Considering brain training?
Unlike what you may have learned in neuroscience, the brain is malleable and constantly adapting.
The right small tweaks can cause profound (and long-lasting) changes.
In this post, we’ll cover the science and benefits of at-home brain training with high-quality neurofeedback systems, and everything you should know before getting started.
What is Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback is a non-invasive, drug-free type of biofeedback that teaches you to naturally and consciously improve your brain function. After assessing your brain waves, the system gives you feedback signals to help you excel at your chosen goal.
By continuously rewarding only beneficial brain states, neurofeedback training can alleviate undesirable behaviors, thinking, and other symptoms. It has performance benefits too.
Proper neurofeedback can make you a smarter, resilient, calm and collected, relaxed, and effective human. Elevating your baseline cognition and mental abilities.
Although the term has only recently gained mass exposure, neurofeedback actually has an impressive 81+ year history of scientific validation. Clinically, it’s been used for over 50 years to treat ADHD, insomnia, anxiety, depression, PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and cognitive decline.
Essentially, neurofeedback helps train your brain to reach and sustain optimal states.
How neurofeedback works
Traditional neurofeedback used electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to decode brain state, and then provide gentle cues to facilitate the desired changes.
Usually, feedback comes in the form of audio and/or visual signals. By tangibly portraying neural activity, your brain learns how to enter and maintain specific states at will. This effective Pavlovian-style behavior-changing technique is known as operant conditioning.
Program-based training involves picking a goal or brain state to train (generally Alpha, Theta, Gamma, or a mix).
Each brainwave is associated with specific qualities, tasks, and activities:
- Delta — slowest waves, sedating, comfort, painless, deep cellular repair
- Theta — dreamlike, hypnosis, meditation, learning memory, emotion, creativity
- Alpha — full relaxation without sedation, clarity, contemplative, and the “flow state”
- SMR (low-beta) — common state, mood, alertness, focus and attention, task accomplishing mode
- Beta — moving quickly, problem-solving, stress, dominant state, chronic elevation associated with disorders
- Gamma — fastest waves, cognitive processing, inspiration, perception, enlightenment, mental acuity, memory, hyperalertness, idea alchemy, “guru” brainwave
No particular brainwave is bad. Most people become stuck in the wrong state at the wrong time. Leading to conditions and symptoms. Brain training helps us sustain the right states, exactly when needed.
Gamma brainwaves are the most recent and compelling discovery. Observed in enlightened, ultra-successful, and humans that seem to have life figured out. Gamma’s hallmark is the ability to easily connect seemingly unrelated dots, recognize patterns, and integrate information. It’s the zone of both bliss and peak performance.
The first step for program-based neurofeedback systems is to establish your baseline brainwaves. Most systems do this via sensitive EEG biosensors pressed against the head. Unfortunately, the little movements can throw off technology. Stillness makes a big difference. To make things worse, sometimes you must apply a special gel to your hair for the sensor to accurately detect brainwaves.
Next, you set a state or goal. The device will then read your brainwaves in real-time and provide reinforcing cues to help you keep the chosen brainwaves dominant. After 5-20 sessions, you’ll have reinforced those neural pathways for long-term benefits.
Popular alternatives to neurofeedback
Other therapies can complement or even replicate similar effects to neurofeedback.
Each has unique pros, cons, and specific use cases.
The other primary form of biofeedback is called heart rate variability training. Instead of measuring brainwaves, HRV quantifies the time interval between heartbeats. Great for building stress resilience, cognition, focus, and emotional regulation. These devices are cheaper, well researched, and easier to use.
Other trauma and stress rewiring therapies often combined with neurofeedback include:
- “Brain spotting”
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (cbt).
As standalones, these can work much better for resolving specific traumatic incidents. Though together, they work synergistically to help heal stress at the root level instead of just masking symptoms.
Side effects of neurofeedback
Though rare, neurofeedback sessions can cause mild and transient side effects.
Some potential symptoms (that go away with practice):
- Low energy
- Headaches and pressure
- Muscle tension
- Panic and anxiety
- Brain fog
Even among those that do experience symptoms, elevated baseline mental function usually occurs.
This all assumes you’re using the right gear and following instructions.
