Neurofeedback (EEG biofeedback)
Combining EEG technology with positive reinforcement
Neurofeedback is a way of gently training the brain to shift its activity in a chosen direction. This is done by coupling moment-to-moment tracking of the brain’s activity with the provision of an auditory or visual reward signal when the activity changes in a specified way. This helps the brain learn to find its way to a calm, alert, well-regulated state, and keep itself there.
How it works
The brain’s activity can be reliably detected from the scalp using electroencephalography (EEG), a technology that was discovered by German psychiatrist Hans Berger in the 1920s. EEG uses sensors placed on the scalp to measure oscillating (wave-like) electrical fields generated by the brain. Its output looks like a squiggly line, giving rise to the popular term “brain waves.”
Scientists have been using EEG to study the brain ever since. They consider it a unique window onto the basic functions of the brain that give rise to our perceptions, memories, thoughts, emotions and actions.
Neurofeedback combines EEG technology with a fundamental learning principle taken from scientific psychology. This is the principle of “operant conditioning,” which says that if an animal performs an action, and that action is followed closely by an event that the animal finds rewarding, then the action will be “reinforced” and will become more likely to be repeated in the future. A familiar example of this principle is the way a puppy can be taught a trick by repeatedly giving him a treat just after he sits or heels.
In neurofeedback, selected properties of the EEG waveform are reinforced in exactly this way, to promote stability and regulation in the brain:
- EEG sensors are applied to the client’s scalp, so that EEG can be measured in real time, moment by moment.
- Data from the EEG are sent to a computer and mathematically processed there.
- Software calculates whether the data meet a certain criterion.
- Whenever they do, the computer delivers a “reward” to the brain in the form of a piece of music, an animation, or a video.
- If the reward is well chosen, the brain finds a way to make the reward happen more often, and last longer, over time.
In this way, the brain is gently encouraged to find its own way to states of calm and stability…and is rewarded for keeping itself there.
Is neurofeedback for me?
Neurofeedback has been studied for a wide range of applications in both mental health and neurology. But it isn’t just an intervention or treatment for problematic conditions or states – it can also help enhance performance in a wide range of fields.
Here is a list of issues that have shown improvements with neurofeedback in peer-reviewed studies:
- Chronic pain/fibromyalgia
- Chronic fatigue
- Epilepsy and seizure disorders
- Recovery after stroke or traumatic brain injury/concussion
As well, because it’s so versatile and has so few side effects, neurofeedback has also been extensively explored as a way to improve abilities in “peak-performance” applications, with peer-reviewed research finding enhanced performance among such diverse groups as concert pianists, ballet dancers, high-level athletes, and even surgeons.
What does the process look like?
Because neurofeedback is overseen by a psychologist rather than a medical doctor, no formal referral from a family doctor or nurse practitioner is required. You are free to self-refer by calling us to arrange an appointment.
- The first step is an appointment in which you meet with Dr. Philip Toman.
The purpose of this appointment is to give him some history and talk about the symptoms you would like to address or functions you would like to enhance.
- Next, we collect some baseline EEG from you in the form of a Quantitative EEG (QEEG) assessment.
For the assessment, you’ll be seated in a comfortable chair, and our technician will fit a cap with 22 sensors onto your head. The technician will apply a little gel to each sensor to improve its ability to detect your brain’s electrical field. Then you’ll be asked to sit quietly for five minutes with your eyes closed, and another five with your eyes open, while the computer records and stores the EEG from all 22 channels. You may also be asked to complete some baseline questionnaires or complete some cognitive tests.
- After that, you’ll meet with Dr. Toman again to go over the results of the QEEG.
In the interim, he will have analyzed your EEG data and compared them to a normative database, producing outputs that show how your brain activity compares to that of a carefully selected sample of healthy individuals your age. Dr. Toman will show you your results using graphs and visuals, and discuss with you what neurofeedback protocol will best address itself to your own goals for yourself, and your unique neurophysiology as reflected in the QEEG results.
- You’ll return for a number of neurofeedback sessions, typically with our technician.
Sessions are usually arranged once or twice a week, each taking 40 minutes to an hour. In each, you will have the EEG sensors re-applied to your scalp, and will be asked to settle in and attend closely to the sights and/or sounds generated by the computer. Throughout the session your brain will be rewarded with visual and/or auditory events for shifting its activity in the direction specified in your protocol. The technician will show you graphs that depict how successfully your brain is managing to do that, both within and between sessions.
- The number of neurofeedback sessions varies from just a few to 30 or more.
This will depend on the issue being addressed, the protocol being used, and of course, the improvements that you observe. Dr. Toman will remain available in the background for consultation anytime you’d like to speak with him. You may be asked to complete questionnaires or follow-up cognitive testing periodically to assess your progress.