08 June 2010

Mind Over Me

The fields of neurofeedback and biofeedback have not received the kind of scientific study and investment that they warrant.

Neurofeedback is about taking brain wave readings, from an EEG for example, and feeding those readings back to that brain. This feedback could be in audio, visual or tactile form. The theory is that the participant can then, by modifying his/her thought patterns, learn to alter those brain outputs and receive some physical health benefit from the process. Biofeedback is a similar idea but also encompasses other forms of input such as GSR (Galvanic Skin Response), hand warmth and heart rate.

It is now common knowledge that humans can, with training, gain some control over their GSR. It would be harder to fool a lie-detector if this wasn't the case. We also know that the brain can be trained to achieve certain brain wave states such as alpha (a kind of "open focus" state) or theta (edge-of-sleep "hypnogogic" state). So the debate is really about whether gaining a measure of control over these outputs is, in any way, beneficial to us.

We aren't straying into "brain training" territory here. The contention of brain training is that we gain some general IQ/mental fitness benefit by playing logic puzzles etc. Neurofeedback or "brainwave training" is about being able to "see" the frequencies of our neural outputs and teach ourselves to modify them at will. It's a different process altogether, and the feedback is the crucial element.

In his book "A Symphony in the Brain" journalist Jim Robbins gives an interesting overview of the history of the field. We get a lot of background on the key players (and their in-fighting) in the development of neurofeedback, in both the scientific and commercial arenas. There are also several fascinating case-studies within the book, including that of Jay Ritchie, who suffered anoxia-related brain damage after an accident at work. From then on Jay appeared semi-comatose. He was wheelchair-bound and not responsive to normal stimuli. The version of events in the book contends that Jay was, after being hooked up to neurofeedback equipment, found to be trapped in a theta-dominant brain state. The feedback allowed him to learn to move from this slow-wave state back into conscious alpha and beta frequencies, thereby allowing him to "wake up" and begin to communicate again.

This is an extraordinary claim and so it, and other claims like it (and there are many), requires extraordinary evidence. Jim Robbins admits in his book that large scale, peer-reviewed, controlled scientific studies are thin on the ground. He contends that the "California hippie" reputation of neurofeedback has hobbled its ability to achieve the required funding for such studies. He is probably right about that. The 60s/70s idea of transcendence via meditation left a bad taste in the mouths of the scientific establishment, who largely saw it as nothing more than neo-spiritualist self-indulgence.

But, given what we now know about the brain and its staggering plasticity, can the establishment really continue to ignore technologies that can claim to alleviate serious conditions in a totally non-invasive way? I don't want to make this sound like neuro and biofeedback are seen by all scientists as being on the fringes. There are now many serious medically-trained neurofeedback practitioners around the world treating conditions from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The field is now strong and growing: some claim that it won't be long before we have the equipment in our homes.

I have to be wary of the way in which I am drawn to this idea. It seems like common sense to me, but I am also aware that many commonsense notions are quite wrong. Some of my other blog entries (e.g. Toolbox) have touched on similar ideas and I am quite comfortable with the thought that I am not just a "passenger" in my body. Or in my brain. What could that mean anyway? To be servants to the frequency-modulated whims of our own brains? We are our own brains and learning to recognise and modulate our own brain waves seems the sensible, healthy and responsible thing to do.

The drug companies do not like this idea. "Big pharma" has a huge and obvious vested interest in the neurochemical route to wellbeing. The irony is that neurofeedback is also a neurochemical route. It's just that the chemical change/altered bloodflow/neuronal re-organisation is being stimulated via self-actuated brainwave stimulation.

The potential medical uses of neurofeeback are broad. But this kind of technology will probably impact on other areas of our lives first. Computer gaming is an obvious one. Indeed the concept of using interactive games to stimulate brain frequency change has been around in neurofeedback for many years. Steering an avatar around a virtual landscape by the power of thought is an entertaining prospect. You might be surprised at how many gamers have already tried it.

Personally, I see the arrival of affordable neurofeedback as heralding a kind of awakening. I hope it will allow us to learn that we are, to at least some degree, capable of controlling our own brain states. And that we can, in time, become better users of those brains.

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