Hacking brain health, without drugs.

This post is NOT intended to serve as any form of medical advice, but simply be informational on the practice of Neurofeedback for the informed individual. It is recommended you consult your doctor before trying, and If you do you try it at your own risk.

The dream, and the nightmare:

Peak performance enhancement, remediation of damage, and resilience in learning and aging have always seemed to me to be promised by the advances we are making in understanding how the mind and the brain work. Medical “technology” has indeed made vast strides against the landscape of pathology and imbalance in the mind and brain, and techniques exist to change most symptoms, from surgical to pharmacological. Indeed, drugs exist for most presenting complaints.

Problems exists, however, in drug oriented models of disease. They often ignore prevention, since the treatments were developed by evaluating symptom change, and second, there is this gross assumption that if we have “too little” or “too much” of something in the brain/body then just give a drug to make more, or suppress something. Most psychostimulants, antidepressants, anxiolytics, etc, work this way. Push one neurotransmitter production up/down, or allow it to accumulate more/less in the synapse, etc. But you can never make “one” thing happen in an interconnected system, and often produce non-intuitive behavior in the system.

Nonlinearity and chaos:

The central problem here with most drugs is an assumption of linearity. The brain – especially in cortex where higher cognitive functions occur – is a massively interconnected feedback system of positive and (mostly) negative feedback loops, systems, and subsystems. Some examples are the thalamocortical – corticothalamic loops. Tied in with brainstem arousal (reticular) areas. And acting as a switchboard for all our senses (except smell) as well as providing feedback to the systems that handle our emotional (limbic), memory and learning (medial temporal), movement (basal ganglia) and basic drive (hypothalamic) systems. And each of these somewhat modular systems have an astonishingly large number of inputs from each other and cortical regions. And let’s not even get started on the somewhat decoupled machine of posture and movement that is the cerebellum, or “little brain”. The cerebellum receives 19 of the 20 million descending motor command fibers, by the way, and only 1 million actually leaves the brain and heads down to drive things. And it’s got over half the neurons in the brain packed into 10% of the total brain space. So.. wiring aside, it’s safe to assume that a lot of brain function is in state transitions, and that gets us into the realm of dynamics. Dynamical Systems are ones that have thresholds, tipping points, and states. They revolve and oscillate and trip wildly through chaotic conditions.
What do I mean by “chaos” here? Simply this. Given the limit of our ability to continuously sample to infinite precision, it’s impossible to predict the full state diagram of all variables at a future point in tim. Heady stuff. A more grounded example – the weather, as an analogy, since weather is a massively complex system of all sorts of variables and forces that all have some interaction on each other. If we could measure every single relevant event (or everything) happening in weather at any one momement ,we sill wouldn’t be able to predict what weather would be like in a week with any certainty, unless would could measure reality on to infinite precision. Any ANY variability in the “starting place” of our calculations would result in very different state in a week, through accumulated effects of that one tiny measurement difference.

I’m getting more in depth than needed here, and some of these ideas cannot be fully fleshed out without a lot more writing (and some math). Suffice it to say that I believe Neurofeedback (EEG Biofeedback, or HEG Biofeedback) to be an excellent way to encourage the brain to take up various shifts in dynamics and state, while drugs typically only drive (or overdrive) one or two variables in the brain-mind system, producing weird results on other systems. This approach of “pushing” stuff in the brain up or down why drugs work they way they do. They (often) effect a symptom, sure, but because of that they almost by definition cause side effects, stop working when you stop giving them, and have widely different efficacy on different people.

On Neurofeedback:

In contrast, EEG Biofeedback (for example) encourages the brain to produce different patterns of EEG. We do not have to assume that these are “good” patterns, and we “know what we are doing” when we train them. What do should understand, however, is that each person’s brain is an oscillating symphony of players, with that person as the only and best audience member. Whatever one tries to do to affect the symphony will have an effect on many parts of it. And, when training EEG via biofeedback, we are asking a few specific regions to do a few specific things, to exercise or shape it’s activity in certain ways (amplitude, frequency, or coherence/connectivity) of EEG parameters. Our brains are usually quite willing to try new things, and a central point of the biofeedback process is that the brain has to, and knows how to, make the requested change. They only “coersion” we are using is the stimulus of a sound, music, movie, vibration, etc., “reward”. Our brains LOVE stimulus, and we can simply encourage the brain to try new frequencies and parameters.

Again, biofeedback is a totally passive approach to intervening with our physiology. But our brains are pretty central physiology! So be careful. You will get non-intuitive results, and it will not work the same way on everyone. Being very aware of how it is affecting you is of prime importance. That, and correlative those reports with training protocols and assessing improvement is most of what a clinical/professional Neurofeedback practictioner will do for you in the NFB area. They will of course also provide clinical skills in their baliwick, be it psychology or clinical work, psychiatry, etc. You may benefit from working with a practitioner. Either way, it’s a good idea to keep a daily log while training.