A low-quality system, used improperly, can make you worse by entraining undesirable brainwaves. Quality neurofeedback gear, however, makes training easy, safe, and effective.
Health & Performance Benefits of Brain Training With Neurofeedback
Over the last few decades, scientists have become increasingly enthusiastic over the human health benefits of neurofeedback.
So far, nearly 800 peer-review research papers have demonstrated the efficacy of neurofeedback across a wide spectrum of conditions. As well as for ergogenic performance enhancement.
Countless individual anecdotes and success stories give neurofeedback the hallmarks of a potential billion dollar industry.
What makes the science elegant, is the clear link between brainwave states, symtpoms, and overall health.
Chaotic brainwave patterns underlie many common conditions, symptoms, and feeling (or performing) below your potential.
By optimizing neuro activity, we positively impact every downstream organ system and bodily process. Brain training teaches you how to regulate your central nervous system and positively impacts all other facets of your life.
These are some of the more compelling benefits of neurofeedback training.
ADHD & ADD
Neurofeedback has proven an effective way of increasing focus. It’s also a popular and safe treatment for ADD and ADHD.
Studies comparing neurofeedback to non-pharmacological treatments and stimulant-based ADHD treatments show conclusive results. Neurofeedback improves both ADHD behavior and symptoms. It benefits ADHD comparably to Germany’s standard of care.
Typically, those with ADHD get prescribed stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. Unfortunately, the brain builds resistance to medication. Neurofeedback can prevent tolerance to stimulant medications.
At the very least, it’s a potent adjunct to traditional treatment to reduce side effects and increase efficacy.
On the other side, some users even report that neurofeedback cured their ADHD.
Focus & attention
Boosting focus while reducing distractibility is quickly becoming one of the primary uses of neurofeedback therapy.
In a similar way to helping ADHD, brain training can improve focus, concentration, and sustained attention in healthy users. Neurofeedback treatment accomplishes this by changing neuronal firing in specific brain regions. Increasing it in certain parts, and decreasing it in others.
Leading researchers of one study to conclude,
“Recent advances in Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) and cognitive training (CT) have provided new tools and evidence that NF improves cognitive functions, such as attention and working memory (WM), beyond what is provided by traditional CT.”Tuning Up the Old Brain with New Tricks: Attention Training via Neurofeedback
A more recent 2021 study found that it can improve “sustained attention, selective attention, and focus attention”.
Usually, when beta brainwave activity spikes, we lose access to the alpha flow state. Neurofeedback can teach us to access alpha and remain in it even in the face of stressors. Giving focus that holds up under the stressors of modernity.
Trauma & PTSD
Neurofeedback therapy shows tremendous potential as a safe and effective modality to improve both the symptoms (and eventually root cause) of traumas. Trauma is a condition of hyperarousal resulting from experiencing an emotionally painful event or other serious threat. Severity ranges from mild trauma to panic disorder, to full post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Hyperarousal occurs when the stimulus is too much for our nervous system to process. A link forms between the specific event, and neurobiologically stressful beta-brainwave dominance. Resulting in chronic sympathetic activation, hormonal dysregulation, and living with excess stress.
Proper neurofeedback therapy first measures overactive brain regions. Then trains those areas to quiet activity and return to a healthy baseline state.
One study shows impressive benefits to those with PTSD (emphasis mine),
“In this study 72.7% of the [neurofeedback] sample no longer met criteria for PTSD. This is comparable to the 62% reported in metanalyses of other treatment studies… The NF subjects also had statistically significant improvements in measures of affect regulation, identity impairment, abandonment concerns, and tension reduction activities.”A Randomized Controlled Study of Neurofeedback for Chronic PTSD
It’s a great compliment to alternative forms of trauma processing therapies. Like EMDR, EFT Tapping, psychotherapy, exposure therapy, and beyond.
What makes it especially useful, however, is that neurofeedback works well with people that are too traumatized to tolerate other forms of treatment.
Chronic pain is a widespread and debilitating issue, affecting up to 40 percent of American adults. Typical pain alleviation strategies often come with a long list of deleterious symptoms and side effects.
Newer research shows that neurofeedback may work well to provide lasting, low-risk pain relief. A current hypothesis is that the beta-dominant brain state is characterized by sympathetic activation and a more reactionary mode. Humans only feel pain while in beta. By upregulating alpha and theta, pain dissipates.
