analogy…
Suppose you are at the airport a little bit late, heading down a long concourse toward your gate. You might think that the “state” you want to be in is “fast walking.” But what if you come to an area of the concourse where there are lots of people trying to get access to a gate or a restaurant? If you continue with your fast walking, you’ll probably run into some of them, make them angry, and possibly slow yourself down.
But if you focus on your dynamics, that is, HOW you move to get to your gate as quickly and smoothly as possible, you’ll realize that you don’t always want to be doing the same thing. Sometimes you’ll speed up (when the area in front of you is clear), sometimes slow down (as you head into a crowd), sometimes veer to the left or right to avoid people in your path.
This is a dynamical approach to moving through the airport, and it’s really the most effective way to get to your gate quickly.
And in this way it’s a lot like a dynamical approach to brain optimization: we’re asking, “Can we train the brain so that it makes whatever adjustments it needs to make, quickly and seamlessly, in order to function as well as it possibly can—no matter what situations it faces?”
Your First Session
You’re probably interested in what results you can anticipate from doing neurofeedback, but first let me tell you a little about what we’ll have you do in preparation, and what you will experience in your first session.
When you come for your first session, we’ll want to get to know you a bit, and have you fill out some paperwork before beginning your first neurofeedback session. Depending on your reason for trying neurofeedback, we usually ask you to fill in several assessment tools before you begin. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, NeurOptimal is carefully designed to be training equipment, not diagnostic or evaluative equipment. People often ask, “Do you get some sort of readout at the end of a session that tells you how I am doing?”…and the answer is “No.” Our belief is that it doesn’t matter what the equipment could show us—what matters is whether your life is getting better. And so the assessment tools you will fill out at your first appointment give us a baseline: how you are feeling, and how you are experiencing your life before beginning neurofeedback. Then after 8 sessions we’ll have you re-do the assessment to see whether—and in what ways—you are experiencing an improvement in your life.
The second reason for doing a baseline assessment is that often, change happens so subtly that even if there has been a lot of change over 8 sessions, you may not notice it. You wake up every day feeling like yourself, but you don’t notice that your experience of “yourself” has changed. The baseline gives us an objective measure to add to your own subjective experience.
What a Neurofeedback Session is Like
So now, with the assessments completed, it’s time for your first neurofeedback session. You’ll sit in a super-comfortable zero gravity chair, and can tip back as far as feels comfortable for you. I’ll attach several sensors to your scalp and ears. These enable the software to watch the electrical activity in your brain.
NOTE: Nothing is going into your brain; the sensors are just recording the brain’s electrical activity. (Think of the sensors as being like a stethoscope, where nothing is being done TO your heart…it’s just enabling the doctor or nurse to hear the heart’s activity more clearly and precisely than would otherwise be possible.)
In addition to the scalp and ear sensors, you’ll also have earbuds so you can listen to the music that accompanies the program.
The sensors send the electrical signal through an amplifier, and down a cable to the computer, where the software watches your brain’s dynamical activity. When the computer detects turbulence, or “wobble” in your brain, the music interrupts for just a fraction of a second, causing your brain to alert, or come back to the present moment.
This is a very subtle process—the interruption sounds like a tiny bit of static. Most of the time your conscious mind won’t even hear it, but your brain learns to recognize that its own activity is triggering the interruptions, and from there it is an easy step for the brain to self-organize toward greater flexibility and resilience.
The session lasts just over half an hour. Most people find it profoundly relaxing, and come to the end of the session feeling very refreshed and eager to return the next week.
How Does This Work?
But, you ask, what about my anxiety or ADHD? Does this really help my symptoms improve? What kind of results can I expect?
Well, this is a tricky question to try to answer, because NeurOptimal is not a treatment for any particular issue or symptoms. It is not targeted to correct anything specific. It doesn’t include a step of diagnosing just what is wrong in your brain and prescribing a particular protocol to correct that problem.
Remember that NeurOptimal is simply looking for turbulence or “wobble” in the brain’s dynamical activity, and alerting the brain when that happens. There is no evaluation (“this wobble is bad”) or direction to the brain (“change your activity in this way”)—just mirroring what the brain is doing, and letting the brain respond in whatever way it chooses.
It may be hard to believe that simply mirroring like that can produce change, so it’s time for another analogy…
Suppose you are trying to teach your child to have good table manners. You could make a list of good and bad behaviors, and comment every time he does something right or wrong. But he may feel like a little robot…following your rules, but not particularly attached to them.
Here’s another approach. You could have your meals in the family dance studio, with mirrors on all the walls. When he reaches past you for the salt and pepper, the movement in the mirror catches his attention, and he sees you grab your water glass to keep it from tipping over. After a couple of times of seeing this, he starts to reach, and then stops himself, saying, “Could you pass me the salt and pepper?”
When you do neurofeedback in this way, it’s not really appropriate to call it “treatment”—so we think of it as “training the brain to be flexible and resilient.” That can be very powerful, and people often see great improvement in things that have been bothering them. BUT…we can never predict the order in which things will improve. You may have been hoping that neurofeedback will help your anxiety. And it probably will…but maybe only after your sleep has improved, your rage has settled down and a life-long facial tic has disappeared.
If you’d like more concrete evidence neurofeedback will help you, let’s look at a little data. Two of our colleagues, psychiatrists at the Kingston (Ontario) Institute for Psychotherapy and Neurofeedback, have been gathering data on scores of patients with severe anxiety and depression. They see such wonderful outcomes with neurofeedback that they now generally use it as a stand-alone intervention, without medication or counseling. In the graphs below, you see their pre-neurofeedback baselines and the changes (huge) that have happened after 8 sessions. For depression, there is significant continued improvement through 16 sessions; for anxiety, there’s a very small continued improvement through 16.
In our chemobrain study that was published in Integrative Cancer Therapies in 2013, all of the major measures were significant at p<.001, which is the gold standard for research.
We’ve also seen wonderful results with…
- concussions and traumatic brain injuries
- MS clients (though about half have experienced no change at all)
- children with ADHD
- first responders experiencing high levels of stress
- older people frustrated by their aging brains (whether or not they have been diagnosed with a specific condition)
- and so many more!
Of course lots of people come to us, not with a health-related issue, but simply wanting to enhance their lives. This is much harder to quantify, but we consistently hear people describing positive changes: greater creativity, more self-confidence, more comfort in their own skin, less negative self-talk, more openness to new experiences, etc.
If you’ve read this far, I imagine you are wondering whether NeurOptimal neurofeedback might help you. I’d encourage you to give us a call at 216 505-1653. We love to talk about what we’ve seen with this technology, and are happy to answer any questions you may have.
If it’s more comfortable, you may also send us an email on our contact form. It’s perfectly natural to have questions. We aren’t out to be pushy salespeople, we simple want to help. Call or email us right now and let’s see if neurofeedback is right for you.
As we like to say, there’s not much to lose, and a whole lot to gain!