Catching Brainwaves

“It was in 1975 that I first put EEG sensors on my own scalp,” says Dr. Bachers. He was a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic at the time. He didn’t know what he’d find then, but after twenty years of experimentation, research and pursuing his interests in “the transpersonal psychology and the evolution of human capacity,” Dr. Bachers is now an expert on and full-time provider of neurofeedback training. He currently works in his offices in North Hampton and Brookline, Massachusetts, where the training happens in a standard leather desk chair, but leads to a place where he says his clients can become conscious in the present moment, “at and as the leading edge of the Big Bang.”

Finding the path from a leather chair to the cusp of the universe, for Dr. Alan Bachers, Ph.D., is a matter of following brainwaves.

What Dr. Bachers did in 1975 was a very basic version of what he does now with his clients. He offers a particular form of neurofeedback training that is known by the proprietary name NeurOptimal, which was developed by Valdeane Brown in the 1990s. The idea behind all neurofeedback is that sensors and software work together to give information back to the brain about its own activity, and that the brain can learn from that information how to improve processing and work more efficiently. Even though it’s called “training” the approach that Dr. Bachers uses does not involve a set program or goals, and the client doesn’t make any conscious effort during the process. (Some other types of neurofeedback do involve programs and willful effort.) The logistics of a session are remarkably simple and sedentary - a chair, a computer, a few wires and sensors, and a pair of headphones. The client listens to music and watches a visualizer. Sometimes the music and video skip - just for a microsecond - based on the reading from the sensors. Very little happens physically, and there’s no effort or thinking involved, hardly what most people might think of when they see the word “training.” Dr. Bachers and others say, though, that over time the results of neurofeedback training can be transformative.

While it floats outside the mainstream of fitness and health practices, neurofeedback has attracted the attention of medical professionals, psychologists, trainers and others interested in wellness and human performance. NeurOptimal and other neurofeedback methods are studied in the context of some of today’s most urgent psychological concerns, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Athletes and artists are also trying neurofeedback to help them reach peak performance.

When he did that first “test” back in 1975, Dr. Bachers didn’t necessarily have those applications in mind. He was working with a colleague on the then-new field of biofeedback therapy. Biofeedback is a method of helping people control nervous system processes like temperature, muscle tension or heart rate, with the goal of improving their health or performance. The information (feedback) comes from sensors that are placed on the body so the client can see what’s happening in his system. For example, a person suffering migraines might learn about a pattern of cold and muscle tension that usually precedes a headache, and learn that consciously relaxing muscles or imagining that he’s on a warm beach could help stave off the pain. Over time, in theory, the incidences and/or intensity of migraines could be reduced. The biofeedback concept was new and experimental in the 1960s and 70s, and is considered a more mainstream form of applied psychology now.

Dr. Bachers and his partner were trying biofeedback and seeing some results that they thought were intriguing and positive. As he considered where this might lead, he realized “ultimately we’d want to have biofeedback for the brain itself, the central processing unit of all of this.”

Widespread investment in and curiosity about the brain as a hub of human psychological and biological health have indeed moved into the spotlight. In April 2013, the President announced the launch of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which devotes over $300 million in public and private funds to innovations and study of the human brain. In March 2014 Scientific American declared “The New Century of the Brain,” and the month before, National Geographic’s feature spread explored the landscape within the human skull. Much of this mapping, imaging, and experimentation is the realm of biotech professionals or medical diagnosis and treatment. But amateurs are exploring ways that they can dial in to the power of their own brains, too. Following studies and anecdotes claiming that it can help improve mental acuity across a number of measures, some people are venturing to try transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) or “brain zapping,” which involves strapping gear on the head and stimulating brain cells with a mild electric current. Some do so with the guidance of professionals, like New Yorker’s Elif Bautman, and some venture to create DIY kits that include a 9-volt battery, some simple circuits, and a couple of electrodes. A “brain hacking” tutorial “How to Build a Simple tDCS Device of Your Own (that you can use)”on YouTube has over 54,000 views.

