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Neurofeedback - the whole story
Written by Paul Farrington
July 2006

The Whole Story

There is a story of a seeker, who traveled to a remote area in search of a certain Native American elder. The elder was a chief whose wisdom was renowned. At length he found someone who could direct him to the chief and serve as a translator. When the elder eventually gave consent, the pair came before the old wise one. The seeker spoke, “I have came from afar to speak with you because…” Without waiting for translation the elder gently held his palm up to interrupt the man, and his own language replied, “I know why you have come. Your people have lost their instructions for living. And now you have come to get ours.”
I have been lucky enough to stumble into times of great joy, peace, and exaltation. But, pain I had experienced, and seen in the faces of others left me wondering. What was the difference? How could we work to create the best expression of our lives? In essence, I was seeking Life’s Instructions. But I was confident that somehow each of us could experience the full richness of peace, joy, and good health during our days on Earth. Over many years I sought out and delved into many of the world’s religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions, new and old. Again and again my passion arose to pursue the full potential of human consciousness and how can it be used by each person to reduce suffering and promote peace and joy in his or her life and the lives of others. I wanted to find the simplest, easiest and most effective way to enable each person to live the kind of life he or she wants.
Initially I obtained degrees in psychology and philosophy from Colgate University. I decided at the last minute not to pursue my doctorate in psychology at the time because I felt the programs were too traditional, and treatments lacked the integrity of consistent, effective outcomes. Following this, for the past twenty years I have done extensive research of the major wisdom, mystical, spiritual, and religious traditions. I sought from them the most basic foundations of health, happiness, and awareness so that I could effectively alleviate suffering, both personal and that of others. In addition to psychology, all of the following are powerful teachers for me and speak deeply to that goal: Buddhism, Taoism, Native American earth-based philosophy, martial arts, yoga, energy healing, vipassana, new age spirituality, athletics, non-linear dynamic systems, neurolinguistic programming, complexity and chaos theories, and modern physics. I have done all of this personal experiential research toward finding what seems to create the most consistent positive outcomes, for the most broad spectrum of people and problems, with the least effort, pain, and expense. Neurofeedback, I feel, is this tool.
Neurofeedback is a potent tool; the best I’ve found with respect to simplicity, ease, effectiveness, and swift results. Specifically, neurofeedback is a method of improving lives by enhancing brain function. By placing electrodes on a person’s scalp, the electrical activity of the brain, or brainwaves, can be monitored. The brainwaves correspond directly to the activity of the biochemistry, of the brain, the activity of the neurotransmitters, but are vastly more adaptable. As a result, it can be revealed whether the brain is efficiently humming along with the flow of current experience or whether it is struggling. The client receives this information, moment by moment. This is the key process, the feedback of information that facilitates adaptation and transformation. While someone is engaged in neurofeedback training, she instantaneously gets intricate and otherwise imperceptible information about her mental activity. It is a learning process where she observes her brain alternately working smoothly, then struggling; flowing, then stuck; sharply focused, or unsteady. In a broad sense the client learns to recognize when she is in “the zone” mentally and when she is faltering.
To do this training is easy. A client just relaxes in a comfortable chair while listening to music. Sometimes there is video to watch, other times the eyes may be closed. There are no mental tasks to perform and no need to concentrate on achieving a certain mental state. The client knows her brain’s energy has become unsteady because the music briefly stops, then resumes as the brainwaves rebalance. But the feedback also has an unconscious element. Each time the music stops, it acts like a tap on the shoulder. The tap interrupts the current train of thought. In this case, interrupting the tendency toward mental struggle and excessive or unsteady mental effort. Most people as they are guided more and more into “the zone” find the training very relaxing. Ideally, the process is more about undoing misguided mental habits than creating new or better ones. Over time the mental habits change favoring calm, balance, and focus over distraction, overthinking, and hyper-arousal. Physical and emotional symptoms fall away as a result. As the brain learns to become more efficient and effective, the reduction of redundant and unstable mental performance saves energy. As new energy becomes available it will go where it is needed to restore and enhance our mental and physical health.
