How does Neurofeedback work?
In virtually every area of our lives, we are able to improve our performance when we get clear and immediate feedback about how we are doing. That is one of the key reasons why athletic performance has shown such dramatic improvements recently—sophisticated physiological monitoring technology has enabled the athlete to gain a much greater degree of information about all aspects of physical performance, and this allows for sharpening of skills.
The same sort of technological sophistication now enables us to directly alter the functioning of our brains to improve performance. Neuroscience has shown repeatedly that the brain is capable of enormous change or plasticity; the brain is amazingly adaptable. Advanced EEG biofeedback technology provides instantaneous (real time) information to the brain about how it is functioning along with continuous hints or cues about how to make adjustments toward improved functioning. And repeated studies have shown that our brains are able to use this information to re-regulate its function.
Ordinarily, we cannot influence our brain’s activity because we lack awareness of it. However, when you can see the changes in this activity on a computer screen a few thousandths of a second after they occur, you gain the ability to influence and change this activity. The mechanism of action is similar to every other form of learning or training. Neurofeedback is a form of training or exercise for the brain, assisted with a very sophisticated technology, and guided or directed by knowledge gained through the advances of neuroscience. It is not a treatment, with immediate effect like a pill, but an incremental and cumulative training program, much like going to the gym to train your body. It takes time for the effects to accumulate.
At the most basic level, the process of neurofeedback is like a game of hide and seek. If the seeker is having a hard time, he will often get a series of hints about where to look: “You’re getting colder. Now warmer, warmer, hot….” In neurofeedback, the trainee is seeking improved brain function, and the feedback is exactly like the “hotter” and “colder” hints: as the brain moves momentarily in the direction of improved function, the feedback shows and tells the trainee, essentially, “You’re getting warmer”. Conversely, as the brain moves momentarily in the direction of diminished function, the feedback tells and shows the trainee, “You’re getting colder”.
The format for the feedback may take many forms. It ranges from video game-like displays, excursions through beautiful digital landscapes or simply watching a favorite movie. The EEG continuously alters the look of what you see on the screen, the image will flicker or grow and shrink in size in direct response to your brainwave activity. The sophisticated digital games that we employ are endlessly fascinating to watch and keep you engaged and entertained while your brain readjusts itself to work more efficiently.
Most adults ask, how can they alter the EEG, what do they actually do to control those brain waves? The answer is nothing – nothing intentional, conscious, or willful. The trainee just watches and listens – takes in the information and the hints and allows the brain to continuously and progressively adjust or re-organize its function so that the goal is attained over time.
The activity of neurofeedback is no different from most human actions. We learn to do everything we do through a feedback informed learning process: we take an action, receive feedback regarding that action, adjust the response based on this feedback toward a closer approximation of the desired action, and so on. EEG biofeedback simply makes it possible to apply this process to directly affect brain function.