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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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This is a common refrain among researchers and practitioners. "It works," agrees Evans. "Almost anybody can get the equipment and get 60 percent good results. The question is, what are those people doing who get 90 percent? Some people give vitamins along with their treatment; others pray with clients or use counseling. In many respects, these people fire a shotgun and we don't know which pellets hit."

That's why Wuttke is creating an institution that will train a core group of people who can replicate his results and methods. His mission is to establish a network of neurofeedback clinics and training facilities in Europe through his work with the LifeWorks Foundation.

"One of the biggest risks right now is that this becomes a novelty, where people can buy some software and hook into it at home and play a game," says Wuttke. "That's going to happen, but it takes away from the profound clinical applications, which have to be part of a more comprehensive approach."

Wyatt agrees. "For most patients, whether they're suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome, I don't believe that neurofeedback offers a complete solution any more than I believe a doctor can give you a drug that offers a complete solution. Neurofeedback can calm the brain down, but then you still often have to deal with underlying issues."

The desire to get at those underlying issues is why Wuttke, an ordained non-denominational minister, keeps coming back to the notion of spiritual growth. "When you incorporate all these things and straighten out the brain, the ultimate goal is for people's spiritual awareness to start manifesting itself," he says. Indeed, recent studies of Tibetan Buddhist monks by Richard Davidson, director of the Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have shown links between spirituality and the processes encouraged by neurofeedback. In particular, monks who are experts in meditation seem capable of generating extraordinary levels of gamma waves as they achieve a state typically associated with "transcendence."

From a materialist perspective, the key seems to be neurofeedback's ability to help us connect memories and sense perceptions that have been laid down in disparate regions of the brain—to achieve the feeling of unified consciousness by unifying the brain's electrical impulses. But if neurofeedback can foster and even enhance such a state, this begs the question of whether the phenomena we typically describe in terms of "spirituality" are just physical by-products of a material mind.

Wuttke turns such skepticism on its head. "The way I look at it," he says, "we may be able to map an experience through physiology, whether it is a profound sense of peace or a religious sense, but that doesn't mean the material brain is the source of those experiences." Instead, he sees the brain as "a transformer, something that conducts energy between metaphysical and physical reality." He admits neurofeedback can't necessarily help any Joe off the street achieve the transcendence of a Tibetan yogi, but adds, "It has been my experience that everybody is enlightened; they just don't know it."

After my first session of neurofeedback therapy, there's little chance I'll be confused with one of the enlightened—something my wife readily confirms. But as I watched the red bug move with increasing dexterity about the screen, it certainly felt empowering to see how much control we can exert over our minds, moods and selves. Over the next few weeks, it's a sensation I'll recall during moments of stress, like the long nights with my ever-wakeful children. Just this recollection seems to have some tangible effect, slowing the quickening pulse and quieting the static I've seen in the graphic representations of my brain waves. As Wuttke would say, we can sometimes be locked into old scripts, reacting to our world in ways we don't understand or seem to control. Neurofeedback's potential is so inspiring, in part, because it can help us rescript our brains and, thus, rewrite our lives.

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