Neurofeedback fulfills the conditions I originally sought. That is, it is simple, easy, and it really works. It is as simple as a tap on the shoulder to help steady your attention when it begins to waver. It is as easy as reclining, relaxing, and listening to music. You don’t have to try in order to notice interruptions in the flow of music. It is easier than jogging, sitting long hours on a cushion, or talk therapy. There is no need here to dig into painful past experiences to transcend them. And most importantly, it works. An abundance of studies and clinicians attest to the effectiveness of neurofeedback. As noted in Symphony In The Brain, by Jim Robbins, leaders in the field experience a success rate of nearly 90 percent. Consistent successes in early research in treating ADD, addictions, and epilepsy put neurofeedback on the map, but wide ranging effects found in both research and treatment arenas have greatly expanded its use. It is currently gaining popularity and is widely used for psychological disorders, systemic physical disorders like chronic fatigue, mental or physical problems that don’t qualify as disorders, and by those who are healthy, but want to improve performance in some area of their lives. Imagine beginning a meditation practice having someone or something that could alert you immediately and precisely each time your mind began to wander. It has been said that 20 hours of neurofeedback is roughly equivalent to 10 years of meditation.
Neurofeedback is a kind of training, not a treatment. As such, it is not for everyone. If you are looking for a quick fix or some kind of magic bullet, this may not be for you. If you don’t have time for 10 to 30 one-hour sessions, if you prefer expert diagnosis and treatment without your significant input, this may not be ideal for you. If you are not open to the potential for transformational change in your life, you may not be comfortable with the process which often tends to shine a bright light of awareness into unfamiliar places. And some of the benefits that occur may be unexpected and apparently unrelated to the original complaint. And finally, the insurance establishment is slow to recognize the validity of some new alternative health practices and the preventative value they might have. Not all insurance providers will cover neurofeedback, though some do. Thus, out of pocket expense may deter some from trying this type of technologically assisted training, which can otherwise be more time and cost effective than other treatments.
On the other hand, neurofeedback can be an especially good choice for you if you have problems that have not responded well to therapy and medication, or if you prefer not to go those routes. If you want to be an active part of your own health care and prefer organic evolution rather than treatment, you are likely to enjoy the training. If you have any type of mental or physical symptoms that are related to stress and anxiety or have problems that persist but escape traditional diagnosis you will likely find neurofeedback helpful. And this can be an invaluable tool for those who want to improve performance through enhanced focus, clarity, and calm.

The modern field of biofeedback began over fifty years ago, though the first known experiments are over one hundred years old. Basically, biofeedback is any set of methods and tools that use technology to provide information about the body to better manage it. Technology is used as an aid to reveal information that is ordinarily imperceptible. A simple example of this is the use of a thermometer to detect a fever. Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback. The prefix “neuro” indicates the involvement of neurons. Neurons are the cells of the central nervous system and the brain. Neurofeedback, then, is the use of technology to obtain information about our nervous system and our brain, in particular.
The human nervous system is considered the most complex system in the known universe. The nervous system is our information processing system. The complex detection, analysis, and storage of information is the basis upon which humans are considered highly evolved. And it is good use of information about our selves and our surroundings that carries us toward better lives and better health. For example, if you become aware that you feel less well after eating poor quality food, you may be more likely to change your eating behaviors and your health will eventually benefit. The same is true for many other aspects of your physical and mental health. If you become aware of the consequences of too little sleep or too much caffeine, you can adapt your behavior in order to feel and perform better.
The entire biofeedback field, including neurofeedback, is based on the premise that having more information about our bodies and minds can help us manage them better. In these fields the use of technology enables us to become aware of information which is either inaccessible to us by the normal use of our senses or is only accessible by long and difficult training. The rise of biofeedback in the 1960’s was driven by advances in the available technology of the time in conjunction with new research on the effects of stress on the body. While the first crude use of neurofeedback, or brainwave biofeedback, was in 1934, the field began in earnest in the late 1950’s. The advances in technology were particularly beneficial to neurofeedback, the most sophisticated form of biofeedback. More recently, within the last ten years, the latest advances in computer technology and the speed and power of computing have brought the science of neurofeedback into a new era.