The idea of sticking electrodes to one’s skull might sound like a stimulating adventure, or it might conjure One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-inspired nightmares. But Dr. Bachers is no Nurse Ratched; he wears sporty earth-toned clothes, is almost always smiling and pauses perceptively when he speaks to let a big idea sink in. He’s more likely to be cast as a friendly neighbor in a sitcom than a sadistic doctor. And the first thing he notes about neurofeedback training is that it is completely non-invasive. The EEG that Dr. Bachers first used on himself, and the more sophisticated ones used today, don’t send any impulse into the brain at all. The brain produces the electricity and the EEG reads it. The brain has 100 billion neurons signaling each other with electric pulses; those pulses are mapped and measured as brainwaves. And those brainwaves are the key information at the heart of neurofeedback training.

If the brain is the hub of human biology and psychology, then those synaptic zaps could be considered the roots of a person’s behavior, thoughts, sensations and emotions. Some experts at the National Institute of Mental Health and elsewhere recently dubbed the connectome – the electric signals and circuits of the brain – the next frontier of research in their field.6 Reading the electricity of the central nervous system isn’t new, however. Richard Caton is credited with first observing the brain’s electric current in 1875, and Hans Berger figured out how to read it in 1924. Berger invented the basic EEG mechanism. Electrodes placed on the head and ears work in pairs to measure voltage and pick up electric currents. The current is transmitted through a wire and graphed, originally with a pen on a needle, and these days using a digital device.

Shortly after he introduced the EEG, Berger identified the connection between the frequency of waves and what was happening in the brain. Brains are always buzzing with multiple signals between bunches of neurons, but Berger observed recognizable patterns in the dominant frequencies of brainwaves at a given time. The brainwaves of someone who is sleeping, for example, tend to be predominantly slow, low-frequency waves around 1 to 4 Hz (Hertz, or cycles per second), or Delta waves. On the other end of the spectrum, high-frequency Gamma brainwaves (above 30 Hz) are associated with intense attention and connecting different parts of the brain. Some frequencies are tied to physical behaviors. For example the relaxed state at 28 Hz is associated with dilation of blood vessels in the hands and feet.

Coding brainwave states can take on a qualitative and descriptive aspect, too. Dr. Bachers’ software provider NeurOptimal presents one interpretation of the spectrum, the enticingly titled “Cartography of Consciousness.” According to this color-coded chart, the 14-Hz, Sensory Motor Rhythm frequency is characterized by “cat-like” bodily stillness paired with awareness - a quiet hunter ready to leap at the sight of a mouse (or the sound of a can- opener, or the knock of the takeout deliveryperson). Alpha waves at 8-13 Hz are associated with “letting go” but, high-alpha waves with eyes open can be “tuning out” and may be characteristic of a person who has sleep problems. The alertness at 42 Hz is “peak performance” a la Tom Brady, looking downfield for Edelman and simultaneously dancing out of the way of the tackle coming in on his blind side. The Cartography says that the hyper-alertness at 15-18 Hz Low Beta, however, is an “activating frequency” that can “make you feel tense and anxious.”

If brainwave frequencies are so closely aligned to state of mind or being, then fine-tuning those frequencies could theoretically affect how a person feels, thinks and acts. But doing so isn’t as easy as twisting a dial behind the ear; a lot of the processing that happens in the brain is subconscious, and people don’t deliberately toggle among the frequencies of cat-like poise, fourth-down quarterback tiptoes, and deep Delta snoozing. Even if it were as simple as making a choice, what channel to tune in to is not necessarily obvious. Determining which kinds of waves to encourage or discourage and how are the driving questions behind (and sometimes dividing lines between) neurofeedback approaches and research.