Mystics and others throughout the ages used this technique to accomplish seemingly miraculous feats. Like undergoing surgeries without anesthesia.
Modern science is catching on, with this 2020 study concluding,
“Given the generally positive results in the studies reviewed, the findings indicate that NF procedures have the potential for reducing pain and improving other related outcomes in individuals with chronic pain.”Neurofeedback for Pain Management: A Systematic Review
Another paper suggested that neurofeedback can also work as a good adjuctive treatment to further reduce pain.
Given the great upside and extremely low risk, I would try this before going on long-term (and addictive) pain medication.
Like chronic pain, addiction can absolutely derail an otherwise healthy and productive life. So much so, that it can completely control behavior. Many of the existing treatments and solutions either don’t work well or cause terrible side effects.
Addiction is characterized by activation of certain parts of the brain, and inhibition of others.
Addiction occurs to all kinds of stimuli that activate the brain’s “reward centers”. Well understood things like drugs, alcohol, porn, processed food, gambling, etc. But other culturally lauded addictions too. Things like (toxic) relationships, overexercise, and workaholism.
Neurofeedback helps the brain re-regulate when it goes into a state of hyper or hypo arousal. Bringing these vital brain centers back into a healthy balance, and reducing addictive cravings.
A 2020 addiction study found,
“Real-time fMRI [neurofeedback] studies concluded that nicotine-dependent individuals could modulate craving-related brain responses, while mixed results were revealed regarding smokers’ ability to modulate brain responses related to resistance towards the urge to smoke.”
Neurofeedback increases success by reducing cravings, withdrawal, and other symptoms.
Anxiety is worry over a potential future outcome. Chronically, it can become a stress disorder that negatively impacts relationships, mood, productivity, and daily living.
Long-term anxiety elevates neurohormones causing focus reduction, immune system dysregulation, inflammation, impaired physiological repair, insomnia, and other problems relaxing.
As with the other conditions on this list, neurofeedback “quiets” sections of the brain causing acute anxiety responses. The limbic system is one of the more common targets of neurofeedback. This system controls irritability, restlessness, and nervousness. Bringing it back into balance has wonderful effects:
- Boosting mood
- Releasing negative emotions
- Pausing thought patterns
Scientists believe that the anti-anxiety effects come from reducing beta brainwaves while simultaneously increasing alpha and theta.
Persistent sadness, that detracts from your overall zest for life can indicate an episode of depression. It’s common, with up to 20 percent of the world experiencing depression. Generally, this outlook passes with time and emotional processing. When it doesn’t, you may seek extra help.
Antidepressant medication and/or psychotherapy do not work for a huge swath of users. These individuals may want to try using neurofeedback to improve their mental health and life outlook.
This 2022 meta-analysis of the available research concluded,
“Heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback and neurofeedback are associated with a reduction in self-reported depression.”
For depression, neurofeedback reduces symptoms, improves executive function, and non-invasively restores proper neuroelectrical signaling.
It even shows promise to help with the most extreme depression. Making it a worthwhile non-invasive therapy for treatment-resistant depression.
Traumatic brain injury
The human brain is delicate. It’s enclosed in a bony skull and bathed in fluid for additional protection. Whether playing collision sports or just going out your day, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs or “concussions”) occur. Physical impacts can disrupt its physiology and activity. Leading to serious and sometimes long-term cognitive impairment.
Neurofeedback is an alternative yet emerging new modality to restore brain function post-TBI. Restoring speech, memory, balance, concentration, relaxation, coordination, and headaches/migraines.
It not only helps alleviate symptoms of brain injury but can also re-establish healthy brainwave patterns. Almost like pressing the “reboot” button on a struggling brain.
This 2017 study showed how a proper protocol can speed up healing from a TBI,
With further advances in technology, including at-home use of neurofeedback devices, preliminary data suggests that TBI survivors may benefit from improved motivation for treatment and some reduction of symptoms related to attention, mood, and mindfulness, with the addition of neurofeedback to treatment.
Greater motivation to adhere to treatment protocols paired with lighter symptoms increases odds of a complete recovery.
Since that study, at-home neurofeedback device availability and quality have improved significantly.
