HOW I TRAINED MY BRAIN WITH NEUROFEEDBACK
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body, and while much of its inner workings still remain a mystery, thanks to ever advancing medical technology coupled with increased societal awareness, we find ourselves in a relative mental health renaissance. In decades passed, discrimination boxed mental illness into a condition of behavior, and treatment was centered around correcting what we know now to be symptoms (oftentimes with the use of disciplinary force) or blanketing sufferers with medical and treatment procedures to the point of subdued stupor. Today, thankfully, we recognize the affect of biology and the impact of our environment, tackling aspects of both nature and nurture. From CBT and psychoanalysis to SSRIs and mood stabilizers, we’re combating mental illness from all angles, and because the varying causes of these maladies are complicated and complex, a combination can often be the most impactful. I’m so grateful that I am alive during this age of increased understanding. Because disorders are ambiguous and therefore elusive by nature it can be frustrating and confusing even after a diagnosis is established. In tandem with my psychiatric medication, still suffering from the caustic mental and physical cycle of social anxiety, it was suggested by my doctor that I try Neurofeedback, and both the information gleaned and subsequent results were life changing. Brief disclaimer: Before going into my first session I knew little about the brain and less about how it worked. The medical jargon can be confusing, so I write this with the intent to cut to the heart — or head — of the matter and parley the gist of the science behind how the brain is wired, how the treatment can affect said wirings, what to expect and how Neurofeedback can help...all to the best of my experiential knowledge. A studied mind might find inaccuracies in my description but this is not for the professionals. This is for you, for a past version of myself and for those who might be interested but lack the years of medical education necessary to comprehend the terminology and science behind how our most powerful organ functions. Anchored heavily with analogy, this is what to tangentially expect from a patient and proponent. Psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist has said that the only way we can understand anything is in terms of the way we understand something else, and if you don’t understand the metaphor, you can’t understand the meaning. What’s more relatable these days than traffic? I digress. At all times are minds are firing off an arsenal of neurons which connect throughout areas of our brain at varying frequencies, and these ultimately dictate our emotions and affect our decision making. These neurons operate on brainwaves, which can be likened to speed. Think of our brains as an intricate layout of freeways which veer and loop in innumerable off and on ramps that connect to and from key hubs. Ideally cars move in the direction in which they are meant to, reaching their destination via the most efficient route and within the speed limit. Things go awry when all neurons decide to flood the same point or take disadvantageous or unnecessary routes to their destination. Issues also arise when they move too slowly or recklessly disregard the speed limit, resulting in crashes or traffic jams. Each area of our brain houses different facets of our personality and controls specific aspects of perception, so when our highways are operating efficiently, our emotions and reactions are relatively stable. Unencumbered, neurons flow with ease and purpose arriving at their destination on time and transmitting appropriate responses and emotions with regularity. If and when aforementioned traffic jams occur or freeways are shut down and cars rerouted completely, the affected hub illicits inconsistent or inappropriate responses. For example, I have an overactive amygdala, the epicenter of the fight or flight instinct. My neurons tend to speed from other hubs thanks to a downhill eight lane super freeway which funnels directly to my amygdala resulting in hyperactivity which triggers adrenaline and anxiety. This knowledge of where, why and how irregular activity occurs begins with an initial assessment in the form of brain mapping. Wearing a cap with fitted with strategically positioned sensors placed as close to the scalp as possible, patients are asked to relax both body and mind - a tense jaw would be noticed as brain activity thereby spiking the electronic read and skewing results, as I was often reminded - and gaze steadily at mild visual stimulation on a screen. My initial session began with twenty minutes sat in front of a screensaver which displayed a forest and creek, occasionally a butterfly would flutter in the forefront. I was reminded to focus steadily, not at any fixed point, but at the entirety of the screen. This allowed for a clear image of my brains regular activity to be mapped, scanning my “default” neural connectivity. I’d be remiss not to editorialize that twenty minutes of concentrated yet relaxed “non-focus” to a person without a personal meditation practice can indeed become challenging: even heavy blinking can alter the reading, therefore a full twenty minutes is enough for an expert administration to edit out moments of muscle movement such as blinks, coughs or sneezes. One of the most rewarding and gratifying moments was when my doctor and I went over that first brain map scan together. Printed out in colored ink was an image of my brain, a visual representation of what I was feeling. It was tangible, I held in my hands the physical validation I needed to assure myself that I wasn’t crazy or over reactive. In these print outs were the answers to the question I had battled and wrestled with for years when it came to my depression, anxiety and mood swings: Why? The areas of my brain exhibiting higher frequency or activity were tinged with red, other areas with slower traffic were smudged in blue. This was an overall odometer, showing where neurons were firing too rapidly and where others needed a jumpstart. I flipped the page over and saw another map, this one dotted outlining key points throughout the brain, with lines jutting out at all angles, highways and intersections, showing the paths my neurons took. Some dots stood out on their own, lonely, a deserted town in the middle of the desert with no access in or out. Our job, my doctor and I, was to form new roads leading to areas of disconnect and/or disperse the hyperactivity of overpopulated hubs. As for the colored map, our goal was to calm areas of inappropriately overactive brainwaves and stimulate neurons which were too inactive. There are three notable impediments to Neurofeedback, two of equal import and the other more or less an inconvenience of vanity. The most minor and least deterring matter of vanity is the goo. In order for the electrodes to connect, they need lubrication as a sort of conductor or conduit between the scalp and sensors. If you’ve ever had an ultrasound you’ll be familiar with the gel, a gooey saline-based solution that will be inserted underneath the cap and will dry into clumps and will remain until you wash your hair. This, of course, is not a problem if you happen to be bald, but while I have a full head of mid length hair, I usually wear a hat until I’m able to rise it out. Easy peasy. The following mitigating factors are the two largest obstacles: time and money. Pretty universal and ubiquitous to all humans at all times, but Neurofeedback is expensive, not covered by insurance (to my knowledge) and require significant commitment to garner results. Training your brain is just like training anything else, it takes time. I could go to the gym once or twice a month but I’d be a fool to expect results from a few sporadic sessions alone. In the beginning I has sessions twice a week, every week. For months. My brain had been operating by transmitting neurons its own misconstrued way for decades, and as they say, old habits are hard to break. That aside, I found the results very clear and very evident right away. I went from self medicating in order to leave the house, overwhelmed with anxiety at the prospect approaching cashiers at the grocery store to working as a server at a busy bar and restaurant and thoroughly enjoying interacting with customers. When I became comfortable knowing that my adrenaline was mitigated and my body and mind were no longer sabotaging my psyche, the personality that had been guarded by an army of psychological and physical armor emerged. But my story isn’t unique, and Neurofeedback has the proven potential to relieve a variety of mental illnesses, targeting the areas of misappropriation and addressing or correcting the issues at the source. ADHD, sleep disorders, OCD, depression and addiction all often carry characteristics that can potentially be mapped and trained thanks to this new technology. For more information EEGinfo.com has amassed a library of up to date clinical papers and studies on the treatment, and centerforbrain.com is a great comprehensive read for all things pertaining to brain mapping. The best resource is always your current doctor or psychiatrist as factors such as your current medications may preclude Neurofeedback as a beneficial option for you.