Appeared in Men’s Fitness Magazine – February 1999
by Ben Kallen Can neurofeedback improve your focus, your mood, even your workout?
Our reporter gets plugged in I’m
sitting in a small room playing a video game. A Pac-Mannish icon is moving through a maze, beeping every time he eats a little dot. But this particular computer game isn’t run by the movement of my hand on a joystick; it’s powered by sensors on my skull and forehead that are reading the electrical impulses coming out of my brain. Every time the figure moves along the screen, it’s an indication that my brain waves have reached a certain “ideal” frequency. The term biofeedback was coined 20 years ago to describe procedures first developed in the 1940s. Back then, it meant measuring certain physical responses--say, your body temperature or blood pressure - and feeding back a series of sounds or lights when those responses indicate that you are starting to become more relaxed. But this more complex version, known as EEG biofeedback or neurofeedback, uses computer technology to measure your brain waves and “reward” you for reaching frequencies that are considered healthful. While the most prominent application of neurofeedback has been to aid kids with attention-deficit disorder, it also has the potential to help adults reduce depression, anxiety and insomnia, improve concentration and perform better in certain sports. If you’re stressed out, moody or just want to improve your golf game, training your brain may be the key. Hitting the waves
At any given time, electrical charges cycle through your brain at different speeds. From slowest to fastest, these are classified as delta (occurring mainly during deep sleep); theta (the border between sleep and wakefulness); alpha (meditation or deep thought); and beta (alertness, or, in the fastest range, anxiety or hyperactivity ). Researchers believe that the brain can rev too high, causing stressful feelings, or too low, triggering depression. Problems also arise when there are too many high and low rates without enough of the healthier middle frequencies, says Judy Chiswell, performance-enhancement program director at EEG Spectrum, a Southern California neurofeedback center. Training the brain to operate at what some consider its optimal waking frequency--in the low-middle beta range--will theoretically resolve those problems. This is done through programs that translate your brain waves into symbols, from those simple Pac-man icons to more complex representations, and reward you with points and beeps whenever you multiply your mid-range beta waves while suppressing waves in the outer ranges. Another aspect of the training, known as “alpha-theta,” helps you access those low-range frequencies. The intent is to bring about a dream like condition similar to deep meditation, a perfect setting for affirmations and visualizations directed at your subconscious. (“See yourself getting plenty of deep, restful sleep,” my sleep-deprived mind was told.) By getting people to achieve these states, first in a clinic and eventually on their own neurofeedback practitioners believe they can treat a variety of ailments, for mood disorders to alcoholism to head injuries. “Different conditions are associated with different disregulations of the brain waves, says Jarvin Heiman, MD, a psychiatrist in Santa Monica California. “We’re able to help remediate that disregulation and balance things, resulting in substantive relief. And because we’re training the brain waves, over a period of time that relief holds.” Sports on the brain
What if you’re more interested in achievement than alleviation! After all, winning has as much to do with what’s going on in your head as how you move your body. Focus, concentration and staying calm under pressure can all make the difference between a decent player and a champion. In 1991, Arizona State University researchers tried using biofeedback to create the optimal brain-wave patterns shown by successful archers. “We knew from previous research that when archers hit their shots, they were increasing alpha waves in the left hemispheres of their brains.” says Dan Landers, PhD, a regent’s professor in exercise science. One group of archers was placed on a program to increase alpha waves in the left sides of their brains, and a second group was trained to increase right-brain alpha activity. The upshot: The left-side group’s shooting accuracy improved by an average of two centimeters, while the right-side group performed considerably worse than before the training. A few years later, a North Carolina research team put 15 golfers on a regimen that included ]O neurofeedback sessions, visualizations and actual practice in which the golfers attempted to re-create the state they had achieved during the EEG training. Fourteen of the participants significantly bettered their scores, and 10 of the 12 who underwent further testing showed development of the so-called “iceberg profile,” a set of characteristics usually found in top-level athletes. Professional golfer Ed Galvan credits neurofeedback with vastly improving his game. “It’s made me much more focused,” says Galvan, who--now trains other golfers when he’s not competing. “it allows me to hold a single thought in my mind as long as I need to.”, Galvan began with beta training, and saw results right away. “After the first session, I could start to see a dark line going to the hole. By the third session, I dropped six strokes.” He added alpha-theta training to increase his confidence. “I told myself I was the greatest golfer in the world, and I began believing it. It gave me the feeling that I could beat anyone.” Galvan has had about 50 neurofeedback sessions so far. “As soon as I get distracted or feel a lack of confidence, I go back,” he says. “It’s like going to the gym--I work out until I get back in focus.” Still, you don’t have to shoot arrows or swing a five iron to benefit from neurofeedback, says Heiman. “It could probably help with free-throw shooting in basketball--someone like Shaquille O’Neal could definitely benefit. Or for a baseball player who needs to concentrate on a pitch. You could do beta training for better focus, then do visualizations in alpha-theta.” Gym-goers might improve their motivation to exercise harder, he adds, “although you’d have to look at how reasonable the desire to work out more is, and whether it would lead to overtraining. If the person does need to work out more, he could use alpha-theta training to see if there’s something holding him back.” Actor David Brooks, a cast member on the sci-fi TV series Crusade, underwent neurofeedback sessions to help remember his lines, then discovered he was making better use of his time at the gym. “There’s a certain level of patience you need for aerobic workouts, and the EEG training is helping me with that.” He says his weight training may have improved as well, “just in terms of my level of concentration, being able to hang in there and be patient.” The payoff
As for me, I did about 20 sessions-- 16 of beta and four of alpha-theta. So far, I’ve noticed several benefits: I’m sleeping better, I feel more awake when I get up in the morning and, though I still get stressed out sometimes, my body seems to stay more relaxed. While my physical tennis game hasn’t improved, I don’t seem to get psyched out as easily in heavy competition. Will it last! Nobody seems to know. One practitioner suggested that I may need to come back for regular follow-ups, but at $50 to $125 per half-hour session, cost is a major consideration. At this point, there isn’t a lot of hard information about the use of neurofeedback for performance, although studies are ongoing. If you do decide to try it, make sure the sessions are run by someone you trust. While just about anyone can learn to use neurofeedback equipment, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the experience to provide the assistance you need. This is especially true with alpha-theta training, which can lead to uncovering buried memories or traumas you’d want a therapist to help you with. There’s a lot more to be discovered about the many factors that affect our moods, our thoughts and our skills. Still, as computers help nudge us into the new millennium, you may end up riding your own brain waves toward inner harmony, peace of mind ... and maybe even a better free throw.
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