What is the information that we receive about our brains during neurofeedback? The brain is an organ that is primarily designed to receive, process, and adapt to information from our senses in order to sustain the health of the entire system and minimize discomfort. The brain consists of billions of neurons, the fundamental cells of our nervous system. To process information these neurons communicate with each other in a very complex web of connections and interactions. Each communication from one cell to the next involves the passing of tiny molecules called neurotransmitters across tiny gaps between cells. The gaps are called synapses. These molecules are electrically charged, either positive or negative, like the poles of a magnet. Electricity is merely the flow of charged particles. For example, the current in our walls that powers our appliances is a stream of electrons moving along the surface of wires. As neurotransmitters move across a gap to a neighboring cell, because they have an electrical charge, there is a concurrent electromagnetic field. That is, electricity is present. It is not clear whether the movement of neurotransmitters causes the electromagnetic field, or the electromagnetic field causes the neurotransmitters to travel. The chemical activity is indivisible from the electrical activity, and our perceptions. It is clear, however, that the brain and nervous system are governed by electromagnetic current and that our thoughts and perceptions are at least as much an electrical phenomenon as a chemical one. The newest research into bioelectric fields suggests that the fields are primary or causative, and the physical counterpart is secondary, the product of the information contained in the field.
Brainwaves are recordings of the electrical currents, very tiny ones, running throughout the brain. Like any wave they can be analyzed by amplitude (size or strength) and frequency (waves per second, or hertz). Decades of research have shown that different frequencies of brainwaves correspond to specific categories of brain state or function. And the amplitude of the waves in each category indicates the relative strength of that activity to the overall activity at any one time. These sub-categories of brain function do not turn on and off. At any one time, the full spectrum of brainwave frequencies is present. They influence overall brain function by their strength and steadiness relative to other functions and processes. This dynamic dance of brainwaves is a window into the energy patterns from which perception and behavior emerge.
Much early and subsequent research demonstrates that imbalances in these frequency bands or sub-categories of brain function correspond to disorder or mental dysfunction. Too much or too little of one set of brainwaves indicates a specific imbalance or malfunction in the system. Early neurofeedback attempted to use this information to help people improve their brain function. By attaching electrodes to a person’s scalp, information could be gathered about the intricacies of that person’s brain function in real time. Researchers soon realized that people could, to a certain extent, bring their brainwaves under conscious control.
For example, when monitored, a person might display a lack of strength in the brainwaves known as “alpha”. Alpha waves correspond to a relaxed and soothing state that acts as a bridge between the conscious and the subconscious mind. In a hit or miss way, the researcher would tell the subject, “Try to make more of these alpha brainwaves.” “But how…?” the subject might respond. “Just try relax and try different mental approaches, and when your alpha waves increase, a tone will sound.” A tone or a simple computer game would inform the subject of incremental increases in alpha waves. Little by little subjects would learn how to change their brainwave patterns toward beneficial patterns, which closely resembled those of healthy, normal subjects. Neurofeedback began in this way, though it rapidly became a more sophisticated process. Researchers found that people could improve their mental function and their lives by intentionally changing their brainwaves.
Though neurofeedback rested on a new model of intervention involving the bioelectrical field, the treatment model roughly paralleled the pharmaceutical model. That is, if someone has too much of something (like alpha waves), take some out, and if they have too little, add some. This is a difficult prospect due to the unique and dynamic nature of the brain and its electrical system. And despite tremendous successes, there remain some concerns about how it works. First, because the treatment is directly guided by the diagnosis, the diagnosis must be precise. Second, the treatment must be equally precise. If either of these is imperfect or inaccurate, then the results may be unexpected, possibly undesired. This kind of neurofeedback has the slight chance of facilitating a transition that is too rapid or uncomfortable. Also, the diagnoses rely upon comparison with normative databases. That is, one’s brainwaves are compared with the brainwaves of thousands of others who have been deemed normal or healthy. The designation of normal in this case is questionable, as the brainwaves of individuals are widely varied, completely dynamic, and unique. The goal should be to facilitate change toward one’s most balanced and resilient self, not to encourage people’s brains to approach energetic uniformity.
