How You Can Train Your Brain to Help Reduce Stress
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As Vicki Wyatt attaches electrodes to my scalp with a generous glop of slimy goo, I'll admit I'm a little skeptical about the calming effects of the treatment I'm about to experience. With newborn twins at home, I usually have enough slime in my life and on my clothes to push anyone over the abyss. But that, says Wyatt, is precisely why I could benefit from neurofeedback, a therapeutic tool that advocates claim can reshape our brains—and our lives.
To learn more about the procedure, I've come to The Wyatt Clinic in downtown Oklahoma City. Just blocks from the memorial that marks the site of the 1995 federal building bombing, the location is aptly associated, in my mind, with both psychic trauma and healing. This is a gentrifying but hardscrabble neighborhood where Wyatt treats patients, from overstressed professionals to addicts trying to get back on their feet. Wyatt has been a therapist for 22 years, with a research background at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, but she has only recently embraced neurofeedback as part of her treatment regimen. "My formal education didn't really provide any alternative treatments," she says. "It was traditional psychotherapy and talk therapy. When I look back, I think this would have benefited a lot of the children and families earlier in my career."
The equipment looks fairly unexceptional, including the electrodes, which could pass for iPod headphones and are glued strategically to my head and temples. Wyatt clips a "ground wire" to my ear. The wires run from the electrodes to a black amplifier box the size of a small paperback. This deceptively simple-looking piece of machinery, which can cost several thousand dollars, processes electrical signals from my brain and sends them to a laptop, where they're represented graphically on the screen. Wyatt boots the laptop, opens a neurofeedback training software program and settles me into one of the comfy chairs that make her cozy, carpeted office look more like my mother's living room than the white-tiled clinic I'd expected.
After Wyatt hooks me up, I'll use my brain waves to control a video game. When I achieve the desired mental state, a small red bug will move around the screen eating flowers and emitting a happy chirping sound. To succeed at the game, I must eliminate brain waves that interfere with relaxed concentration—those associated with hyperactivity, depression and that all-too-familiar feeling of "zoning out."
I'm coming off a sleepless night of diaper-changing, rocking and feeding, so focus isn't exactly my forte right now. But after watching the bug languish sadly for a few minutes, I begin to practice some deep, yogic breathing and try to stop my racing thoughts about work, home and deadlines. Sure enough, the band representing my desired brain activity jumps and the red bug begins to rouse himself from his stupor, eat a few flowers and chirp with approval.
After years on the outskirts of medical respectability, neurofeedback has been vindicated by a growing body of evidence showing its potentially remarkable benefits to everyone from elite athletes and musicians to violent criminals and children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The U.S. National Library of Medicine's database of scholarly articles, for example, contains dozens of positive scientific studies on neurofeedback published in the last two years. The results, from some of the world's top universities and research hospitals, suggest that neurofeedback is a promising treatment for a range of cognitive health issues: seizures, low IQ in kids with learning difficulties, vertigo and tinnitus in the elderly, and substance abuse, even with notoriously addictive, destructive drugs like crack cocaine.