In Apple TV’s new thriller series, Surface, the protagonist, Sophie, is on a quest to rebuild her life after experiencing a traumatic event. The problem is that she’s not able to recall what happened before the incident and has little memory of how the traumatic event itself played out.
Despite her mind struggling to piece together what happened, her body hasn’t forgotten; she experiences panic attacks, anxiety, and flashbacks that keep her on edge and negatively impact her everyday life. As a remedy, Sophie's therapist suggests neurofeedback training.
How does it work? Dysregulated brainwave patterns can be rewired and transformed thanks to neuroplasticity, your brain's natural ability to change, adapt, and learn from experience. With neurofeedback, you can promote neuroplasticity and train your brain to self-regulate.
Despite Surface making for a gripping watch, there are some things it got wrong about neurofeedback. Let’s rectify them and explain how you can use neurofeedback in order to improve your well-being.
1. Neurofeedback Is Not a New Form of Therapy
In the show, during a psychotherapy session, Sophie’s therapist states that she should try a new form of therapy called neurofeedback. However, neurofeedback is not a new concept; it has actually been around for over 50 years!
This type of therapy was pioneered in the 1960s by two researchers: Dr. Joseph Kamiya at the University of Chicago and Dr. Barry Sterman at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Kamiya found that by relying on a simple reward system, people could control their brainwaves, so he trained them to achieve the desired brainwave state with the sound of a bell.
The field has evolved since then, and there has been substantial research on the effectiveness of neurofeedback training, with many studies demonstrating improvements in mental health symptoms in children and adults across conditions like ADHD, anxiety, PTSD, substance use disorders, depression, and cognitive decline.
2. Neurofeedback Doesn't Require You to Revisit Traumatic Memories
During a neurofeedback session in one of the episodes, Sophie is being asked to revisit the last time she experienced a traumatic trigger. In a matter of seconds, her anxiety levels jump from a self-reported level of 3 to 5.
However, during a neurofeedback session, you don't need to revisit painful memories, and you shouldn't feel upset or uneasy, as seen in the series' official trailer.
In fact, neurofeedback can be quite enjoyable! When doing neurofeedback training with Myndlift, for example, you would play a video game or watch a video while EEG technology measures your brainwave activity. Every time your brain reaches its optimal brainwave state, you receive positive feedback, and that feedback earns you points.
This real-time feedback is provided using visual (games/videos) and/or auditory (sound effects/music) cues on a screen. The cues let you know when your brainwaves are in an "optimal state" and when they're not.
For example, let's say that your real-time brain activity measurements show that you are anxious. Perhaps your player slows down, or the volume of the music decreases to let you know that your brain is not in its "optimal state." On the other hand, when the optimal state is achieved, you are rewarded by your player moving faster or the volume going back up, thereby reinforcing this state.
Eventually, after consistent training, your brain learns to regulate itself and reach its optimal brainwave state without that immediate reward. As a result, you may find it easier to stay calm in stressful situations, like when you're struggling with difficult emotions and traumatic memories.
3. Traumatic Memories Don’t Always Resurface During Neurofeedback Sessions
After revisiting the last time she experienced a trigger, Sophie’s neurofeedback therapist asks her to close her eyes and imagine herself in a beautiful garden. All of a sudden, Sophie gets flooded with new memories of her trauma that seemingly come out of nowhere.
In reality, the goal of a neurofeedback session is not to make traumatic memories resurge, but to help guide you to recall those memories with the recognition that they exist in the past and cannot put you in any more danger in the present.
In many cases, this is done by achieving balance and maintaining the ideal amplification and frequency of alpha and theta brainwaves.
Theta brainwaves are slow waves that relate to dreamy, free-flowing, detached unconscious thoughts. They are dominant during "autopilot" states and sometimes in deep meditative states.
Alpha brainwaves are typically dominant during mindful activities. They represent non-arousal and help with mental coordination, calmness, alertness, mind/body integration, and learning.
With alpha-theta neurofeedback training, traumatic memories can be accessed during theta dominance and safely processed during alpha modulation. In other words, this type of protocol guides your brain through gentle transitions of alpha and theta dominant states. The goal is to help you reach a state of deep relaxation, where memories can safely resurface and, as a result, be processed. This way, traumatic events may be reexperienced without causing stress, and new, positive associations are fostered.
For example, you can unlearn the association between the present trigger and something that happened to you in the past. Instead, a new link can be created in which that same trigger can be associated with a pleasant memory.
4. Neurofeedback Is Not Limited to In-Office Sessions
In the past, neurofeedback was only available in specialized clinics and, more often than not, those clinics offering neurofeedback were hard to come by. When you would manage to find a clinic that offers neurofeedback in your area, you’d have to visit the doctor's office multiple times a week and invest even more resources in order to get the results you're after.
Luckily, technology has advanced, and you don't have to commute to the doctor's office for a session, as Sophie did in the show; nowadays, you can effectively do therapist-guided neurofeedback from the comfort of your home.
While wearing an EEG headband that measures your brain activity, you can train with the Myndlift app that's able to link to the headband through Bluetooth. The app delivers visual and auditory feedback via online videos or specialized games while your neurofeedback therapist monitors your progress remotely.
Furthermore, you can optimize your progress between neurofeedback sessions by using in-app digital CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy)-based worksheets and exercises, journaling, guided meditations, and psychoeducation.
Including these digital behavioral tools in your treatment plan gives it a more holistic approach, thereby making your neurofeedback training more effective. In fact, recent research findings show that at-home neurofeedback with Myndlift can significantly improve mental health and cognitive performance. Results from the study even surpassed those seen in other in-app mental health services.
Indeed, neurofeedback has the potential to help change how your brain functions and improve the quality of your life. This type of therapy is on the cutting edge of mental health care, and it's more accessible and affordable than ever!
About the author:
Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.
About the reviewer:
Carola Tuerk is a cognitive neuroscientist and a scientific consultant for Myndlift. In her research, she is particularly interested in how early life experiences shape brain development and mental health with a particular focus on children. She has obtained a BSc in psychology, an MSc in neuroscience, and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and is passionate about brain health.
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