One of the most prominent early experiments with neurofeedback targeted a very specific frequency and pathology linkage. Barry Sterman of the UCLA School of Medicine had trained cats to increase sensorimotor rhythm (SMR, 12-15 Hz). He coincidentally used some of those same cats in a 1960s study related to a chemical that induced seizures, and the cats that had the SMR training did not get seizures when they were exposed to the chemical. Sterman later tried a similar form of training with a woman who was suffering from epilepsy. She trained using EEG equipment with green light that flashed when SMR increased (as desired) and a red light that flashed when it decreased. After three months her seizures were reduced. Dr. Bachers and many other neurofeedback experts cite this as an early case that made some hopeful about the possible applications of neurofeedback training.

Another “early adventure,” as Dr. Bachers calls it, had loftier aims. Around the same time as Sterman’s work on epilepsy, “research with yogis showed that yogis had lots of alpha [brainwave] activity.” So in the same way that Sterman trained cats and then his co-worker to access the SMR brainwave frequency, these experimenters tried to encourage alpha-wave activity characteristic of expert meditators. In 1963 Joseph Kamiya had shown that he could train someone to recognize alpha (8-12 Hz) brain wave activity, using a verbal cue to tell the trainee whenever he entered that state. This suggested that feedback could work to ultimately encourage a person to control his brainwave frequency. Some people started imagining the possibilities for widespread application. “There was a whole spate of alpha generating [neurofeedback experimentation]. Perhaps some thought that maybe “if everybody produced lots of alpha we’d have world peace,” Dr. Bachers says with a jolly smirk at his exaggeration. “Things haven’t quite worked out that way.”

People-powered peace farms notwithstanding, some developments did work out over the next two decades. Through the 70s and 80s, Sternman, Kamiya and their cohort developed the fundamental technology and research that underlies neurofeedback today. The quantitative EEG (QEEG) enabled a comprehensive reading of electrical activity from 19 sensor locations. Some researchers started using that information to compile a database of “normative” brainwave patterns that were intended to be baselines for comparison to help identify and devise programs or “protocols” for training. Computer-driven equipment to collect and play back brainwave measurements also emerged.

Dr. Bachers and his partner went out to California in the 1990s to see Siegfried and Sue Othmer demonstrate an early form of neurofeedback training on their son. The Othmers helped advance methods using computerized graphics and sounds and also advanced exploration of the links between psychotherapy and neurofeedback.10 Dr. Bachers and his partner were practicing psychotherapy with a focus on psychological aspects of medical illness. When he saw the Othmers’ system, Dr. Bachers says he was, “immediately taken with it and saw that, as psychologists, bringing this into our practice would be useful.”

What was “immediately” apparent to Dr. Bachers may not be so to others. He himself is quick to say that, when it comes to the exact mechanism at work in neurofeedback training, we know, “Practically nothing, and most of what we do [know] is wrong.” He chuckles when he says it; he and other practitioners and researchers are serious about gathering observations and results, and refining possible explanations for what they’re seeing. But, he says, “just like all of science, every story we make up is a placeholder until a better explanation comes along.”

For now, the story goes: “All you need to do is give the brain information about what it’s doing, and human suffering is transformed. [The theory of neurofeedback] makes an assumption that inherent in the human nervous system is infinitely more potential, and that giving the system information about itself will propel this particular organism much farther than anything we would do to it.”

His emphasis on the “to” highlights what Dr. Bachers sees as one of the advantages of the neurofeedback training he provides. He sometimes contrasts it with what he calls “Golden Hammer” techniques that look to treat every brain and every instance the same, with a single, tangible tool - this pill, this surgery, this program, etc. When he runs a training session (using the NeurOptimal program, which is not protocol-driven or seeking to train a particular frequency as those SMR and alpha experiments were), there’s no willful pushing or pulling in any pre-set direction by anyone or anything involved in the process. From outside the brain at least, a session seems to be all about watching and listening. The meeting usually lasts about 45 minutes, and he starts with a conversation to check in – how the person has been feeling, any particular issues she’s aware of that might affect her state of mind and body right now. After that, he sticks on two scalp sensors and two ear sensors and steps away. The client watches the video and listens to her choice of music. Dr. Bachers sits in the periphery, and watches his laptop running the software. The sensors listen to the brain. The software monitors and finds patterns or aberrations in the constant buzz of information. An aberration could be anything that’s not efficient or is maladaptive; the software creator refers to it as “turbulence” - bumps on what seemed to be the brain’s path up to that point.

