What’s the use of Neurofeedback?

Biofeedback can be used to train cognitive “strength” or mental agility just as we can use exercise to strengthen our physical bodies.  Neurofeedback is a specific form of biofeedback training that uses the EEG signals from the brain as it’s starting point.  But what use is it for performance enhancement? Who might use it for benefit?  Neurofeedback is widely used for a long list of clinical applications such as anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, PTSD, alcoholism/addiction, autism, learning disorders, dyslexia and epilepsy. In this short article we just look at performance enhancement.

Conventional EEG cap with NeXus 32 system

The EEG is a bioelectric potential that is detectable on the surface of the head and was first recorded by Berger in 1929. Within ten years the basic "patterns of change" had been observed and named as we know them today - for example, the so-called delta, theta, alpha and beta waves.  These waves represent bands of the frequency content of the EEG signal. There is an explanation of this at the bottom of the article.

Throughout the day, the brain of each of us is constantly active and producing a range of electrical activity that can be measured using modern EEG equipment such as the NeXus range.  This raw signal can be represented by its various frequency components using a Fast Fourier Transform process.  Modern hardware and software does this accurately and extremely quickly.

The trainer using biofeedback equipment can choose to feedback aspects of the information to the trainee. For example to increase the amount of energy in the alpha wave band of the signal.  This could be achieved in a simple way by showing a colour bar on a computer display whose height represents the amount of alpha wave energy.  Of course, more imaginative methods are available to encourage faster learning and provide richer feedback.

By this means the trainee can learn to feel what the chosen brain state is like and improve how to activate the brain state at will.  With sufficient training the individual will be able to induce the brain changes without the need for the equipment or even feedback.

NeXus EEG headset and neurofeedback application

The rationale for Neurofeedback?

A number of reports have shown clear links between specific frequency components of the EEG and particular physical and or cognitive behaviours and states.

Typical performance applications include:
Sport - to gain insight into the mental state of athletes before, during and after a performance.  Pre-event anxiety or nerves can damage an athletes performance. EEG biofeeback can provide rich information about the athletes body-mind state, provide awareness and the leverage to make positive changes.  The nature of the equipment required has meant that sports that don't require too much movement are easiest to deal with when it comes to observations during the conduct of an event. For example, rife and archery marksmen and golfers are easy to study compared with sports such as football.

Cognition - has been extensively studied and much is known about the psychophysiological correlates of cognition.  For example, the alpha frequencies are associated with a variety of cognitive processes including attention and concentration, memory performance, problem solving, creativity and intelligence. The idea would be that training to hold onto these states could enhance these cognitive skills. Anyone wishing to improve in these areas could utilise neurofeedback. It could be especially valuable for business people who work under pressure to understand how they respond to stress so they can learn to improve their state management.

Artistic performance - trained musicians exhibit a pattern of cortical activity when listening to music that is absent in non-musicians. These differences might be due to the training that musicians undergo. Certainly studying to achieve a "flow" state could enhance creativty and performance.

Neurofeedback is not a new field of interest but it is rapidly developing. It is not really a therapy in our eyes but a form of learning process. It is as much an art as a science. For all of that Neurofeedback is a largely safe and effective tool with very broad application.

Footnote : The Fourier Transform

Basically these named “waves” represent the frequency content of the observed bioelectric potential.  To a casual observer these signals look pretty chaotic and hard to describe in an objective way.

However, hundred’s of years ago a French mathematician called Fourier observed that any periodically repeating signal can be represented by a sequence of basis functions that when added together form an approximation to the original. 

Imagine that we have a structure made up of a number of component parts - the FFT process is breaking the structure of the original waveform into what we could consider are its component partsWhat this means is that using the so called Fourier transform we can break down the EEG signal into its basis function components.  The basis functions are sine waves and cosine waves of varying magnitude and frequency. The alpha, beta and so on are bands of frequencies within the original EEG signal.