How You Can Train Your Brain to Help Reduce Stress
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Kamen not only attributed the success to neurofeedback, but became a spokesperson for Hope139, a Michigan company dedicated to bringing neurofeedback technology into schools and businesses to improve performance. Neurofeedback has gained such a lustrous reputation that the Italian professional soccer team A.C. Milan has created a glassed-in "mind room," where the team gathers for mental tune-ups. In the mind room, players watch their brain waves play out across a computer screen while a team of sports psychologists monitors their progress.
Gruzelier emphasizes that neurofeedback's performance-enhancing results go beyond relaxation or the relief of anxiety—effects that might be achieved with sedatives or more conventional relaxation techniques. "We've compared this to other techniques that have reduced anxiety but have not enhanced performance in the same way," says Gruzelier, citing his studies of professional dancers and musicians who did neurofeedback training to quiet the brain's fast-wave activity and produce more slow theta waves. These studies showed remarkable improvements "not only in artistry, but communication, the way people expressed themselves, the presence they have on stage."
Elite students at the Royal College of Music in London improved their performance an average 17 percent, according to a panel of independent judges, and competitive ballroom dancers achieved "professionally significant" improvement in just five weeks. Moreover, Gruzelier notes his recent research hasn't only replicated these results, but shown they extend to novice performers. "There are dramatic improvements," he says. "Breath and pitch improve. Where they didn't sing in tune to begin with, they did afterwards."
Gruzelier attributes such results to the technology's ability to allow slow waves to travel farther, uninterrupted, across the brain. That facilitates interaction between areas of the brain that don't typically connect, he says. Normally, such a process is disrupted by the fast waves that characterize our waking life–a kind of mental static. "It's been known for centuries that the hypnagogic experience, the border between waking and sleeping, is the source of remarkable insights," Gruzelier says.
Neurofeedback's apparent ability to bring those insights into the light, however, is what seems remarkable, especially since we still don't understand key factors about how it works—how, for example, people control their own brain waves. "It's very much a black box," explains John Kounios, a professor of psychology at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.
Kounios conducted a double-blind study of elderly subjects that showed neurofeedback may help improve cognitive processing speed and "executive function," the mental operations that help us plan and organize our lives, but he admits the cognitive process underlying neurofeedback is still something of a mystery. "Although neurofeedback has been around for 40 years, we still don't have the slightest clue as to how people do this," Kounios says. "It's not as if there aren't any good theories. There are just no theories, not even bad ones–just the observation that this is something animals and humans can do."
That sometimes makes for surprising results, as in the case of Kounios' study, which increased the production of alpha waves in the frontal lobes of elderly people. The frontal lobe often deteriorates as people age, which makes problem-solving, abstract reasoning and all kinds of planning more difficult. And so, as Kounios' subjects boosted their alpha activity in this region of the brain, they demonstrated an improved ability to respond when presented with new information and to make quick decisions in cognitive tests. Such results are preliminary but exciting. Kounios emphasizes that the field needs funding for large-scale studies that can establish the basic science of neurofeedback and determine which training protocols are most effective, "but there's no question in my mind that this has significant potential and the phenomena are real."