Answer: Neurofeedback was first developed almost 60 years ago to help patients control epileptic seizures by learning to regulate their brain activity. In addition to seizures, mainstream neuroscience is now showing us that a wide variety of psychological disorders and severe emotional turmoil can be understood as firing mistakes in the electrical activity of the brain. Neurofeedback has developed into an increasingly sophisticated technology, which can teach people to make changes in their brain’s activity to eliminate symptoms of conditions including bipolar disorder, attentional disorders, anxiety and phobia disorders, depression, autism spectrum disorders, personality disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Wave frequencies in the brain underlie every thought and feeling we have, as well as the behaviors they give rise to. Typically, for example, when we make more alpha waves (the frequency of 8–11 Hz), we feel more relaxed and, with time and training, can learn to spend more time in relaxation states as our default mode of brain activity. If someone with attention deficit disorder needs to pay better attention, they can learn to make more beta waves (15–18 Hz) and get better at maintaining focus. Simply put, the neurofeedback practitioner (ideally also a psychotherapist), assesses the client’s clinical needs, selects the target brain frequencies to address the presenting problems, and provides this feedback so that clients can learn how to make more of the selected electroencephalogram (EEG) frequencies and ameliorate unwanted symptoms.
To start the training, clients sit in a comfortable chair with sensors placed on their scalp and play a video game watching their own EEG signal shown on a computer screen. When they achieve the target frequencies while inhibiting the dysregulating frequencies (that is, very slow or very fast waves), they collect points in the video game. In one such game, frequencies are represented as space ships. Whenever clients make the desired frequency and inhibit those getting in their way, the blue ship (the target frequency) outpaces the purple ship (slow waves) and the yellow ship (fast waves). Ongoing feedback from the game functions as a reward, and as the training continues, a client’s brain will naturally seek more rewards, increasing the time spent in the target frequency. More detailed instructions are occasionally needed, but most of the time, as in all biofeedback, there is really only one general rule: relax and focus.
Learn more about neurofeedback and trauma treatment in Sebern Fisher's full article, "The Case for Neurofeedback: Rewiring the Brain in the Consulting Room," in the May/June 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.