araphrasing Mark Twain, most of the troubles we’ve known have never happened. A lot of our anxiety and sadness in life seems to stem from the negative thoughts we have about the future or the past, not the present. Of course, mindfulness meditation is the practice of simply being non-judgmentally aware of those thoughts and our surroundings, and thus often improves our well-being in the short and long term. However, as anybody who has ever tried to practice meditation will know, it’s challenging. Once you start paying close attention to your thoughts, you start noticing that they seem to come out of nowhere and in ways that are out your control. Further, for a beginner, most of your time spent meditating is spent lost in thought without knowing your lost in thought. So what if there was a way for you to know, indirectly and automatically, whether you are lost in thought? What if there was a way for you to get real-time feedback from an external source about your internal state? As spooky as it may sound at first, there may be a way to do just those things, and it’s called EEG-neurofeedback.
What exactly is EEG-neurofeedback? Well, first, let’s break down the terms. EEG stands for electroencephalography, which is a brain imaging technique. It involves placing electrodes (small flat metal discs) on one’s scalp to record the brain’s electrical activity (brain waves). EEG is non-invasive and recording is passive which is to say that the electrodes do not transmit any kind of signal into the brain. Neurofeedback simply refers to feedback from neurons, from the brain. Thus, EEG-neurofeedback is the process of, in some way, showing one’s brain activity to oneself in real time in order to allow one to change it effectively in some way. The premise is as follows: if a particular subjective experience or task performance is associated with a particular brain state, characterized by particular brain activity, then training an individual to achieve that brain state may cause that individual to have that particular subjective experience or task performance. Since many biological and psychological processes depend on feedback loops (e.g. smiling makes you happy, being happy makes you smile), such a premise is not outlandish. This article, which will look more specifically at Neurofeedback methodology and its history, will hopefully be the first of a several part series on the topic.
EEG-neurofeedback has been around in some form or another since the 1960s. However, due to many flawed study, hasty conclusions, and simplistic theoretical frameworks, much of EEG-neurofeedback research was sidelined in the 1980s. Regardless, around that time, there arose a following of neurofeedback practitioners in North-America offering a variety of EEG-neurofeedback protocols, unfortunately, however, without scientific validation. It is only within the last decade or so that EEG-neurofeedback has experienced a revival, one supported by the Society for Applied Neuroscience (SAN). There now exists a solid evidence base for cognitive and affective EEG-neurofeedback benefits of several kinds (to be discussed in future posts) that is growing exponentially.
As for what the an EEG-neurofeedback protocol specifically entails in scientific studies, participants are given visual and/or audio feedback giving them information about the amplitude of particular frequency bands (i.e. brain wave frequency intervals such as 12-15 Hz) at a particular brain location. For example, if a state of quiet wakefulness is associated with maximal amplitudes in the 12-15 Hz frequency band of the sensory motor and premotor cortices, and the goal is to achieve a quiet and wakeful state, then participants will be operantly conditioned to increase their the 12-15 Hz amplitudes in their motor cortices. In fact, such a protocol has been found to reduce motor seizure rates in epileptic patients.
Now, having outlined the basic premise and fundamental methodology of EEG-neurofeedback protocols, I plan to share with you, in upcoming weeks, the positive affective, cognitive, and artistic performance outcomes of EEG-neurofeedback training.
Is it worth noting that some of the information in this post come from my own direct experience working with EEG, as a neuroscience undergraduate, in a lab setting, at Dalhousie University.
Gruzelier, J. H. (2014). EEG-neurofeedback for optimising performance. I: A review of cognitive and affective outcome in healthy participants. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 44, 124–141. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.09.015