What to Expect When Doing Neurofeedback
Updated: Feb 25, 2021
Let’s start with the basics: normally, neurofeedback is done in specialized clinics and requires multiple clinical visits, in addition to the supervision of a specialist. Similar to physical training, it requires a lot of commitment, but it’s worth it. You can check out the science behind it here.
If you’re considering neurofeedback, or are already training but feel like you need a bit more information about the way this whole process works, you’ve come to the right place.
What happens before you begin training?
Just like with any type of training, there’s a need to measure your baseline, otherwise known as the starting point which you will progress from with every session.
When doing a serious physical fitness program, for example, you measure a variety of parameters, including your BMI (body mass index), weight, blood pressure, waist circumference, in addition to other things. The first measurement is called the baseline, and the same parameters will be measured again periodically as an indicator of your progress.
Pretty simple, right? So how does this translate when doing a mental fitness program like neurofeedback? To answer that, we need to understand the difference between subjective and objective measures.
Subjective measures can be affected by personal opinions or biases, like a behavioral questionnaire. Although behavioral questionnaires have been used for decades by professionals to assess the severity of a certain brain disorder, they are known for being biased and not entirely accurate.
Objective measures, on the other hand, are measurements that cannot be affected by personal biases. For example, one’s reflex time, when measured accurately, is an objective measure.
Compared to physical fitness, subjective measures are used more frequently when doing a mental fitness program due to the complexity of accurately measuring brain performance.
When it comes to neurofeedback, a lot of clinics use a combination of the following tools to establish your baseline and be able to devise a personalized protocol for your training:
Standard behavioral questionnaires (like DSM IV, PHQ-9, etc.) to quantify the severity of your symptoms.
Continuous performance task (CPT) to measure your attention, impulsivity, and inhibition. Think of this as a not-very-engaging computer game that asks you to push a button whenever a specific image shows up on the screen and goes on for a prolonged period of time, thus challenging your attention span.
Quantitative EEG (or qEEG) which measures your brain activity from multiple sites simultaneously and compares it to your age group in the population. It helps establish a clear image of how far away your brain activity is from the normative range. Note, however, that not all clinics use this technique.
Of course, the level of the assessments and their variety changes depending on the clinic you’d be working with, but they are all used for the same purpose: to establish a personalized training protocol and set metrics to monitor throughout the training period. Just like a fitness program!
What does the first session look like?
Picture this: You have the EEG placed on your head, you’re seated comfortably, excited to try this brain-controlled game, only to find out that you’re just staring at the screen and not entirely sure what to do. You might feel a bit bummed out at first, but rest assured that this is absolutely normal. In fact, neurofeedback works by allowing your brain to subconsciously learn at its own pace.
Let’s assume that you’ve done the assessment and your training protocol was set to train theta brainwaves to go down. What would happen on the screen is that the game you're playing or the video you're watching would show positive feedback (i.e. more points in the game or seeing the video more clearly) only when your theta goes below the threshold. This is exactly why neurofeedback is referred to as a conditioning technique. You’d be conditioning the brainwave you’re training to go below or above a certain threshold over time.
Can you actually control your theta? Maybe in some cases, but you shouldn’t try. Just let the training flow and let the conditioning happen. Just like with any training, though, it will take a few sessions for you to notice the changes.
The first session can be frustrating at times since you are unable to clearly control what’s happening on the screen, and that’s why it’s important to get into the right mindset before each session starts. We recommend that you take 2-3 minutes to breathe in and out (we actually have an integrated breathing exercise in the app for that purpose), try to get into a relaxed state, and adjust your expectations regarding the difficulty of the training.
When the first session is done you might feel tired. That’s normal. You’ve just put your brain through intensive training. Do not expect it to get easier over time - neurofeedback is an adaptive learning process, which means that the difficulty will keep adjusting to your level as you improve.
What happens during the program?
Once you’ve been training for a while, you might be asking yourself if you’re noticing any changes, and if not, you’d be eagerly waiting for these improvements to occur. However, it is important to understand that research shows that the impact of neurofeedback will take place after 12-20 sessions and, in some cases, even after 30 sessions.
It is a slow process, but with a lasting impact, so stay patient.
How can progress be monitored?
Remember the assessment tasks you needed to do before the training? You might be asked to do them again for the sake of comparison. For example, filling the behavioral questionnaires again would show the difference in the severity of your symptoms. You might also be asked to run the CPT test again and see a quantitative change in your prolonged attention span and impulsivity. These are great measures to visualize your progress, and we’ve already built them in the Myndlift program so you can seamlessly complete them from the comfort of your home.
In addition to these tests, there are improvements that can just be felt, like we’ve heard numerous times from our existing users. For example, feeling calmer, more attentive, or more engaged in conversations with the people around you.
Just like any other training, neurofeedback, too, requires time and effort to be spent in order to see long-lasting results. It has been used for more than 30 years to help people achieve optimal brain performance, but it wouldn’t happen without the proper supervision of the clinician and the dedication of the trainees. If you’re looking to see if neurofeedback is a good fit for you, ask yourself this question: are you ready to commit to an intensive training program for a better version of yourself?