The software helps the brain catch and interrupt that turbulence before it even reaches the level of conscious awareness, with a fraction-of-a- second interruption in the music. The client’s brain recognizes that skip in the soundtrack, and in that instant of recognition the brain has an opportunity to re-set itself.

The cycle of monitoring, interruption, feedback, and re-set happens in a matter of microseconds, and continues for several minutes over the course of the session. Dr. Bachers says a training period typically lasts for about a dozen sessions. Some recommendations say training once or twice per week is best at first, but less frequency, or even an intensive set of a couple of sessions per day can work.

The effects are supposed to accumulate during a single session, and also over a full course of treatments. The idea is that each time the software recognizes the brain’s wayward processing and calls it out with one of those skips in the music and/or visuals, the brain recognizes the connection between the trigger and the interruption. Each time it goes through that process of being interrupted and re-stabilizing, the brain gets better at avoiding the blips in the first place.

Some of that change over time can be measured and documented. At the beginning and end of each session, Dr. Bachers takes a thirty-second “baseline” recording of the brain’s activity - basically charting it along something like that cartography of bandwidths described before. The system that Dr. Bachers uses, there isn’t a prescribed ideal template or pattern. The brain sets its course through the session, and the software points out when it has veered off whatever course it was on, and in so doing gives it a chance to go back to something more stable.

Neurofeedback’s advocates say that the basic outcome makes the brain more efficient, resilient, adaptive and able to process and respond to new information. One could say it’s like sculpting a resilient Pilates bod, or de-fragging a computer hard drive. Others might compare it to achieving a deep meditative state. Dr. Bachers puts a finer point on that comparison. “Meditation is the state of one state,” but, he says, neurofeedback promotes the “state of no state. And that’s the state of greatest complexity of the brain.”

When people train with neurofeedback, the theory goes, their central nervous systems get better at breaking out of maladaptive patterns. Dr. Bachers characterizes what neurofeedback training can achieve in this way: “We’re extricating people from the constraints of history, arriving at here, and at that moment it is open to all possibilities in the universe.”

Do people leave Dr. Bachers’s office consciously considering a world of infinite possibility? Not necessarily, but they do tell him that they feel, “awake, present, empty of mind chatter, available for what’s happening right now.” One of Dr. Bachers’s clients, a Boston-based writer named Jennifer, describes the sessions as relaxing and requiring minimal effort; she’s just sitting in a chair and hearing some easy-listening tunes. But the feeling of “balancing” she says registers on a physical level, as if there’s sand or liquid in her head that’s getting “centered.” She sees it on the before and after baseline readings, too. “The left and right sides of my brain used to look like they were fighting with each other for control, but after a session they look much more balanced on the screen.”

Even with eyes open to boundless possibility for balanced brains, Dr. Bachers and others are observing or exploring the immediate existential benefits, too. One oft-cited outcome is that clients report sleeping better after a few sessions. Jennifer first tried neurofeedback training in 2003, with Dr. Edward O’Malley at the Insomnia Center of The Sleep Disorders Center at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut. She was suffering from Lyme disease and co-infections that had entered her brain. She was “desperate for sleep,” she says. “Doctors tried everything, from melatonin to narcotics, but nothing would turn my brain off.” With Dr. O’Malley, who is a Board-certified sleep specialist and Master-certified Neurofeedback trainer with a Ph.D. in neurobiology, Jennifer started neurofeedback training in combination with other treatments. She did the training three times a week at first, and she got results. “It got me to a place where the medicine started working,” she says. “Before [neurofeedback training], I could not nap during the day, no matter how exhausted I was from illness. I was able to actually fall asleep during the day, which made a huge difference in restoring my health.” Now Jennifer is in more of a maintenance mode and does a neurofeedback session at least once every few months and says she often feels the effects on her sleep immediately.

