Meditation, yoga, sophrology… all proven effective practices to fight stress and learn to relax and let go. Another practice that is still little known to the general public, and yet has existed since the 1960s, goes further by offering an accompaniment with an unprecedented sense of well-being: neurofeedback, a brain training practice. Practising relaxing is a great way to relax.is possible?
The discovery of neurofeedback in the 1960s
The story started in 1924 when Hans Berger, a German psychiatrist who was curious to understand the mysteries of the human brain, built the first electroencephalograph. This technique was used to measure the electrical activity of the brain using passive electrodes touching the scalp. The electroencephalogram, called EEG, was a revolution at the time and opened the way toward a better understanding of the brain. Using the EEG, Hans Berger was the first to be able to record brain waves, especially alpha waves, the specific waves engaged in the natural process of relaxation, also called Berger waves.
In 1958, Joe Kamiya, psychologist at the university of Chicago, used Berger’s work to research the possibility of a connection between brain waves and consciousness. Fascinated by the ability given to mesure brain activity using an EEG, Kamiya made the assumption that humans were able to control their own brain activity. Many experimentations were made to prove his assumption: he demonstrated that humans are able to regulate their brain waves themselves, and that a regular training would bring long-term changes in the brain. The neurofeedback technique was born.
How does neurofeedback work?
Neurofeedback, also called biofeedback, is a non invasive method of recording electrical activity using sensors on the scalp (it’s the EEG we talked about earlier). This brain activity is translated into a visual or audio indicator. That indicator depends on the EEG signal and enables the user to get aware on the spot of its own brain activity. When neurofeedback is used to train the brain to relax, the user receives an audio or visual indicator reflecting its own personal relaxation level. With this information, he can therefore try to modify or regulate the indicator in a way that it shows a more relaxed state.
The targeted brain frequencies are specific to the problem the user would like to work on. The Melomind headset for example focuses on the process of relaxation: sensors are therefore touching the parietal lobe where alpha waves, the specific waves engaged in the natural process of relaxation, are the strongest.
Regularity is key when using neurofeedback. Every time we live a new experience or try to learn something new, our brain established new neuronal connections. These connections are like roads that connect the specific regions of our brain that are involved in the task we are performing. The more we engage them, the more they will reinforce themselves. This natural mechanism is called neuroplasticity.
Neurofeedback doesn’t do more than reinforcing the brain’s neuroplasticity, an already existing natural process!
Neurofeedback, once used to treat mental and physical disorders, has been proven beneficial for overall well-being.
Since it’s been discovered in the 1960s, the neurofeedback technique has been restricted to the clinical environment. The lack of consensus regarding its impacts and results has kept this technique private for a long time. It was mainly used to treat pathologies like epilepsy (1), depression (2), or alcohols and drugs addictions (3). The most studied use of neurofeedback is for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)(4) for both kids and adults, anxiety disorders (5), and stress-related disorders, especially post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)(6).
In addition to the major clinical interest that neurofeedback represents, this technique was also applied on healthy subjects, in the so-called “performance optimization” field (7). Several studies indeed reveal the benefits of neurofeedback sessions in enhancing various cognitive functions, such as mental imagery (8), working memory (9), and attentional focus (10). Neurofeedback can modulate visuomotor abilities (11) by improving, for instance psychomotricity (12), and procedural learning (13). By enabling individuals to directly control the activity of a specific brain region, neurofeedback becomes an incredible tool for improving well-being: it enables a better emotional understanding, helps to better manage stress, or enable people into learning how to relax by themselves.
A technique in synch with a changing world.
The re-discovery of the neurofeedback technique reflects on a deep technological change that has been happening for the past few years, as well as a scientifique maturity that has been arising. Thanks to those transformations, it is now possible to give most people access to neurofeedback: no need to go to a clinic to record an EEG with dozens of sensors on your head anymore. The “wearable” trend made possible for the team to imagine a bluetooth EEG headset capable of recording high quality EEG signal and offering a ready to use neurofeedback training that can be done at work or at home in just a few minutes.
This practice also reflects the social and cultural transformations we are evolving in. Introspection is now a keyword, a common subject. Practicing meditation or yoga, working on oneselves through personal development practices, eating healthy food are now daily habits and show a desire for caring and nurturing mental and physical wellbeing. In a very stimulating world, neurofeedback gives some time back to human brains to regulate themselves. And it goes even further: it gives people the power to control their own ability to grow.
(1) Sterman, 2000; Tan et al., 2009
(2) Baehr, Rosenfeld, & Baehr, 1997; Hammong, 2005; Paquette, Beauregard, & Beaulieu-Prévost, 2009
(3) Peniston & Kulkosky, 1989, Sokhadze, Cannon, & Trudeau, 2008
(4) Fox, Tharp, & Now, 2005; Arns, de Ridder, Strehl, Breteler, & Coenen, 2009; Gevensleben et al., 2009; Lofthouse, Mcburnett, Arnold, & Hurt, 2011
(5) Moor, 2000; Hammong, 2005; Fisher & others, 2010
(6) Lande, Williams, Francis, Gragnani, & Morin, 2010
(7) Vernon, 2005, Gruzelier, 2014 for reviews
(8) Hanslmayr, Sauseng, Doppelmayr, Schabus, & Klimesch, 2005; Zoefel, Huster, & Herrmann, 2011
(9) Vernon et al., 2003; Escolano, Aguilar, & Minguez, 2011; Nan et al., 2012
(10) Egner & Gruzelier, 2001; Egner & Gruzelier, 2004
(11) Beatty, Greenberg, Deibler, & O’Hanlon, 1974; Landers et al., 1991
(12) Doppelmayr & Weber, 2011
(13) Reiner, Rozengurt, & Barnea, 2013