Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Is it possible to retrain your brain to become an entirely new person? What if all of a sudden, after months of feeling lethargic and unmotivated, you suddenly become energized and excited to complete even the most mundane tasks? Many people are aware of common methods to sharpen cognition and improve mental health, such as meditation, yoga, and a healthy diet. However, new therapeutic technologies have made it possible to completely reprogram the brain through self-regulation of electrical activity . Neurofeedback is one procedure that utilizes operant conditioning in teaching individuals to recognize and change abnormal brain wave patterns. This technique has the potential to treat some of the most complex mental disorders, and even a healthy brain can benefit in astounding ways.
All thoughts, behavior and emotion are dictated by brain waves - electrical impulses produced by masses of neurons communicating with each other. While beta waves are associated with a state of intellectual activity and concentration, alpha waves are designed to induce a state of relaxation . If brain wave patterns are abnormal, an individual may have trouble with concentration, memory, and mood. In these cases, learning self-control of brain waves may be key to long-term improvement.
Neurofeedback is a technique that teaches the brain to make normal transitions between brain wave states. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is first used to measure the electrical activity of the brain, and feedback signals are emitted in the form of audio or visual reinforcement . For example, if the patient produces the targeted brain waves, a sound or specific color may be displayed on a screen to signal success. In some cases, a patient may be asked to play a hands-free video game such as Pac-man. Only the detection of desirable brain waves will move the character across the screen towards its goal . Through such reinforcement, patients learn to recognize and voluntarily change the electrical patterns of their brains.
Although neurofeedback utilizes relatively new technologies, it is grounded in an ancient understanding of human development. It has been widely known that reward is a strong motivator in learning. In the 1960s, Professor Joseph Kamiya at The University of Chicago became the first person to utilize EEG neurofeedback training to explore the intersection between reinforcement through reward and self-regulation. In one study, he trained individuals to achieve an alpha state by rewarding them with the sound of a bell . Over time, patients reported being able to produce alpha and non-alpha states at will, resulting in the reduction of stress and anxiety. Years later, researchers at UCLA were able to train cats to produce brain waves that made them resistant to chemically induced seizures . When this procedure was applied to humans, it successfully decreased seizure activity by 65%.
However, studies have shown that this retraining of the brain may be even more effective than medication in treating several disorders . Medications can be addictive; the brain may build up a tolerance to some medication, and higher dosages may result in increased dependency and side effects. On the other hand, the brain simply learns to self-regulate on its own with neurofeedback. Thus, there is no dependency on any external substance, and the effects continue into the long-term, even after halting sessions. Currently, there are no known side effects, and the treatment is often much cheaper than medication, making it a great alternative option to pursue. Interestingly, patients have also reported an improvement in overall attention, mood, and mindfulness, suggesting that the procedure may be able to benefit mental wellbeing beyond the treatment of mental disorders .
Those that do not suffer from any mental illness have turned to neurofeedback in hopes of improving their cognition and emotion regulation. In many of these patients, the therapeutic approach has resulted in enhanced memory and focus, better mental clarity, restful sleep, decreased anxiety and impulsivity, and improved mood . In fact, the technique’s ability to reduce distracting emotions has been shown to aid in sports performance, making it particularly advantageous for athletes . The stabilization of emotional perception, including the ability to cope with stress, makes instances of high cognitive demand easier to manage. Furthermore, neurofeedback has the potential to slow cognitive decline . With age comes the natural decline of certain areas in our brains, but in the same way that physical exercise keeps the body in prime physical shape, neurofeedback acts as a mental exercise to help maintain brain health. Moreover, its effect on attention, memory, problem-solving, and processing speed may actually help make an individual smarter. Studies show that IQ scores rise 10 to 20 points after training . This technique certainly seems like an appealing option for strengthening the mind, although more research must be conducted to verify these results.
In conclusion, neurofeedback has much potential to improve overall wellbeing and longevity. However, the lack of sufficient research investigating the technique’s impact has prevented it from becoming as well-known as other brain-boosting foods and exercises. Some scientists claim that past studies measuring neurofeedback’s effects were improperly conducted. Many lacked control groups and appropriate blinding, thereby increasing the chances of a placebo effect . Yet despite such criticisms, testimonials remain very promising, and the technique’s rising popularity drives researchers to continue exploring its lifechanging benefits.
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