How does Neurofeedback work?

The vast advances in understanding the brain during the last few decades have taught us a great deal about specific structures in the brain, their functions, and how experience impacts the brain. What has become startlingly clear is that the brain has an ongoing capacity to change and adapt, and it is this ability which Neurofeedback engages for the betterment of the client.

Communication between cells and cell groups in the brain generate thoughts, sensations, feelings and actions. The interactive pathways in the brain depend on these electrical circuits which operate with different frequencies and amplitudes.

While psychiatry has concentrated on the chemicals of emotion, it has largely ignored the circuits of thought and perception. This focus on chemicals can be compared to focusing on changing the way your car runs by changing the gasoline you put in the tank. However, in most cases it probably would be more fruitful to pay attention to the timing of the fuel injection system and the transmission of energy from the engine to the wheels.

For over thirty years it has been known that one can change perception and attention by altering the electrical rhythms inside the brain. In Neurofeedback this is be done by providing the brain with information, in the form of feedback about its performance, while rewarding it to increase certain frequencies and inhibiting or decreasing others. Practically, electrical brain activity is recorded by placing sensors on different locations on the head and then transmitting the brain’s signals via wires or EEG leads, through an amplifier, to a computer.

The computer analyzes the signal, and then provides direct feedback about brain activity with auditory and visual cues through a display. Such displays these days resemble video games in which the player is rewarded for producing desirable brainwaves and avoiding undesirable ones.

Which brainwaves are desirable varies from person to person and has both objective (e.g., EEG) and subjective elements (e.g., reporting what makes you feel more alert, focused, relaxed, secure, etc.). As the brain is rewarded for making specific brainwaves, it can gradually learn to re-regulate its own functioning.

The mechanism of action is similar to other forms of learning: the more the brain is rewarded while being trained in a desirable frequency (and avoiding undesirable states), the more it will function in these states following training.