“Iâ€™d be interested in hearing what exactly is going on when you do a training session? I.e., the mechanics of it. You put electrodes on your scalp â€” good times! â€” but what positions do you put them in? Whatâ€™s the training like, do you just try to think â€œalpha,â€ so to speak? Is the machine actually transcribing brain waves, etc. etc.?”
Alcibiades from over at Chemgasm left me a comment with a few good questions that happened to be so good, I thought it would make an entry. His curiosity lies in what the mechanics of neurofeedback are like. So let me get started off.
Neurofeedback works through operant conditioning. When you have the electrodes placed on your scalp the machine begins to read your EEG at the sites. In the software you will have set via thresholds either how much you want to suppress a certain brainwave frequency or heighten, and when you go above or below that threshold it will give you some kind of feedback. The feedback can vary, you can actually buy a vibrator to put in your chair to vibrate when the criteria has been matched, but for most people they will either listen for a tone or watch the screen for visual rewards, or both. The idea is that if the brain has found something that it can control in such a way (i.e. the tones), it will learn how to control it more. The brain searches for novelty. Using this concept the brain can be trained either consciously or subconsciously to alter the way it is running in order to match the criteria of the program. Most clinicians tell their patients to simply listen for the tones. Most software today can also autothreshold, so as you get better during the session it will make the protocol more difficult.
The choice of your electrode placement is dependant first on whether you have one or two channels. If you have two channels then you could do a protocol where you try to get two areas of the brain to connect better through synchrony training (essentially trying to get the two areas of the brain to fire synchronously). This can be useful for many reasons, as you can imagine. In the case of dyslexia each hemisphere has stronger coherencies within itself (which may account for the creativity often accompanied with dyslexia), but weak coherencies between lobes. To clarify, coherency is a measure of how well areas are synchronizing through time and thus how well the areas are connected. This isn’t the place to go into it, but it’s also worth noting phase training is also a way of training two areas of the brain to connect better together with each other.
The question is how do you decide what areas to train in the first place? One way is to do an assessment and see where a person’s EEG readings fall in regards to normative values. There is one good assessment that can be run. It will actually give recommendations in regards to how you should proceed in training. Areas of specific training can vary from person to person, and the preference of the clinician. A good rule of thumb is that the back can tolerate a lot of alpha training and/or alpha coherency (or phase) training between the two hemispheres. Alpha training is a good protocol because doing alpha training can help raise dopamine and treat things like OCD, and basically normalize the EEG in a very non-direct way. However, if you decide to do more than just standard alpha training areas like the sensorimotor strip (C3, CZ, C4) are popular for beta/smr training for reducing allergy problems and increasing focus, concentration, patience, emotional control, and even seizure activity (SMR at C4).
Areas of the brain are denoted by the Ten20 system in which the scalp is labeled in different areas (like C3, CZ, and C4 for example). A good example of this with images can be found at the BrainMaster technologies website.
Alcibiades also asked whether I “think” alpha so-to-speak. I believe he’s asking if I make a decision to induce an alpha state within myself when training. In a word: No. Though I can control it, I often find that it is subconscious. When I review my EEG readings from an alpha session I’ve done for example I often notice that my alpha waves were the very highest the MOMENT I switched on the machine? Why? My brain has been conditioned to know that it is time to engage alpha, so as soon as I sit down it makes a very large burst in alpha production. Is the alpha state RECOGNIZABLE though? Yes, essentially it’s a quieted mind that is still thoughtful but unworried and not in any hurry. After a while you can get a good sense of how it feels, and know when you’re doing it through out the day. I’ve noticed I go into an alpha state during the day, even during stressful events, far more frequently than I used to these days.
I’ve talked a little bit about alpha training in the past and expressed that I prefer to almost exclusively do alpha and alpha synchrony training. My main reason for that is the simplicity of alpha training… It’s very simple, and very unlikely to have any side-effects at all. It helps to normalize the EEG very well and is very to the point. What could be better than training yourself to relax better? But that aside… I’ve also been taking very LARGE doses of omega 3 (2-4g of EPA a day), and this has also had some effect on normalizing my EEG. With omega 3 in conjunction with alpha training alone I feel like I’m probably taking the most effective steps towards normalizing my EEG in a very safe, and rapid manner. That isn’t to say that other methods of neurofeedback (training different brainwave frequencies in different areas) is neccessarily more dangerous, but it certainly isn’t as easy. With alpha training I know what I’m getting.