Training – Logging and routines:

Your log will be your “chart”, and will help you keep track of what you are doing, distinguish protocols that work with ones that dont, and gauge overall success at meeting your training goals. You need training entries in your log, as well a report entries. training entries should have things like: Date, Protocol, Time, Observations (while training), and the report entries should be all about how have things changed since your last training session. Include some basic rating scales (on a scale of 1 to 5 how is my) for: Attention, Tiredness, Mood, Focus, Anxiety, and any other things you want to change. Do a report entry every day. You can train every day, but train at least 2 times a week. If you do the report in Excel or Numbers or some other spreadsheet, you can see your day to day trends in these different tracked “behavioral variables”.

So – neurofeedback is defined here as biofeedback (with a reward of a changing game, music, movie, animation etc.) that is driven by signals you pick up from your head, passively, with 3 (or 6) wires. It’s not a conscious “skill”, where you try to change something, instead you allow your brain to learn from the stimulus that is reflecting a previously unseen process to it. You simply shape the brain activity in the desired direction by setting the software to look cool when a couple parameters in your EEG go in the right direction. It’s not rocket science, and it works for all sorts of things, but it take repetition – prob 2-5 sessions before your brain starts “getting” it, and maybe another 10 seeing how one reacts to specific training protocols, and then another 5-10 to “set” the thing that worked. I have seen people show large and permanent improvements in 3 sessions, though, too – sometimes what you try first is exactly what your brain needs.

Technical skills and equipment costs:
There are a small number of things to learn, technically speaking, and you can do it yourself without too much fumbling. Hometraining equipment will run you around $1200 or so (plus you need a decently fast intel computer) and you can easily spend $3K on a basic system to do both EEG and HEG, multi channels, etc. Professional systems (in addition to professionals who use the “home” systems) start at around $5K and go up from there. Especially if you get equipment and software to do multi-channel EEG assessments. This is one good reason to go to a professional. Professionals are mostly clinical psychologists and LISCWs who have small clinics and offices. Fees range from $75-$150 for a session, and the cost of intake and assessments might run $300-$1000. Then you will need need 20-40 training sessions. Once you do the math, home training equipment is attractive. This is why I suggest that most people who are interested in neurofeedback training either get their assessment and treatment planning from a professional, or put on a hacker mindset and learn most of what you need to know on the internet. Another model for training that is growing is the “home trainer group”, where lots of people get and share equipment, help each other learn electrode placement, learn the software, share results, etc.

If you have 2 or more people who would like to train themselves, start a group! Your motivation will stay high, and your costs will be lower.

I’m realizing that this is getting long, and is straying from the promise I made to a few friends to tell them where to get this stuff.
So, without further ado, my recommended biofeedback resources for “home training”:

Equipment:

Pocket Neurobics for hardware and software, with a Pendant EEG or Pocket A3 as the hardware.
BioExplorer is the software, available there or from the manufacturer where you can get additional drivers and a wee bit of documentation, too.

You also need electrodes, prep, and paste – the PN site has “kits”, including all. Pendant EEG can do 2 channels of EEG (requiring 6 electrodes) and needs a PC running BioExplorer (in the kit), while the Pocket can do 2 channels of EEG as well as HEG (bloodflow training) but requires additional hardware sensors for the HEG. The Pocket is also a bit more complicated a device, but can be used standalone, without a PC. I’d suggest the Pendant EEG Kit, for ease of use and the ability to do it at home on a computer, or a Pocket EEG Kit if you think you might do it at home AND in the middle of the woods, in a hotel, etc., on your nice laptop.

Resources:
A couple of very good yahoo groups exist, including the Biofeeback one, and the Biofeedback Home Trainers one. These are both a mix of professionals and home trainers.

The community yahoo groups for Pocket Neurobics and BioExplorer might also be useful.

Here is a new book on EEG BF and ADHD, and another book i’ve heard good things about.

Most of my training was before both of these books though, so Im not intimately familiar with their content 🙂
I’m happy to talk more about this or answer questions if you have them, though a professional would be best to do an assessment, then probably try a handful of standard protocols,

That being said, to treat higher cognitive function in general, e.g. focus, attention, mood, relaxation, etc. there is one protocol that seems to work fairly well for many people (C4-A2 12-15Hz amplitude training). So getting some equipment, reading a couple of books/articles, setting up the software and finding what protocols work for you is a valid approach. That mostly what professionals do, anyway. It’s simply trying 5-10 protocols, keeping watch on 4-5 reactions after training, as well as running a little software and electrode pasting. It’s mostly about observing post-training, and keeping careful notes on what is working and what isn’t.

Please feel free to post comments, and let me know your training experiences. I’ll be revising this article and writing more on chaos and mental health, neurofeedback, and referencing the current science on these topics in future posts.

Leave a Reply