Our brains are home to a network of roughly 100 billion neurons, each with about 10,000 connections, across which zooms the electrical signals that spark our feelings, thoughts and behaviors. The ways in which these brainwaves fire and the regions they stimulate help determine if we are anxious or calm, scattered or focused, able to regulate our impulses or powerless in their grip.
What if we were able to plug in to these electrical signals, identify the problem areas and fix them? That is, in simple terms, the goal of neurofeedback, a technique that shows a person how their brain is reacting in real time and trains them to move it toward healthier connectivity patterns.
Today, neurofeedback, also known as EEG biofeedback, is used to help those with issues such as addiction, trauma, epilepsy, depression, attention deficit disorders and more. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in fact, approves neurofeedback and biofeedback as a “best support” Level 1 option for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And a recent study of an in-school neurofeedback program for children with ADHD called it a “promising attention-training treatment” and concluded that kids who went through the program saw faster and greater improvement, and those changes were sustained at a six-month follow-up.
Neurofeedback is also used by those who want a competitive mental edge – in particular, athletes, musicians and business leaders. Italy’s soccer team, for example, created a “Mind Room” that included neurofeedback and biofeedback techniques and which some credit with helping them to their 2006 World Cup win.
Shifting Brain Waves into Healthier Patterns
The idea for neurofeedback grew out of experiments conducted in the 1920s by the German psychiatrist Hans Berger, who connected electrodes to his patients’ scalps and became the first to record the brain’s electrical activity. With this electroencephalography, or EEG, he found that brain waves move in different patterns and at different frequencies (frequency refers to the number of times a wave rises and falls in a second) and these correlate to different mental states. For example, the slowest wave frequencies, called delta, are associated with sleep; the next-slowest, theta waves, with drowsiness; alpha waves with relaxed focus; SMR waves with relaxed thought; and beta waves, the highest frequency waves, with active thinking and excitement.
These waves, however, can get out of whack. Foggy thinking, poor judgment and impulse control are associated with a brain the produces too many slow-motion waves, for example. Excessive amounts of slow-wave motion in the frontal lobes, in fact, is certified by the Food and Drug Administration as a biomarker of ADHD. Those who have been traumatized, such as soldiers in combat, often show decreased levels of alpha waves in the back of the brain, leaving them in a state of persistent hyperarousal. Research shows that traumatized people also have less well-coordinated brainwaves, making it harder for them to filter out irrelevant information and focus on the present. And while speedy beta waves allow us to focus on a task, they can also ramp up to high beta waves, which can leave us tense, anxious and agitated.
In the early 1960s, a psychology professor named Joe Kamiya discovered that his research subjects could be trained to recognize when their brains were producing the relaxing alpha waves. Not only that, some could be trained to enter into an alpha state simply through the cue of a ringing bell.
It was an intriguing finding that seemed to promise that brain waves could be controlled. In response, neurofeedback devices were devised that could mirror back brainwave activity so that a person could immediately see what worked and what didn’t when attempting to shift their waves into healthier patterns.
Is Neurofeedback Evidence-Based?
Although embraced by many treatment professionals, neurofeedback as a mental health procedure is, in a sense, playing catch-up. Enthusiasm for the process was dampened not long after it was introduced due to the arrival of psychiatric drugs in the mid-1970s, which at the time seemed to promise a chemical solution for all of our mental health woes. And insurance companies have been slow to cover necessary levels of treatment, making neurofeedback sometimes hard to find and expensive. That, in turn, has made large-scale trials more difficult to set up.
Within the last couple of decades, however, neurofeedback has made a resurgence, helped along by the public’s growing desire for non-pharmaceutical options. Although much research points to clear benefits, other studies paint a less clear picture, and much remains to be understood about just why neurofeedback appears to work when it does.
Expected to help in our understanding is the mammoth Human Connectome Project, a National Institutes of Health support effort to map the brain’s interconnected network of neurons and decipher the electrical signals that zap through them. It’s the “symphony inside your brain,” explained NIH director Dr. Francis Collins in a 2012 blog post. Charting this mental architecture should teach us much about how to use neurofeedback most productively as well as bring home the importance of our brain’s electrical circuitry for our mental health.