Jennifer’s case is representative of what Dr. O’Malley says he often sees with his clients. Now in private practice as an integrative sleep specialist, he uses NeurOptimal neurofeedback training in conjunction with other therapies. He did a study using neurofeedback and Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia, the standard treatment for insomnia. The study found that on average it took only 15-16 NeurOptimal sessions to resolve sleep issues and that neurofeedback training helped people respond to standard cognitive behavioral therapy much better. The neurofeedback training,he says, “does the heavy lifting,” and helps open up access to otherwise “hidden issues” in the brain. “It helps the brain settle itself down, and [become] easier to talk to.”

Thinking along similar lines, Dr. Bachers suggests that neurofeedback training could be a kind of “first pass.” One of the first groups he might target are those who are waiting in line for psychological or psychiatric treatment, in particular veterans. As he sees it, many of them may need and want to see mental health specialists, but they might be facing a delay of weeks or more before they can do so. In the meantime, Dr. Bachers offers, they could do neurofeedback sessions. The suggestion here is not that neurofeedback training would replace the treatment that people were waiting for, but rather that it’s something that could be done outside of the medical or psychology/psychiatry office and might help improve how people are feeling before they get to see a doctor.

While some types of neurofeedback have been studied in a medical or psychological context, including looking at possible effects for combat veterans and those who suffer from PTSD, Dr. Bachers says it is important to note that, “this training is not treatment, so is much more in an educational, exercise model.” Athletes and artists have experimented with neurofeedback to help them reach so-called peak performance. The theory is that the training allows their brains to focus on the processing needed for the present creative or physical tasks. The efficiency and resilience that neurofeedback training supposedly promotes can help people sleep better, cope with stress, focus on an immediate task, and avoid negative or self-defeating thoughts. NeurOptimal’s blog lists several examples of elite athletes who have reportedly used neurofeedback training: the 2010 Olympic skiers from Canada, the 2011 champion hockey team Vancouver Canucks, the 2006 World-Cup-winning Italian national soccer team.

Dr. Bachers’ own “n of 1” study, as he calls it, raises a question of whether the impacts of neurofeedback can be physiological as well as psychological. Dr. Bachers sent his DNA to be tested by a company that examines the length of telomeres - structures in DNA that some think are related to aging. When the first results came in, the company called and asked for another sample. They said something was wrong. Dr. Bachers sent another sample. He describes the second response, delivered in-person when he met the head of the DNA lab. “‘These results are the same. We don’t know what to make of them. What the hell are you doing out there?’ My telomeres were at the level of a 49-year-old.”

Dr. Bachers is now trying to round up more people who have done many sessions like he has (in the thousands, he says), to see if a similar pattern of results can be found within the whole group. Studies of neurofeedback training are generally limited and not conclusive; it’s hard to be conclusive given the complexity of the methodology and the conditions being studied.

One widely reported area of experimentation with neurofeedback training is in the context of people with ADHD. (Note: the neurofeedback training in the studies and literature around ADHD is usually protocol-based, a different approach than Dr. Bachers uses, but the considerations for scientific documentation would likely apply to any neurofeedback study.) The American Academy of Pediatrics rated neurofeedback as a Level 1 “Best Support” Intervention for ADHD, the same level as medication and behavior therapy. Studies have tried to compare medication and neurofeedback as methods to reduce the symptoms of ADHD. David Rabiner, Ph.D., a Research Professor at Duke University published a literature review examining a couple of those studies, and he points out the limits of what can be determined from them. In the ones he looked at, the results generally suggest that the outcomes could be comparable for both types of treatment. But, in his sample of studies none of the participants received “sham” neurofeedback training, so it’s hard to know whether the EEG based work itself or some other factor - like simply getting therapist attention - could be responsible for all or some of the results. Also, the impact on behavior is based on reporting from parents and teachers. The reporters’ biases for one treatment or another, or other reporting variables, could affect the results.