The latest advance in neurofeedback has been to move away from a biochemical give and take model. The new model is based on restoring resilience and flexibility. The new science of complexity theory demonstrates that resilience and flexibility are the foundations of healthy function in living organisms. When a living being is resilient, it can bounce back to its original form when facing destabilizing or damaging environmental factors. When flexible, it can easily adapt or change state to meet changing needs. In the physical realm, these traits characterize the vibrant health of children or gifted athletes. On the other hand, rigidity, imbalance, frailty and stagnancy are unhealthy traits that characterize the sick or aged who have lost their vitality. The newest form of neurofeedback is specifically designed to encourage resilience and flexibility in the brain. Rather than train someone to increase or decrease certain frequencies of brainwaves, the focus is on increasing the resilience of unfocused and unsteady areas of brain function. Another way to say this is that the training helps the brain’s energy to become more stable and thus more effective and efficient. More effective, meaning that it does what it is trying to do better. It is more capable of achieving its desired effect. And more efficient, meaning that it does it with less effort. To use a computer metaphor, the ideal is a computationally irreducible system. This is an elegant system that is as simple as it can be - where nothing is left over, nothing is left behind and nothing is left out. There are no longer any unnecessary programs running in the background that negatively impact the ability of the operating system to run all its currently desired programs effectively.
During neurofeedback training, the monitoring equipment now detects turbulence, or changes in stability in addition to excesses and deficiencies of certain wave frequencies. Even if there is a normal amount of say, alpha brainwaves, instability there can indicate that the brain is not accomplishing what it wants in that area. The unsteadiness in one area of brain function affects others areas as well. For example, wobbly legs might compromise one’s ability to stand on difficult terrain, as well as the ability of the arms to perform delicate tasks.
In trying to understand the role of turbulence in mental function, consider the way muscles fatigue. When a muscle is constrained to maintain a posture or a movement it can not support, it begins to exhibit turbulence, or trembling. If the constraint is not released, the muscle can precipitously collapse into a new, lower energy configuration that it can sustain. This is analogous to how the maintenance of mental constraints can cause turbulence, which fatigues and reduces the flexibility and the capacity of the brain.
While doing neurofeedback training, a client receives information that his brainwaves have become unstable or turbulent in that moment. This information actually interrupts emerging turbulence that hinders or distracts effective information processing by presenting a change in the environment. Information about a change in the environment will trump emerging background thoughts and perceptions. This information is presented as a stoppage in music and video that the client is watching. For example, while someone trains he will be listening to music and trying to relax. Then a momentary uncomfortable thought might arise that his checking account is dangerously low. The brainwaves would register a shift in brainwave patterns. Different types of mental activities occur in different locations with distinct energy frequencies. Specifically, the energy associated with mental calm would drop off and the energy associated with organizing and even worrying would surge, in that moment. At precisely the times these changes emerge, the music that he has been listening to will click off. At the moment the music ceases, he notices the change. (“Hey, something is happening! What was that?”) His attention is drawn to what is happening in his environment and taken away from the source of difficulty. (“So, where was I?”) By directing his attention to the present, to pay attention to what is happening right at the moment, the emerging mental distraction is not completed and falls away. (“Oh, yes, I was listening to music.”) Through repeated interruption of these wobbles or distractions, the inclination towards distraction and the strength of these distractions is greatly diminished. According to the ancient adage, energy follows attention. That is, it is more useful to direct attention, thus your energy to the solution, rather than feeding energy to the problem. Not only are the wobbles diminished, but also the connection to the present reality is increased. The same process occurs if one has painful memories, emotional issues, or other sources of discomfort or unease that begin to interfere with one’s ability to interact with the present situation.
There is another important distinction between the old and the new forms of neurofeedback. The old form requires mental concentration to try to attain specific mental states. The new model requires no concentration or special effort. When the feedback sounds change, it requires no effort to notice that change. In fact, you can’t help it. You need only be awake. As dictated by the need for food and protection, the brain is hard wired to detect changes in its environment and to adapt to the information. This attending and adapting to information which is the brain’s primary function is the foundation of neurofeedback.

