I walk across handmade stepping stones of Prussian blue and scarlet, canary yellow and white and gold; patterns that smile at me in the shade of the midday West Australian sun, leading me to a house decorated in green and cream and smiling with a promise of knowledge. What is it that I don’t know? It is an insatiable thirst for answers to an undefinable question that has led me here and there is already a hum of excitement permeating my body.
I press a button and kind eyes greet me; I am offered tea and invited into a shared space of honesty.
“Do you know much about Neurofeedback?” she asks.
I know a little bit… that it is about training your brain to become more efficient. That you stick electrodes onto your head and listen to music. That it’s “amazing”. That it can help with coping, and anxiety, and stress, and ADHD and PTSD…. All generalized claims or subjective experiences that mystify and tease and tantalise you again with those questions: What do you mean? How does it work? What is it that I don’t know?
This is why I’m here. To learn. To experience. To see. To try. To be better. To understand. To grow. Because sometimes we don’t know we’re stuck in a box unless someone shows us there’s something outside.
Neurofeedback was first utilized in the 1970s as a treatment for epilepsy: a neurological disorder characterized by seizures, wherein neurons exhibit abnormal activity by grouping together and firing excessively with synchronicity. Due to positive results, the scope of treatment began to expand. However the system was created before we had the computer power to utilize it to its full potential… and only recently have those technological advances occurred to the extent that we can now bring this treatment to the mass market. You can even purchase a system yourself, for home use. The only specialized education you require is in learning how the software works, and where to place the electrodes.
Yes, there are “electrodes”. Yes, they are placed on your head and on your ears. These are sensors - recording devices - which interpret the electrical signals from your brain to show you a breakdown of activity by wavelength: Alpha (7.5 – 14 Hz), Beta (14 – 40 Hz), Gamma (above 40 Hz), Delta (0.5 – 4 Hz) and Theta (4 – 7.5 Hz). They measure these wavelengths as you listen to music through headphones, and the software processes the data. If it notices your brain function to be sub-optimal (characterized by an excessive “turbulence” which the software calculates and judges based off the data set you provide it with), it will give you a little nudge in the form of a break in the music flow, which you will hear through your headphones as static.
A small digression: I have been doing a lot of Bikram Yoga recently; it is a practice which has challenged me physically and mentally, or perhaps it only allowed me a space which gave me freedom to push myself, to learn to listen, to learn to self-correct. To move fluidly and consciously from one posture to another. Neurofeedback does that too; it is yoga for the brain. It does not force. It does not coerce. It merely shows you, gently, where your brain is weak. Strengthening it is up to you.
But before strength comes a foundation of education. We all need teachers in our lives to show us where we can improve. In terms of brain function, the immediate feedback we receive in the form of static helps us pinpoint the origin of this sub-optimal brain function, so we can then seek ways to improve.
So what does the data mean? What do these brain wave frequencies actually signal in terms of our thought processes? What are we actually trying to improve?
Defining Brain Waves: How to Analyse the Data
Delta waves deal with the unconscious mind, and are most active during deep sleep. They are about transcendence, connection, and healing. Alpha waves are associated with meditation and concentration (deep relaxation). But I’m most curious about Beta, Gamma and Theta.
Beta waves are associated with “normal” waking consciousness and being alert. Low beta waves are associated with being present in your body, the absence of thought. Savasana… or Eckhart Tolle’s “Now”. Interestingly, they occur a lot in cats (think stealth, think stalking of prey). But at 21 Hertz we pounce. 21 Hertz signals the “Fight or Flight” response, hyper-focus, intensity. Too much of this frequency leads to stress and anxiety: one of the things that Neurofeedback training can help you correct.
Gamma waves… the most newly discovered, and the most interesting in my opinion. These vibrations are fast, so it’s no surprise that they are associated with language, multitasking and high performance; dealing with and processing large amounts of information. I wonder if it’s more of a surprise to find out that they are also associated with compassion and empathy. That “Aha!” moment where suddenly everything falls into place… EEG studies have shown that it occurs after a concentrated spike in Gamma activity. Either way, this is where I want to live… the ubermensch.
Theta waves are curious as well. “Bad” Theta (3-5 Hz) deals with emotional reactivity and uncontrollable cognitive response (negative thoughts, depression) whereas “good” Theta (7 Hz) occurs as you awaken from sleep, that point of lucid dreaming where you are conscious yet creative and unafraid of consequence. Did you know that the Earth itself emits a set of vibrational frequencies, called “Schumann Resonances” that are kept in balance by intense lightning activity? The lowest frequency, and highest intensity of these resonances occur at 7.83 Hz…
Occurring after lightning, you say?
So how did I feel after sitting in a chair for half an hour while listening to music with an occasional burst of static? I felt tired. Alert. Happy. Irritated. Pensive. Talkative. Unsettled. Curious. Connected. Detached.
I’ve had two sessions so far (I booked in for a block of ten). Prior to my first session I wrote down some qualifiers of my current state of mind and some personal goals, which were then sealed in an envelope to be reopened after my seventh or tenth session.
Because sometimes we can’t tell how much progress we’ve made unless we look back on the data and we can quantify just how far we’ve come.
Watch this space.
My NeurOptimal Neurofeedback provider is Caroline Harry who is based in Cottesloe, Western Australia. To contact her for an appointment please contact her directly at email@example.com or on +61 407 057 301.