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Articles    H3'ed 9/25/09


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In the practice of neurofeedback, it is not uncommon for a trainee to ask, "what am I supposed to do?" And during our training workshops, we often get this question from practitioners, as well: "What do I tell the trainee to do"? One paradoxical answer is that there is in fact nothing to "do". "Doing" is not what feedback training is about. It is more about learning to "be" in one state or another. Neurofeedback systems provide an artificial environment that engages in an electronic dance with the trainee's brain. And, believe it or not, we are not in control of our brains, any more than we are in control of our hearts, for example.

Try not to think of chocolate cake. Did that work? Or did the mere mention elicit images of a dark, moist, soft, sweet cake with rich frosting? In the same way, neurofeedback operates by mere suggestion, by exposure to the information, and the brain takes over from there. The visual images prime the brain with the belief that this is about "me". Seeing the bars, graphs, games, and other displays inform the trainee that their brainwave state is relevant. Then the sounds come in to finalize the conditioning function. Each beep, tone, or sound provides a fast cue that tells the brain "yes, this is the moment". It does not matter if the trainee tries or not, understands or not, believes or not. What matters is that the brain spontaneously seeks novelty, reward, and the suggestion of success.

Sue Othmer says that all we need is the trainee's attentention, engagement, and a simple reward, to get the job done.

Well, that's all fine, but, again, "what do I do?" The simplest of instructions should be sufficient to let the feedback take its course. "Allow the sounds to come". "Allow yourself to learn what it feels like: [when the sounds come] or [when the animation moves] or [when you get a point].

Neurofeedback is more a process of learning what happens automatically, rather than one of "trying" to do something under our own will. Indeed, the more one "tries", the more we see anxiety, stress, frustration, and anything but relaxation, reward, and learning. Part of the lesson is to learn to do what is automatic, effortless, and easy.

Surely, it is important to at least attend to the feedback, and to have the intention to do well. But whereas we can certainly apply effort to subverting or resisting the learning, the application of effort will not really accelerate the learning process.

Life is not supposed to be a continual process of striving. Learning is supposed to be natural, to be fun. It's all about one step at a time. We have heard horror stories of practitioners (or parents) ordering the child, "You pay attention to that screen and you make it go!" "But I'm bored," says the child. "I hate this." A pity. How can someone hate a simple, pleasant situation that seeks nothing more than to provide some information regarding brain state? Are we really that jaded, that spoiled, that impatient?

As long as the sounds are coming, and the trainee is at least moderately attentive, the goals can be reached. If they become bored, the answer is not necessarily to provide exciting video games that pander to a short attention span and an addictive state of mind.

First, tell them to breathe. It is amazing the progress that can be made, when the trainee simply breathes, and allows nature to take over. Then, in the sense of "doing", almost anything will do. Let the trainee look at a picture book. Let them do a crossword puzzle, or play Tetris. Let them play with Legos. Let them do some homework problems, even. Not to put them under task, but to allow them to learn to remain relaxed, focused, and attentive, in the absence of stimulating input.

Regardless of what the trainee is doing, allowing the sounds to come, and allowing oneself to learn, will do the work. Overall, it is more a matter of allowing, rather than doing.


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Dr. Collura has over 30 years experience as a biomedical engineer and neurophysiologist. He has conducted clinical research and development and system design, in the areas of evoked potentials, microelectronics, human factors, EEG mapping for (more...)
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