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Ruth Cohn
Head Neurofeedback                    Getting Started >>
A Way to Move Therapy Along

What is neurofeedback? It emerged in the 1960's out of biofeedback. In effect it is “operant conditioning,” not unlike dog training. As I explain to clients, when the puppy pees outside you give her a cookie. Every time she successfully pees outside you praise her and give her a cookie. After a while, you don't have to give her a cookie anymore. She just knows to pee outside. Neurofeedback works according to the same principle. The underlying theory is all mental problems (and many physical problems too) are “dysregulations of arousal.” In the world of trauma we have known this for some time. The traumatized person, with an overactive amygdala, swings between hyperarousal and hypoarousal. Often what makes life unbearable is the inability to calm down or an onslaught of upsetting triggers.

Arousal is an expression of actual firing of the brain. Neurons fire at different frequencies. When too many neurons fire at too high of a frequency, we experience hyperarousal, perhaps anxiety or rage. When too many neurons fire at too low a frequency, we might experience depression or numbing.

Peak Performance for Every Brain

Of course different brain areas will have optimal ranges of firing frequencies. And different activities require different frequencies. For example a moderately high frequency is required to sustain focus, concentration and mental energy. If frequencies are too low in the brain areas involved in those functions, one might suffer diffuse attention; lack of motivation and follow through; or a feeling of flatness. If the parts of the brain that calm the nervous system and body are firing too high, we are unable to calm down or sleep well. That is when an individual might be prone to substance abuse, overeating, compulsive behavior, or some activity pursued in the service of calming down.

So in every brain, in each site of the brain, there are optimal frequencies, optimal levels of neuronal firing, and of course optimal ranges for any desired function. We want to be able to calm down for relaxation or sleep; and to perk up for driving or taking an exam. What neurofeedback does is train the brain to fire in its optimal range at any given site. It is peak performance training for any brain.

Timing is Everything

So how does neurofeedback work?
After a detailed assessment process, the therapist determines which brain area is most central to the client’s complaint. Electrodes are located on the scalp to be in contact with the site in question, and the computer is set to the optimal range of neuronal firing for that site. For healthy brain functioning, timing is everything and has tremendous impact on neurochemistry and blood flow. The rate per second or per cycle at which neurons fire, as measured in hertz, is in effect the key to mental health, or so believe the practitioners and researchers of neurofeedback. When the timing of the brain’s firing is optimal symptoms disappear, even symptoms of which we were not aware.

The computer is set such as to monitor the rhythm of firing of the various brain waves. When they are firing in the optimal range for that wave, the computer emits a signal communicating “That’s good! That’s good!” It might be a beep or a gong or a picture on the computer screen. The positive feedback, like the puppy’s cookie, trains the brain to keep it up. And the brain does just that. Outside of its owner’s awareness, the brain continues the dance of firing in resonance with the computer and over time comes to prefer the rewarded rhythm. Like the puppy, over time, the reward is no longer required and the brain leaves its training wheels and keeps going that way. The computer does not add anything. It simply measures and reflects, mirrors and validates. The client does not have to remember heinous scenes, feel painful emotions, does not even have to talk. The process goes on outside of awareness.