A Brief History of Neurofeedback

Imagine a method of personal growth and change that helps correct problems as diverse as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in children and drug addiction in adults. This same technique helps people with depression, migraine headaches, chronic pain, anxiety disorders, PMS, seizure disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorders, and many other difficult conditions.

Sound too good to be true? Think it's impossible to fix all these unrelated conditions with the same approach? Think such a suggestion is just plain ridiculous or, worse yet, some "quack medicine" hype?

Think again. The approach we are talking about is as old as spiritual experience and as new as the latest high speed computer interface. It's as exciting and "cutting edge" as brain chemical research, and yet it's also grounded in the most ancient understandings of human growth and development.

We're talking about EEG (brainwave) biofeedback (usually called neurofeedback.)

Say the word biofeedback to most people, and they respond, "Oh, I know what that is!" Yet neurofeedback is as far beyond traditional biofeedback as the space shuttle is beyond the first airplane. The use of brainwave feedback allows people to develop skills which often take 20 years or more to learn through traditional approaches.

So what exactly is neurofeedback and what is really happening during neurofeedback training? Does it really work? Are there side effects? Does it turn you into a robot? Does it take over your brain? Does everyone think it's great or are there differences of opinion?

Neurofeedback has quite a history. During the 70's, "alpha training" was touted as the great cure for humanity's ills. It was supposed to lead you to instant nirvana, get rid of depression, cure drug problems and do whatever else you might want it to do. Trouble was, at that time, to truly monitor brainwaves accurately, you needed a research quality EEG machine and a shielded room. Those who had good equipment got good results, but they were in the minority. Most equipment in use then didn't give accurate feedback and so the process rarely worked. Thus alpha training, and EEG biofeedback in general, fell into disrepute.

Some people, however, had access to highly sophisticated EEG equipment. Researchers at UCLA, found that cats trained to produce a certain brainwave frequency (12 to 15 Hz [cycles per second]) were more resistant to chemically induced seizures than cats which had not been so trained. He then tried teaching this technique to human subjects who had seizures that did not respond to medication. These people were able to decrease seizure activity after learning to produce more of this specific brainwave, dubbed SMR or Sensory Motor Rhythm.

This was exciting news! The idea that a person with a seizure disorder could learn to control the seizures through some internal means was revolutionary! But that wasn't all. Some of the people in these studies seemed to also experience improvement in other areas, such as school work and job performance. Other researchers and clinicians were excited by these findings. Since that time, many more successful applications have been developed by a wide variety of clinicans and researchers.

So how does someone learn to control his or her brainwaves? Traditional biofeedback, ie., muscle relaxation training, hand warming, etc. has been in use for years. Biofeedback is based on the knowledge that if a person is given information about a physical response, in a clear and meaningful way, then the person can learn to control that response. If you can see a dial, a meter, a number, a moving line, or hear a variable tone that represents your skin temperature (measured by a sensor on your skin), you can learn to dilate or contract the blood vessels in that area and cause the skin to warm up or cool down.

Brainwave neurofeedback works the same way. You may watch a visual display, like a "pac-man" game, where the pac-man changes colors, moves along, eating dots on the screen and beeping when you are producing the desired brainwave patterns. This information helps the brain learn to make normal transitions between brainwave states, rather than being habitually stuck in one state most of the time.

Everyone uses this kind of feedback every day. We touch a hot stove, feel pain and quickly (I hope!) move away from the heat. When the pac-man beeps, moves along and eats dots, it is saying "Way to go!", "Good job!", "You are doing it just right now!"

Suppose all this is true. Why does controlling or changing brainwaves have such a powerful effect?

The "why" is a little hard to pin down. The conditions which respond to neurofeedbak seem to be related to the brain being "stuck" in certain brainwave patterns.

The depressed person seems to be stuck in a low arousal pattern. The brain is not producing the activity common in a "normally" functioning person. The anxious person's brain may be producing too much high frequency brainwave activity and that person may need to learn to make the transition to a more relaxed, lower arousal state from time to time. The child or adult with an attention problem may have trouble making the shift to an alert, focused brainwave state.. The person with a substance abuse problem may produce too much high arousal brainwaves and not enough of the brainwaves that make people feel good. Using a substance or a behavior to reverse this is only a temporary fix, neurofeedback teaches a natural, and possibly permanent solution.

The common denominator for all of these people is that, before neurofeedback, the brain was stuck and after training, the brain becomes more flexible.

So now that we have an idea of why it works, how do we find out who is providing this service? A couple of choices are to look to professional organizations associated with biofeedback and neurofeedback. Helpful web sites include, and These locations include lists of practitioners by location.

More clinicians, educators and researchers are learning about neurofeedback every day. Their interest and the growing demand for this service from people who want an alternative approach will hopefully result in neurofeedback becoming more available.

Neurofeedback training is the most exciting and innovative technique to come along in years. It is also the logical evolution of much that has preceded it. Neurotherapy is controversial. Some are threatened by it. Some believe it to be completely unfounded and impossible to prove. Those who have tried it know something is happening that isn't explained by placebo effect or wishful thinking. Check it out for yourself or for your children. Be skeptical, but open minded and make your own decisions.