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by Madge Desmond, M.Ed., BCIA-EEG

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It has been 100 years since two Canadian psychologists, Yerkes and Dodson, theorized that optimal performance is a function of one's level of physiological arousal. To succeed, you must be able to achieve a level of readiness appropriate to the task at hand. Readiness for sleep and readiness for battle lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. Perhaps even more important is one's ability to seamlessly shift between states when situations change.
Twenty years after Yerkes and Dodson published their arousal theory, a German scientist named Hans Berger was searching for proof of ESP. While he failed to find that proof, along the way he invented an Electroencephalograph machine (EEG), which allowed him to "see" the electrical activity of the brain. Berger identified a dominant brain wave frequency of between 8 and 12 cycles per second, which he named "alpha" waves. Interestingly, he noted that alpha, while seemingly always present, was much more intense when a subject closed his eyes or drifted into a state of deep relaxation.
During the 1960s, scientists began to study EEG biofeedback. They used information supplied by the EEG to "teach" subjects how to control brain wave activity, especially alpha wave production. In the simplest example, the experimenter would ring a bell to indicate that the subject's EEG was displaying dominant alpha. Eventually, subjects would clap when they sensed the strong presence of this desired brain wave.
Then, in the early 1970s, UCLA professor Barry Sterman "trained" cats to produce a dominant EEG in the 12 to 15 cycles per second range--called SMR for sensory motor rhythm. Cats produce SMR naturally when they know they are about to be fed. Sterman turned it around and rewarded the cats with gravy and milk whenever their EEG showed an abundance of SMR (without the presence of food). Thus, the cats were conditioned to access a state of relaxed, yet alert attentiveness. Surprisingly, Sterman also found that after the training these same cats were resistant to seizures. EEG biofeedback, also called neurofeedback, had some sort of stabilizing or resilience-building effect.
Margaret Ayers, a graduate student of Sterman's, decided that these findings were too important to be confined to the lab and started a clinic dedicated to the treatment of seizure disorders. Recently deceased, Ayers was one of the leaders in treating serious brain injury and coma using neurofeedback.
Others ran with Sterman's findings and achieved significant success treating kids with ADD/ADHD.  Still others advanced the field by investigating the possible benefits of neurofeedback training for issues ranging from depression to migraines, tics to anxiety disorders, and sleep problems to peak performance. The success of neurofeedback in treating this wide range of issues is based on the fundamental importance of brainwaves.
During the last 40 years, the EEG instruments have gotten better and much simpler. Scalp measurements are now digitized and sent to a computer to give immediate feedback. Information is supplied through a variety of video games designed specifically for brain training. When the EEG is in the desired range the games progress: music plays, beeps are heard, colors play on the screen. Like the bell scientists once used to tell a subject they were producing lots of alpha, modern video games keep the trainee informed of their success in maintaining a particular brain state.
Along with alpha and SMR activity, brains produce a variety of waves that differ in lengths or frequencies.  At the longest, slowest end of the scale are delta waves, found most commonly during sleep. Gamma waves are at the shortest, fastest end (speed is really a misnomer because the wave itself is not moving at all--there is merely a higher number of wave cycles passing a specific point per second, which seems faster). Although there are different correlations regarding a particular frequency and behavior, the most salient correlation is with arousal level. The lower the frequency, the lower the arousal level and vice versa.
Which brings us back to Yerkes and Dodson. A hundred years after they developed their physiological arousal-performance model, many modern neurofeedback practitioners have become adherents of an EEG-based arousal model. (Others are more committed to a specific wave frequency or set protocol.)  According to this school of thought, pioneered by Sue and Siegfried Othmer, people can get stuck in an arousal level that is either too high (too vigilant, too stressed) or too low (disengaged, lethargic) for optimal performance. Other people may have difficulty shifting from one arousal level to another as needed by the situation or one's goals. Thus, these people may have a hard time responding to an urgent question or have trouble relaxing after a long day.
Most people in our stressful society are over aroused. Many tend to find deep relief when neurofeedback training teaches them to access slower brain wave frequencies. Others actually feel relaxed when their brains are rewarded for attaining higher frequencies. Although some people don't find neurofeedback helpful, many more report generalized benefits such as improved sleep, better concentration, and smoother moods.
Neurofeedback is one of those modalities that does not fit easily within the so-called gold standard of double-blind placebo based scientific tests. However, it has been practiced for more than forty years with no known significant or long-lasting harmful effects. Indeed, neurologist Frank Duffy, Harvard Medical School professor and head of the Neuroimaging Department and of Neuroimaging Research at Boston Children's Hospital, conducted an independent review of the literature on neurofeedback for Clinical Electroencephalography. He summarized his findings as follows: "The literature, which lacks any negative study of substance, suggests that EEG biofeedback therapy should play a major therapeutic role in many different areas. In my opinion, if any medication had demonstrated such a wide spectrum of efficacy, it would be universally accepted and widely used." Our brains are electrical; it makes sense to address them in a language they speak.

Madge Desmond, M.Ed., BCIA-EEG is a certified neurofeedback practitioner and Clinical Director of the Pacific Brain Training Center in Sebastopol, CA. For more information about Neurofeedback, please call (707) 824-6950 or visit www.pacificbraintraining.com.

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