The world in which we live is fast paced and furious. Information is hurled at us at a rate that seems impossible to handle. We are never far from a computer, a cellphone, pager, ipod or email. Seldom do we get the opportunity to reflect, daydream, or relax our overtaxed minds. This results in us feeling judgemental, bad tempered and irritable. Problems that seemed easily fixed in the past, seem overwhelming in the present; our sleep is affected, our memory is poor and concentration span is weak. We also have a tendency to carry old wounds, unable to let go, holding on to the sorrow, the anger, and the fear long after the incident occurred. This increases our sense of being overwhelmed, resulting in depression and anxiety.
The brain is the engine of the mind and body. Our awareness, memory, mental and physical performance and emotional wellbeing are all controlled by the brain. A treatment known as Neurofeedback is a method that helps the brain to take care of itself. An EEG (Electroencephalogram) shows us when the brain is not functioning well. Neurofeedback helps the brain to function better by training it, similarly to how we train our bodies when we exercise.
Our mind controls its activities by way of electric waves, which emit electrochemical impulses of different frequencies. When the brain is actively stimulated it generates beta waves. These are the fastest of the brainwaves. When we are engaged in our work, we are in beta. We are in high beta when we are alert, agitated, tense, or afraid. The next level of brain wave is alpha. A person who is taking time out from his or her work to rest and reflect is in an alpha state. Alpha is the state of ready awareness, inactive, but still aware of our surroundings. The next brain wave state is theta. This occurs when we daydream, meditate, use our intuition, or perform repetitive tasks without thinking. It is in theta that we often have our most creative ideas, as the brain is relaxed and there is a free flow of thought that takes place without restriction. When we go to sleep, we move into the fourth brainwave state – delta.
An analysis of our brainwave activity shows the result that tension and daily pressure has had on our brains. For example, we know that our beta waves should be active when our eyes are open, and our delta (sleep) waves should be active with eyes closed. However, in order to protect ourselves from the stresses of life, our brains ‘pad’ the front of the head with sleep waves, making it difficult to concentrate, while emitting beta waves when we close our eyes, keeping us on high alert when we should be sleeping. Our high beta waves are there to ensure that we cope in an emergency, however, these waves should return to beta, low beta and other brain states once the emergency is over. The problem is that in our highly pressured lives, we have become addicted to operating at this level and we often do not know how to switch them off. The result is stress, short-temperedness, road rage, anger, irritability and high anxiety. This takes its toll physically, manifesting in tension headaches, migraines, attention deficit, sleep deprivation and depression.
A treatment known as Neurofeedback, developed in the 1960’s, addresses such brainwave imbalances. Neurofeedback became popularised in 1968 by the publishing in Psychology Today of an article by Joe Kamiya, about alpha brain wave experiments. James Hardt and Joe Kamiya went on to publish a paper proving the effectiveness of Neurofeedback training, and Barbara Brown wrote a number of books on Neurofeedback in the late sixties. Since then, extensive research has been done into the use of neurfeedback for treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADDHD), alcoholism and other addictions, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, learning disabilities, anger and rage, migraines and headaches, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and sleep disorders.
Marguerite Sacco Turner describes how Neurofeedback works: “The treatment is harmless, painless and effortless. Non-invasive electrodes, applied to various sites on the head, pick up the brain waves and convert them into sound waves, which the patient listens to via a set of head phones. This means that the brain is actually hearing itself. In the process, visual and auditory rewards and inhibits are presented at a rate of 1/10 000th of a second, to train the brain to utilise the correct brain waves for appropriate circumstances. For example, if the brain is overactive, and we want to quieten it down, the rewards and inhibits would discourage overactive brain waves and encourage quietening. Evian Gordon, CEO of Brain Resource Company and founder of the centre's integrative approach to neuroscience tells us that the brain’s overarching organising principle is to minimise penalty and maximise reward. Because of this, the reward/inhibit system of Neurofeedback is extremely effective, as the brain responds instantaneously to seeing itself in action, and to working out how to do things better.”
The Brain Harmonics team in Cape Town give numerous anecdotes about the effectiveness of their work. Kerry Swarts, Brain Harmonics Executive Director describes a patient who suffered from cluster migraines. After Neurofeedback, the migraines disappeared. Some time later, they began to re-surface, but would subside without need for medication. A further “top up” treatment was all that was needed to rid her of migraines completely. A 15 year old girl, Jamie, presented with depression. Her mother requested that all she’d like is to see her daughter smile. After three sessions of treatment, Jamie changed significantly. Her mother and her friends commented on her changed attitude, her positive approach and, in particular, her smile. Eva had been mugged and was on hyper-alert. From the first day of brain training she slept better, felt calmer, stopped looking over her shoulder and even started to look different physically. Kyle a teenager wasn’t that keen on coming back for training after his first session, then did so well at his exams that he couldn’t wait to come back for his re-assessment. Thomas, a very busy 9 year-old calmed down so much that his school teacher, who did not know that he was doing the training, called his mom in to tell her how Thomas had improved in behaviour and in school work. Peter, a business executive with extreme hyperactivity said that he is now able to focus and concentrate for longer periods of time. He is getting better sleep and feeling calmer. His colleague commented on the fact that he was able to sit still - something she had never seen before.
Neurofeedback has various applications. While it is most commonly applied to treat numerous ailments, it is also fast becoming the means whereby we may maintain the health and wellbeing of the brain over time. In addition to the annual visit to the GP and the dentist, we now have the opportunity for an annual brain map assessment to help to keep the brain balanced and healthy. This has long term benefits, for example, in the maintenance of alpha brainwaves. As we age, the quality of alpha declines, leading to physical pain, Alzheimer’s and age-related memory loss. With annual checkups, alpha can be maintained at a healthy peak frequency so as to avoid these ailments in later life.
Another area of application is in organisations, where the domain of neuroscience is entering the field of management and leadership development. Davenport and Beck, in their book, “The Attention Economy”, describe “Organisational ADD” as the biggest threat facing companies today. Executive teams use the brain map assessment and corresponding treatment in their executive health and wellness programmes to aid in coping with the competitive and stressful nature of organisational life.
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