We expect miracles.
If you research neurofeedback long enough, you’ll eventually come across that phrase. A miracle—by definition, a marvel or event that appears so far from human capability that it must be attributed to supernatural forces—seems an appropriate word for this noninvasive therapeutic endeavor, which is showing profound effects on those who’ve suffered emotional or physical trauma to the brain. It also seems a fitting description, since the actual mechanisms by which the healing process takes place are still a mystery.
“Inevitably, someone will say, ‘How, exactly, does this work?’” says Dr. Daniel Meyer, a psychologist who recently opened the Hudson Valley Center for Neurofeedback (HVCNF) in Poughkeepsie with Barbara Monaco, a licensed clinical social worker. “And the answer is that nobody understands exactly how this works—but we know that it works.”
From attention deficit disorder, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress to performance optimization, the potential of neurofeedback is wide ranging and ever growing.
Neurofeedback is considered a subcategory of biofeedback, the system of analysis through which information about the body is given back to a person, usually with the help of electronic devices that can register changes in heart rate, breath, perspiration, and more. Armed with this information, people become aware of, and can learn to control, physical processes that otherwise happen involuntarily. Neurofeedback takes this idea and applies it to the brain and central nervous system, supplying the client and his or her therapist with valuable information.
How this information is put to use is the basis of a variety of approaches in the field of neurofeedback. At the HVCNF, Meyer and Monaco begin their work with a new client by doing a brain-mapping session, where a cap with sensors is placed on the head to pick up the frequencies of brainwave activity at 19 different sites simultaneously. A computer program records, analyzes, and quantifies the results, providing a quantitative electroencephalogram (QEEG). Activity at each brain site can be scrutinized individually, and communication between sites can also be evaluated. In addition, clients are given a subjective self-assessment questionnaire regarding their levels of anxiety, inattentiveness, learning difficulties, and other factors. These results are compared with the QEEG, often showing considerable correlation.
The results of the evaluation are then weighed against those in an extensive database. “We can show them the extent to which a frequency at a given site is or is not at normal limits, and we can show them the extent to which different parts of the brain are or are not communicating effectively with each other,” says Meyer. “It’s really important that we talk about both those things, because it’s not simply about how [just one] site is operating.” In order to be functioning at an optimal level, different areas of the brain need to be doing their jobs alone proficiently but also successfully working together. Take vision, for example. “It’s important how well I see in my left hemisphere and how that’s working with how well I see in my right hemisphere,” Meyer says, “and then how that’s communicated to my frontal lobes, so that they can tell me what I’m seeing and what I need to do next.”
THE MYSTERIOUS BRAIN AT WORK
The brain mapping and database provide Meyer and Monaco with information about which specific sites on the brain need to be treated, usually referred to as “hot spots”—areas that show up on brain maps in bright colors and signify some kind of distress. At subsequent sessions, sensors are placed over these locations and the attending practitioner sets parameters within the frequency of brainwave they’d like to encourage. The client then watches a computer animation—HVCNF’s software shows a jar that fills with blue cells if a client’s brain activity is moving in the right direction.
“People are simply looking at a screen,” Meyer explains, “and the brain—below the level of consciousness—captures that information and then over time begins to make adjustments in how it’s functioning. A way to think about this is when you learned how to ride a bicycle, you had to learn very complex integrated behaviors—visually, with your muscles, planning where you wanted to go. As this was happening, your brain was making adjustments and creating neuropathways so that you would have an efficient neuropathway for bicycle riding. At no time during that learning experience did you have awareness of what your brain was doing, and your brain did the job perfectly well.”
The entire exercise happens under the level of awareness and any mindful attempt at control: You can’t consciously force the blue cells, or whatever other animation may be used, to accumulate. “If you try to make something happen, in all likelihood you’re going to interfere with the process,” Meyer says. “If you allow it to happen, it will. It’s very similar to what people do when they meditate—if you try to meditate, you’re probably not going to meditate. But if you pay attention to your breath and allow your muscles to relax and choose a single focus, after a while your brain will make the adjustment and you’ll fall into a meditative state.”
Since opening in May, HVCNF has treated clients with varying symptoms and has demonstrable results. As one example, Monaco presents handwriting samples from a client that over four weeks of treatment evolve from erratic and almost illegible to notably smoother, clearly readable words.