With a new understanding of the fundamentals of neurofeedback, let’s examine the fundamentals of psychological disorder, in simple terms relating to the energy of mental states. Simply put, disorder exists when one can’t do what he wants to do or can’t get where he wants to be, mentally. There can be two reasons for this. The first is that he is unable to get into or out of a certain mental or emotional place, or function. He is “stuck”. The second is that he can get there, but can’t achieve stability in the desired place. He struggles, repeatedly attempting to return to the desired place or function, but he can’t remain there. Disorder, then, is the result of a lack of flexibility or resilience, or both.
What we choose to call psychological “disorder” is often actually too much order. One with inflexible, rigid, and stagnant mental activity is commonly referred to as stuck. Mental stuckness is the restriction, constraint, and over-control of mental function and all the suffering that comes from fighting simultaneously to have and to overcome these limits or stuck places. It is the collection of perceptual and emotional redundancies that interferes with one’s ability to interact effectively and efficiently with the unfolding of the present situation. All of the following are examples of stuck mental activity or the consequences of struggling for or against such blockages: addictions, anger, chronic fatigue, depression, hypertension, immune suppression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, pain and headache, post traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders and insomnia. With neurofeedback we facilitate moment after moment the return to the present and the release of the needless mental struggles that limit one’s experience. All of these problems can be influenced by neurofeedback.
Depression, anxiety, and other disorders involving deep and painful emotional content provide examples of how disorder is born of stuck mental energy that diverts attention from the present. The fear and pain of deep emotional wounds continue to intrude on daily function. The result can be deeply inefficient mental processing and exhaustion. Only a complex reconstruction of memories and projections into the future allows this pain from the past to continue to exist in the present. The brainwaves here would show large irregular surges in the lower frequencies and diminished activity in the higher frequencies. Lower frequencies correspond to subconscious emotional content, while higher ones correspond to conscious, rational thought. The result is the interference of painful mental and emotional perceptions into daily situations, which are not intrinsically unpleasant. A significant expenditure of mental energy is required to bring up these emotions, feel them, and to move through them.
Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is an example of mental disorder that is characterized by instability or lack of resilience. It is the tendency to be unable to adequately focus the attention on a specific task, which leads to frustration, poor learning, and behavioral problems. Brainwave or EEG data show these children to have surges of brain activity in the area of visual imagery, which in normal children coincides with daydreaming or closed eyed envisioning. This sheds light on why those with ADD have to work so much harder to bring their cognitive capacity to the forefront.
Neurofeedback can be particularly effective in helping those wishing to reduce anxiety and the effects of stress. Not only is the training relaxing in the moment, but it facilitates turning off the “fight or flight” response of the autonomic nervous system. By reducing the energy directed towards fears or threats that are either no longer present or are not as serious as perceived, the physical and emotional benefits of deep relaxation begin to accrue. A growing awareness of the sensations which are warning signs of distress, and increased resilience in the face of difficult events encourage long-term adaptation to the challenges of modern society.

"Neurofeedback is an existential mirror, that is, it directly presents us with our own self and how we co-create our suffering. In short, one is thereby presented with an existential choice: continue to re-create the suffering or step off of the wheel of "life and death", as the Buddhists would put it. We are actually continually presented with, or confronted by if you prefer, this existential choice. However, in much of our daily life we have already ensconced a number of rituals, practices, behavior sets, relationships, and environments that allow us to all too easily "slip back" into the sleepy dance of disorder that has been our lives.
Most of us have been taught in one way or another to fear change, to fear the unknown. Who knows what might happen, if??? Of course one of the direct effects of fearing the unknown, and fearing change, is that all we can do to "be comfortable" is not change and not experience anything that we don't already know. In other words, all we can do then to "feel comfortable" is to continue doing what we've been doing that has created, maintained, proliferated the actual suffering that we "want" to transform, or least what we believe we should "want" to transform.
Neurofeedback presents us with our Self, the Self of disorder, that which is most not us in our deepest truest sense. For what we are at our deepest and truest is the pure open sky of fundamental consciousness. And the nature of fundamental consciousness is to be “awake" or, more simply, to be present. So neurofeedback continually invites us to return to the present, to drop the turbulence, to choose not to continue to recreate the suffering. And this will be experienced as being different.
