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Neurofeedback: Retrain Your Brain

Sep 19 2020
4 min read
Close-up of woman's hand as she writes with a pen on a pad of paper.

Your brain is working around the clock (even while you sleep), affecting how you feel and function.

At certain times, it works better that at others. Neurofeedback (also called neurotherapy) is a technique that allows you to see if your mind is working in your favor. This therapy is a type of biofeedback that uses EEG (electroencephalogram) displays to provide real-time information on your brain activity; the goal is to use that feedback to retrain your brain to respond differently, in a more ideal way.

In a neurofeedback training session, sensors are applied to your scalp to read your brain wave activity, which is displayed on a monitor in front of you. Instead of what you might expect such a test to show you—wavy lines, fancy graphs—the screen shows the data in the form of a video game of sorts. Instead of “playing” the game with a controller, you’re asked to do so with your mind.

Doing so isn’t magic, though the result is quite amazing. What’s involved varies depending on the machine used, but for example: If your brain wave patterns are indicating a focused, calm state, the monitor might show a beautiful, sunny beach; but when your brain patterns shift, maybe showing distraction or distress, the image might change to a dark, rainy sky, alerting you that something is not quite right.

This visual feedback prompts your brain to make a change until that sunny beach, which is more desirable, reappears. Other machines might show you a character that only moves when your mind is in a positive state, essentially training your brain to favor a state of calm or contentment. And sometimes there are auditory cues that tell your brain to make a shift.

The goal is to encourage healthier brain wave frequencies through repetitive training. Your practitioner, who is watching the changes occur, might guide you through some techniques—breathing or meditative exercises, perhaps—that help your brain behave more favorably. With practice, applying these same techniques outside of a therapy session will, hopefully, cause similar mental shifts in real-life situations.

Though its widespread acceptance is still growing, research shows that neurofeedback has been most effective for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increasing their focus and attention, as well as people living with epilepsy, helping to reduce the frequency of seizures by stabilizing the circuits that trigger them.

Additionally, studies have shown increased cognitive processing speed and improved executive function (the ability to manage time and attention, switch your focus, plan, organize, control your speech) in the elderly, although it didn’t have any effect on memory. Studies have also suggested a promising connection between neurofeedback and conditions such as anxiety, depression, headaches and substance abuse problems, although its success in improving these health issues is not yet definitive.

Even if you aren’t struggling with any neurological disorders or symptoms, though, you might consider neurofeedback to help you increase your concentration, help you focus while eating, achieve deeper relaxation, improve your athletic performance, combat fatigue or increase your creativity, since, overall, this technique is about managing your own neurological processes to achieve maximum mental health.

There is nothing you need to do to prepare for a neurofeedback session, aside from talking to your doctor to determine if it’s an appropriate treatment for you and, of course, finding a trained practitioner you trust. Your first visit will most likely involve an extensive discussion about your symptoms, family history and what you’re hoping to achieve.

Sessions are usually under an hour, and the number of treatments depends on your condition, your personal needs and how you’re progressing. Improved sleep is a common early result and as you continue treatment, you might notice other changes, such as being able to focus better, feeling more relaxed or experiencing fewer racing thoughts.

As you begin to see and feel improvements from day to day, you’ll likely make healthier, sounder decisions—proof that you’re managing your mental responses and, by proxy, your overall wellness.