“The brain is centrally involved in everything,” says Sue Othmer, clinical director of the EEG Institute in Woodland Hills, California. She and her husband became interested in the area when their son was diagnosed with epilepsy. They found that medications managed his seizures, but his behavior was still out of control. However, through Neurofeedback, they found the technique was effective with both the seizures and mood. Othmer says, “Our path since then has been to discover and figure out how broadly helpful this is.”
The EEG Institute offers clinical services in Neurofeedback, which in a sentence is biofeedback on brainwaves. This brainwave training allows the brain to self-regulate, which impacts everything. “It can make a huge difference in peoples’ lives,” say Othmer. “It’s more than we expect, it’s more than we can explain. The brain is not understood well enough for us to comfortably say what’s going on. We know from doing the work and finding out how to do it for different people, so there’s a lot of practical understanding.”
How does Neurofeedback work? Othmer explains, “electrodes on the scalp pick up the brainwaves, then the computer selects which brainwave information to show back to the brain. It’s like allowing the brain to look in the mirror and see its own activity.”
Othmer continues, “the best analogy is to say you walk by a mirror, and the brain is very sensitive to the fact that that’s you in the mirror; when you walk by a mirror, the brain rivets on ‘that’s me,’ and then because I can see it’s me, I can respond with, ‘oh I thought I was standing up straight’ or ‘oh, I forgot to button that button on my shirt,’ so now I have an internal representation of what I need to be doing. And if the brain can see what it is actually doing, then it immediately makes adjustments. No one has to reward me for standing up straight because I meant to do that all along.”
Neurofeedback has changed and developed throughout the years. Othmer says, “we all came from the position of, ‘well we’re going to encourage the brain to have better brainwaves,’ and then if it can regulate the brainwaves the way we think it should, then it should function better. But, over the years, as we’ve done this, we’ve really moved away from that idea toward more of just allowing the brain to self-regulate.” This way of thinking means that clinicians are not so much focused on “fixing” a person, but rather they help people reach their full potential and really be all they can be.
Othmer explains, “we’re simply facilitating the brain’s own drive for self-regulation. We’re not ‘fixing’ the brain, we’re not making it do anything, we’re just allowing it to self-regulate in a more comfortable way.” For those who are first being introduced to the Neurofeedback practice, it might seem odd or make you wonder if it does actually work. Othmer says, “the amazing thing is how extraordinarily powerful this is. It’s much, much more than you would think. It strongly impacts people in a positive way.”
Othmer further explains Neurofeedback through an analogy: “The best analogy is physical exercise, so if anybody goes to the gym on a regular basis, they are going to be healthier and more physically fit. It’s similar with Neurofeedback. We’re doing something that would help anyone just use their brain.”
Who can benefit from Neurofeedback? Again, just like physical exercise, Neurofeedback can be used for anyone. Othmer comments, “the people who commonly do it are the people who need it or who can’t really be successful in their lives unless they get the brain working better for them. They could be kids with cerebral palsy, or autism, or learning disabilities, or in some way not up to their potential. Or on the other end, we work with people who are very successful, like actors, writers, sports people who are good at what they do but would like even more of an edge.”
The idea of Neurofeedback, according to Othmer, is not really new. She says, “this work goes back to the 60s and 70s. There were two things holding it back. Acceptance is about whether something makes sense to people. The technology, sure, is much better now, but it was adequate before, and our understanding is much better than before, but it was enough to make a difference back then. People had a hard time wrapping their minds around it because people did not understand how it works.”
The acceptance of Neurofeedback is, or at least was, also affected by the way people thought about the brain and its function or dysfunction. Othmer says, “people also thought about brain function and dysfunction in terms of chemicals. ‘Well I need Prozac because I don’t have enough serotonin; my problem is a serotonin problem, and that’s why I’m sad.’ And now the science has shifted very significantly; neuroscience is very focused on networks, on timing, on the organization of the brain. Of course, chemicals are involved, but that’s not the whole story, so you don’t fix problems by pouring chemicals at them. It makes sense to people that we can change how our brains work by working on the connectivity and the coordination of function across the brain.”
Providing education is an excellent step towards more acceptance, and the EEG Institute is a leading resource for providing training for doctors and other therapists. Othmer and her team are pioneers in the Neurofeedback field. She says, “we got involved in the field in 1985, when our son first experienced it, and our first involvement was in developing instrumentation. It was being done, but we developed the first computerized instrumentation for neurofeedback, and we have over all the years since then, we have been involved in developing better and better tools.”
Othmer comments, “it’s not about the diagnosis — we look at the disregulation of brain function.” The EEG Institute is “not a medical place — it’s more like taking the brain to the gym. We allow you to be the person you try to be. We are more like coaches who help people find balance and self-regulation.”
Othmer calls Neurofeedback an “empowering process,” and individuals can improve even after one session. “We’ve learned how to do this more effectively,” Othmer says, “and the majority of the time we expect some effect right away.” Neurofeedback works in blocks of 20 sessions, so even though an impact can be seen after one session, Othmer recommends the blocks of sessions for real improvement. The effects of the treatment are permanent — “once the brain leaves, it’s not going to forget it,” says Othmer. However, for young children, as the brain continues to develop, they might need to return for additional sessions.
Photos by cowbite and MousyBoyWithGlasses