If you are trained by your life to really believe that "change is/can be dangerous" or that "life is this veil of tears" or "I'm not good enough", etc, etc, then that kind of change may very well seem terrifying. And this is one of the real reasons why the Tibetans will say to: Go to the places that scare you.
But this isn't a spiritual masochism or machismo - no! Rather, it's a recognition that the fear, too, is actually co-created by us. It is an illusion: only the Fantasized Experience of Awful Results (or F.E.A.R.). How we take that "first step" the "next step" the step that is right here, right now, the step BACK into the freedom and openness that is our true nature, how we take that step moment after moment is not knowable ahead of time. But having a witness present, especially a caring, compassionate witness who has walked that same path, can be a real support As the Chinese saying goes: i bu, i bu, lai. "this step, this step (now), arrive". If we continue to take this next step, the one right now in front of us, and return to the present, we continue to (re)arrive at our own true nature."
Dr. Valdeane Brown, founder of Zengar Institute
and creator of NeuroCarePro, neurofeedback system

Not only those seeking relief from dysfunction and disorder use Neurofeedback. It can be a powerful tool in the process of personal and spiritual growth. In many ways, meditation and neurofeedback are parallel processes. The implementation of neurofeedback, its goals, and its effects are similar to those of meditation. Virtually all religious, spiritual, and mystical traditions advocate some type of meditative practice. There are literally hundreds of ways to meditate or achieve a meditative state. But the essence of meditation is to quiet your thoughts and embrace all that is happening outside and inside the body in the present moment.
There are instructions that are basic to all meditations. The first is to focus your attention. Focus on your breath, for example, or on bodily sensations, on walking, or just doing whatever it is you are currently doing. The second instruction is to notice and then release the object of any distraction, any thought or idea, which was not the original object of your focus. As soon as you notice that your focus has shifted from say, your breath, to say, your employer’s inadequacies, you simply observe and without judgement return the focus to your breath. Meditation is the process of continuously returning to the object of your focus in the present. There is a great body of evidence showing that investing time in a regular meditation practice has many positive effects on the body, mind, and experience of the meditator. Neurofeedback, using the same process of focusing (on the music and the feeling of being) and releasing (that which is not a part of being, at that moment) facilitates similar kinds of changes, but with less effort, and vastly quicker results.
Conceptually neurofeedback is a marriage of psychology and eastern philosophy. And in practice it is the use of a new technology as an aide to an ancient practice. The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhist doctrine. They hold that the origin of suffering is habitual clinging and aversion, and the resulting ignorance of the totality of the present moment caused by those habits. Throughout our lives, painful and pleasurable experiences encourage each of us to develop psychological habits, mental places we like to go, and places we like to avoid. Some of these places were formed consciously and others were not, but most no longer serve their original purpose, adapting to the (then, but no longer) current environment. The frequent inhabitation of these places constrains the flow of the brain’s energy and hinders its incredible capacity to receive and process information. Neurofeedback facilitates the release of clinging and aversion (mental inflexibility- being stuck in or out of certain functional capacities) through continuous reorientation of the awareness to the present and interruption of habitual tendencies toward attachment or distraction. This is the basis for elimination of suffering and disorder at its source. Essentially, like meditation, this is awareness training. We learn to shift focus repeatedly from mental distractions to focused attention on the present moment. The difference is, high-tech equipment allows immediate and continuous perception of minute inconsistencies in mental function. Ideally, people could sustain a long-term practice of some physical, religious, or spiritual tradition and gain the benefits of that practice along with its associated tradition and community. But many of these traditions and practices are difficult, come with unnecessary baggage, or are too time consuming for most modern people. Also, some that have more serious mental or emotional disturbance would find these paths impossible.

The goal is a functional transformation, which makes the brain more efficient and more effective, by performing all of its daily tasks with less effort and better results. Although there are dozens of sophisticated analyses that provide many windows on the specific data and persuasive technicalities of improved brain function, the goal remains very human. The goal is to help clients to be healthy, peaceful, present, and joyous in their lives. Optimal brain function leads naturally to optimal physical and mental health.

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