Neurofeedback: Alternative Health Care for Robots?

Many people interested in alternative health react to the word "EEG biofeedback" with hesitation. It doesn't sound very organic. It doesn't even sound holistic. Talk about bodywork, herbal medicine, homeopathy, spiritual healing or any of the other approaches usually associated with alternative health care, and most people have some sort of feeling level response. That response is probably positive. These approaches seem nurturing and familiar, low tech, not part of the electronic age. They are from a calmer age, an age when life was slower and more natural.

Biofeedback and, more recently neurofeedback (brainwave biofeedback), seem to be high tech, electronic. Sort of what a robot or an android might use for a health problem, not something that could help a person trying to simplify his or her life. Being attached by wires to an electronic gadget (a computer no less!), and learning to control brainwaves sounds like a science fiction story, not a method of natural healing.

Neurofeedback is actually one way that technology is truly holistic. Many people all over the world devote a great deal of time and energy learning to regulate their brainwaves. They just call it different things. Some call it trance work, some call it meditation, some call it psychic healing. Zen monks, yogis, Sufis, Chi Gong masters and others spend 20 years or more learning to reach certain states of consciousness. Some do it because these are thought to be healing states. Some are trying to reach a state of freedom, a release from pain or suffering. Some are just trying to find a better, more calm and centered way to live.

Neurotherapy practitioners throughout the world are using neurofeedback with adults and children who have learning problems, anxiety, headaches, depression, sleep problems, ADHD and more. Let's use the common example of the ADHD child. The typical western medical treatment for these children is medication. Ritalin, antidepressants, and anti-seizure medications are routinely given to children as young as 3 or 4 years old with the prospect of continuing these medications into adulthood. Neurofeedback is an effective alternative that teaches these children to alter brainwave states in a way that usually results in a significant change in their conditions. Of course medication may be necessary for some individuals but many prefer to try this simple, non-invasive approach first and use medication as a last resort. Others have tried medication, have not found relief and are interested in trying something else.

So how does it work? The effects of Neurofeedback are similar to those of medications. Only it is not habit forming, has no "side effects", doesn't cause long term problems, and doesn't mask or cover up underlying causal factors. It provides a lasting learning experience that the children can take with them throughout their lives. Neurofeedback is a learning process just like meditation. The child learns to sit still and pay attention, first to an external indication of how his or her brain is functioning, and then to an internal awareness that becomes as easy as breathing.

Much of what is taught in meditative traditions are techniques for eliciting the kind of balanced awareness that the children learn to reach through neurofeedback. Sensors are attached to the head and ears, and brainwave information is given to the child through a simple "pac-man" or similar computer game. The only difference is, the child plays the computer game with his or her brainwaves. When brainwaves are in a balanced pattern and the child is relaxed, the pac-man turns bright yellow, moves along eating dots and beeping. When the child "drifts" away from this desirable state, the pac-man stops, turns dark and no beeps are generated. The child learns to reach this balanced state by getting immediate "feedback" or information about what works and what doesn't. Self-regulation skills that take a meditator years of trial and error to develop, the child learns more easily because of accurate feedback.

The neurofeedback process is using something most kids and many adults are already attracted to, namely computers and computer games. In this case though, the technology helps them learn the ancient arts of self-regulation. The body/mind is an integrated whole that has lots of self-regulating mechanisms. These mechanisms get out of whack in our modern world as they did in the old days, only now more severely. That is what natural healing methods try to correct. Neurofeedback is one of those methods that try to enlist the person's own self-regulatory mechanisms to create a state of optimal health. It works on a very subtle level and leads to remarkable changes.

The process is similar whether the individual is trying to become more alert and energetic or whether s/he is learning to reach a calm, centered, meditative state. The feedback is specific to the brainwave frequency patterns typical of the desired state. The feedback is instant and accurate and makes the learning process significantly more effective.

So why haven't I heard of it, you say? Well, it doesn't fit very well into the natural or alternative-healing arena, although it is often mentioned in this context by the mainstream media. It is not well accepted by the mainstream medical community either because it is hard to prove what is happening and how it is helping in a way that western medical personnel are willing to accept, (sort of like acupuncture and homeopathy!) It is also cutting edge technology, and that turns some people off who would normally be natural candidates for this approach.

Neurofeedback or neurotherapy is being used successfully for treating addictions, chronic pain, PMS, bulimia, anxiety disorders and a whole host of other conditions. This also doesn't sit well with the regular medical community because it sounds like a "cure all," and that is an instant red flag in medicine. "The more things you claim to help with one technique, the more likely it is to be quackery", said one prominent psychologist about neurotherapy.

So what can you do to find out about neurotherapy? You can read the book A Symphony in the Brain by Jim Robbins. You can also log on to the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB) web site ( and the Society for Neuronal Regulation web site ( to find information and a practitioner in your area. The field is growing fast and more people are requesting neurotherapy from their doctors, their schools and from their HMO's. If enough people want neurotherapy for themselves and their children, it will become a part of mainstream medicine as a viable alternative to medication management of illness.