So far, neurofeedback is undergoing investigations for all kinds of neurological conditions.
Ranging from seizures to borderline personality disorder, to bipolar disorder, to dementia, to autism, to OCD, to tinnitus, and beyond.
The research into how neurofeedback treats and improves these conditions is still budding.
Each of these have dysregulated patterns of brainwave activity that brain training can help control. Often, this reduces the symptoms and synergizes well with other treatments. It can reduce the necessary dose of medication, and some patients have even successfully got off medication entirely.
Although not a primary treatment for these conditions, neurofeedback is worth considering as an adjunct or when the standard of care falls short.
Migraine & headache
Migraines are an incapacitating form of head pain that is worsened by common environmental factors like loud noise and bright light.
They’re also multi-factorial, making treating migraines difficult. Therefore, no single treatment works for all cases. But neurofeedback is changing that, allowing practitioners to customize treatment “for individual patients according to their pathophysiological profile”. Opening the possibility of a multi-pronged approach of neurostimulation, nutraceuticals, and other modalities.
Even neurofeedback alone works wonders for headaches and migraines.
One trial showed,
“…the majority (54%) experienced complete cessation of their migraines, and many others (39%) experienced a reduction in migraine frequency of greater than 50%.”
Whether anxious, depressed, or just feeling like you’re in a rut, neurofeedback can lift your spirits.
Though mostly studied for mood disorders, it also helps draw out your unique personality traits.
A small study of alpha/theta neurofeedback compared against sham treatment found mood effects (emphasis mine),
“Real feedback caused participants to feel significantly more energetic (P < 0.01) than did mock feedback. Sessions of real feedback made participants feel more composed (P < 0.01), agreeable (P < 0.01), elevated (P < 0.01) and confident (P < 0.05), whilst sessions of mock feedback made participants feel more tired (P < 0.05), yet composed (P < 0.01).”
One commonly reported effect of neurofeedback is that it causes you to just feel more like your natural self.
Perhaps by lowering baseline anxiety, fear, stress, worry, and rumination, but possibly due to other mechanisms,
“Research results imply that the neuromodulating effect of the therapy positively influences cognitive processes, mood, and anxiety levels. “
Though sometimes cognitively draining, there’s a certain unique post-session glow.
Emotional resilience is the ability to protect your internal state from alterations by your external environment.
Everyday situations influence emotions. Professional and personal. From work meetings to public presentations, to relationship conflicts, to minor situations like a driver cutting you off in traffic. Stress isn’t black or white, but rather our internal perception of the event.
Fireworks, for example, represent freedom and fun to some people, and trigger deeply stressful memories of explosions in veterans with PTSD.
Overwhelming thoughts and feelings lead to poor health and performance. Overwhelm indicates stress exceeding emotional control.
The two improvement levers are to either reduce expose to stress, or increase tolerance.
A 2019 study summarizes the brain regions of emotional control that neurofeedback improves,
“The results show that healthy people are able to regulate their brain activity in the presence of [neurofeedback] from various brain regions related to emotion regulation, including the amygdala, anterior insula, and anterior cingulate cortex.”
Both neuro and HRV biofeedback build emotional regulation and resiliency to stress. Improving relationship quality, impulse control, and indirectly, weight loss.
Sleep is the crucial (but often neglected) period of recovery and growth. Yet the fast-paced modern lifestyle disrupts our natural sleep cycle. Insomnia and poor sleep quality have become synonymous with high achievement.
Yet bad sleep quickly hampers cognitive performance.
There’s little research on how neurofeedback improves sleep in healthy users, but an abundance of glowing stories. Clinicians also routinely see (and expect) normalization of sleep patterns.
Neurofeedback can improve both insomnia and also enhance the restorative phases of sleep. Proper training makes falling and staying asleep easier.
Though many factors cause sleep disturbances (stress, burnout, trauma, anxiety, automatic thoughts, etc), they all share dysregulated brainwave patterns. Neurofeedback helps shift your nervous system transition from sympathetic “go” mode to parasympathetic “rest and recovery” mode.
Cognitive performance is the umbrella term for everything related to improving the structure and (more importantly) function of the brain.
This is widely considered the purpose of neurofeedback training among those not treating any particular condition.
