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How You Can Train Your Brain to Help Reduce Stress

Neurofeedback is an emerging method that relaxes, enhances creativity and improves mental health.

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Advocates say neurofeedback has emotional benefits as well. "You feel very good on this," says John Gruzelier, a professor of psychology at the University of London's Goldsmiths College. And all these effects are generated by the patient's brain, not by drugs. No wonder some proponents describe neurofeedback's effects in spiritual, as well as physical, terms.

It all starts with those slimy electrodes attached to the scalp, which pick up a small part of the electrical symphony produced continually in our brains. Neurons, the billions of cells that make up our cerebral cortex and nervous system, transmit information by firing electrical and chemical signals across synapses, the junctions where they meet. These tiny electrical pulses are central to our consciousness and bodily lives: Each time our hearts beat, we blink at a bright light or smile at a bit of good news, that action requires a flurry of electrical activity.

The brain's electrical impulses take the form of waves that researchers categorize by frequency—the number of times they repeat each second (see "Making waves" box). The slowest are the delta waves, which the brain typically produces during deep sleep. Next are theta waves, another slow undulation at four to eight cycles per second, often associated with creative and subconscious thought, which we produce when we're sleepy or daydreaming. We make alpha waves of eight to 12 cycles per second when we're alert and relaxed, and still-faster beta waves when we engage in active problem-solving or become alert or anxious. The fastest patterns, above 30 cycles per second, are made by gamma waves—usually faint and difficult to detect, but associated with high-level thought.

An overabundance or deficiency at one of these frequencies often correlates to conditions such as depression and other emotional disturbances and learning disabilities. Children with ADHD, for example, often have too many slow brain waves (delta or theta) and not enough of the faster waves that allow them to focus, engage and think productively.

Neurofeedback reads these waves, feeds them into a computer and translates them into visual form—in my case, the ladybug's states of lethargy correlate to levels of electrical activity in my brain. The underlying principle is that by seeing your brain waves you can gain control over them, training your brain to produce desired levels of activity, much like you train your voice to produce certain musical notes. And once those brain waves are in play, the desired brain state comes with them. If, for example, you've got too much anxiety-producing beta, try inducing some theta to calm down.

That might sound like trippy science fiction, but it's based on technology that's been around since the German psychiatrist Hans Berger began using electrodes to measure and categorize human brain waves in the 1920s. The recordings of the human brain-wave activity produced by this technology—electroencephalography, or EEG—are the cornerstone of neurofeedback. By the 1970s, it was possible to feed that information back to patients who heard a rewarding tone when they produced a pre-selected frequency of brain waves. What's new is both the sophistication of the feedback display and the precision with which therapists can target different parts of the brain wave spectrum. On top of that, neurofeedback has become cheaper, more efficient and more readily applicable to a vast array of brain disorders.

"When I was doing quantified EEG back in the 1970s, computers were the size of filing cabinets," says James R. Evans, a former University of South Carolina psychology professor and current clinician at the Sterlingworth Center in Greenville, South Carolina. Evans, who has written and edited dozens of articles and books on neurofeedback and is a consulting editor to one of the field's flagship publications, The Journal of Neurotherapy, says those technological hurdles limited neurofeedback's therapeutic reach in the early years: "You had to have a large-scale grant to afford the equipment and electrical engineering people to keep it going."

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