What Exactly IS Neurofeedback?

It is not uncommon for individuals to have many questions regarding neurofeedback. How does it work? How long will it take? Will it “fix” my problems? Before we get into whether it works for you, let’s start with the basics of what the process looks like.

Neurofeedback specialists use an EEG to observe brain waves. It does not inject anything into the brain, it does not use electricity to stimulate the brain, and it does not read one’s thoughts. It is merely a way to see brain activity. Think about what happens when a pregnant woman goes to the doctor for an ultrasound. The doctor starts by putting gel on the woman’s belly. An image is then projected for the doctor (and patient) to see the baby. It does not hurt the baby, it does not put anything in the woman’s stomach, it just produces a picture. An EEG is a similar process. A specialist in neurofeedback will begin by placing a gel on three specifics points on an individual’s head based on symptoms. Then a type of “paste” will be applied to the electrode to act as a conductor to get a good reading of the brain. Unlike getting an ultrasound, EEG’s do not produce images of the brain, but instead produce a picture of the person’s current brain waves.

Neurofeedback looks to observe what the brain is currently doing and to strengthen areas of the brain that are not being fully utilized based on a reward system. The individual will either play a game or watch a movie and will hold onto a teddy bear. The screen the individual is watching will alter in various ways, such as shrinking in size or greying out the colors of the image; the volume may get louder or softer; and the teddy bear may vibrate at certain points. By experiencing these alterations in the individual’s movie or game-playing experience, the brain learns what it needs to do to keep the screen looking “normal.” The brain is thus “rewarded” via the cues it gets from the screen, the volume, and the teddy bear when it is at an optimal functioning level. The individual does not need to do anything but watch the screen. A person cannot strain their brain or use their willpower to make the screen look a certain way; it is a process the brain does on its own.

This is the basis of neurofeedback.

Now that there’s a better understanding of what the process looks like, the question may still be lingering: “How can it help me?” Multiple studies have indicated that neurofeedback can improve many symptoms that individuals may face on a daily basis including the following:

  • Sleep (falling asleep, staying asleep, difficulty waking up, nightmares)  

  • Headaches/migraines

  • ADHD (poor concentration, difficulty completing tasks, hyperactivity, verbal expression)

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Seizures

  • Mood Swings

  • Impulsivity

  • Pain (low pain threshold, chronic aching pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia).

Neurofeedback is symptom-based. That means that when you present with a specific symptom, say migraines for example, different “sites” or electrode placements target that symptom. If you suffer from a diagnosis with multiple symptoms, such as depression, each symptom (sleep, mood, body tension) is looked at separately and treated as such. As a result, in one neurofeedback session, you may be targeting three different symptoms via three electrode placements.

For more information on neurofeedback, check out previous blog posts Myths about Neurofeedback (Part 1) and Myths about Neurofeedback (Part 2). Be sure to tune back soon for our upcoming entry, "How Do I Know Neurofeedback is Working?"