Cognition is comprised of many facets, including:
- Information processing speed
- Learning ability
- Decision making
Neurofeedback can help. As one study showed,
“Outcome gains include sustained attention, orienting and executive attention, the P300b, memory, spatial rotation, [reaction time], complex psychomotor skills, implicit procedural memory, recognition memory, perceptual binding, intelligence, mood and well-being.”
It works by increasing connectivity between specific brain regions.
To meet market demands, recent research has been focusing on how neurofeedback improves cognition, even in healthy populations.
Neurofeedback can help stave off memory loss, as well as improve memory formation.
Theta brainwaves are associated with short-term memory and working memory. That’s one reason skilled meditators and people that get lots of sleep generally have better memories. They spend more time with high levels of theta.
The association between neurofeedback training and memory is less about if it works and more about which programs work best.
One effective way to improve memory using neurofeedback is to simply re-train the regions of the brain associated with learning and memory. Like the hippocampus. First addressing imbalances, and then training a combination of alpha and theta waves.
Even the most rational, intelligent folks make bad decisions under pressure or stress.
Neurofeedback can help throughout the entire decision-making process.
Before making a decision, first you must gather relevant information and anchor it to something already rooted in memory. Then you can think through hypothetical outcomes. Finally, you respond rather than reacting out of stress.
Stress shifts the central nervous system into a highly activated and reactive state. The tunnel vision effect prevents you from taking in vital new information and factors.
Building emotional resilience increases our ability to make the right decision under stress. Allowing for insights and solutions that we’d otherwise completely miss.
Relationships are widely considered the greatest contributor to happiness, quality of life, and success. A key to building powerful relationships? Communication.
Neurofeedback facilitates healthy communication via improving nervous system regulation.
Instead of feeling triggered and reacting to situations, you can stay calm, cool, and collected. Staying open and wanting to exchange new information with your partner. Then show your counterpart curiosity and respond rather than defend yourselves and react.
Neurofeedback helps you learn, grow, and connect more effectively by rebalancing our nervous system.
Brain Training Questions & Answers
Are neurofeedback changes permanent?
Neurofeedback is impermanent but long-lasting. According to some studies, these brainwave changes can last ten years.
How long are neurofeedback sessions?
Sessions generally last between 30-45 minutes but range from five minutes up to a maximum of one hour. Duration varies tremendously based on your goals, the neurofeedback equipment, and technology.
How many neurofeedback sessions does it take to work?
Most people notice major changes after 10 sessions. The recommendation is 5-30 sessions depending on your spacing, accuracy, duration, learning ability, and budget.
Can you do neurofeedback every day?
You can practice neurofeedback therapy daily over the short-term and in most cases. After a while, practitioners recommend taking time off.
Is neurofeedback dangerous?
Using a high-quality system, neurofeedback is a safe and beneficial brain therapy. Always check with your healthcare professional to make sure it’s safe for you.
Is neurofeedback worth the money?
Neurofeedback is very expensive but often described as a top health investment. Professional-grade at-home neurofeedback devices make it affordable and still effective.
Neurofeedback Training For Optimal Health & Peak Performance
While an impressive and mighty tool, neurofeedback is non-essential.
I usually recommend a long list of healthy lifestyle practices and nutrients ahead of it.
Including the budget-friendly and very effective alternative called heart rate variability biofeedback training.
Nonetheless, once you’ve addressed the low-hanging fruit, brain biofeedback can transform your life.
People often report tremendous improvements to:
- Anxiety and depression
- Focus and concentration
- Stress and trauma
- Sleep and relaxation
- Cognition and decision making
- Communication and emotional regulation
This form of brain training effectively restores brain function to consistently perform in its optimal state.
To experience the incredible benefits, however, you’ll want multiple sessions.
Sessions performed in a clinic get expensive fast.Not long ago, a complete neurofeedback therapy package could cost up to $100,000 Click To Tweet
For about 100 times less, I recommend getting a quality home neurofeedback kit.
After the one-time cost, you can practice neurofeedback as often and for as long as you want. You can help friends and family, or even set up a neurofeedback business and help more people. After adequate learning, of course.
Do you practice neurofeedback or other forms of brain training? Let me know your experience in the comments below!