With studies to date being limited, one question that many might raise is whether there is any risk involved with neurofeedback training. The FDA has approved the safety of the equipment that is used in neurofeedback training (that approval is not an endorsement or rating of any application of neurofeedback training, however). “There isn’t anyone I wouldn’t offer it to,” says Dr. O’Malley, the integrative sleep specialist, referring to the NeurOptimal system that he uses. Dr. Bachers also says that the risk of direct harm with a system like the one he uses seems to be small or nonexistent. “I mean we’ve done probably 10-15 million neurofeedback sessions on the planet so far. To my knowledge we’ve not killed anybody. You can’t say that about aspirin,” Dr. Bachers points out.

For Dr. Bachers the immeasurability of neurofeedback, and the possibilities for using it in a number of ways, are what make it so exciting. “We’ve got good data on how people get sick and die. We have no data on how optimized can be a human nervous system,” Dr. Bachers says. “We don’t know how good is best.” But Dr. Bachers has an ideal target for a new neurofeedback study to start exploring its possible reach. “Anyone who’s pregnant.”

His working hypothesis is that neurofeedback training would impact both the woman’s and the fetus’s nervous systems. “One, the pregnancies will go better and two, you just follow these kids who were born from this, longitudinally, and they’re going to do spectacularly well…and those data will easily accumulate.”

With the opportunity to study mother and child, from the beginning of their relationship together, “I say we get a two-fer,” says Dr. Bachers with a grin.

Dr. Bachers sees a lot of opportunity in these spaces where neurofeedback could happen while normally someone isn’t doing anything else. Why not have the program running in every OB-GYN waiting room? Pushing that concept even further, Dr. Bachers thinks that research with neurofeedback training could embrace the ambiguity that comes with the placebo effect – the improvement seen in some test subjects that can’t be attributed to an intentional intervention (a drug, course of training, etc). As he puts it, “Placebo is the thing that always works, is in everybody, and you can’t get rid of it.” Many researchers do try to control for or eliminate the placebo effect in their reporting, so that they can prove that the new intervention is the thing that is really making a difference. But Dr. Bachers says, “I flip it upside down to say, ‘We all have it. Let’s see what we can do to push it as far as we can, and only after we’ve done that think about medication or something.’ Let’s celebrate that [placebo effect] as something we all carry around with us all the time, and doing NeurOptimal is going to hugely advance this good stuff that’s always going on.”

For now, Dr. Bachers and others are relying on the formal and informal case studies and reports from people who say that they are sleeping better, feeling present and “unstuck” from their historic patterns, scoring at the top on their academic tests. “The liberation of people who are participating in this, [is] changing everything ,[albeit] all too slowly,” says Dr. Bachers.

Slowly, perhaps, because deploying a neurofeedback-for-everybody campaign is not quite as easy as saying, “why not?” For one, neurofeedback can be expensive. A system like the one that Dr. Bachers uses costs about $9500. Sessions typically cost $50-250 each, and many insurance providers will not cover it. Dr. O’Malley allows some clients to rent a system and use it on their own, which can be a little more economical, but still might average $25-60 per session for ten or more sessions.

Cost may not be the only barrier to widespread adoption of neurofeedback training. “An even bigger thing is this flies in the face of how we’ve always done everything. The idea that inherent within every nervous system is the capacity to change itself, is going to be irritating to many gazillion-dollar gigs,” says Dr. Bachers.

Those gigs could include pharmaceutical research or sales, which would not benefit from a study showing that neurofeedback delivered results without a drug. Or perhaps those who are prescribing or practicing other therapies might become worried about losing business. Dr. Bachers felt the tension from within the profession. “I was a psychologist for 20 years, and I was in the psychology industry for about 30 years,” he says, but when he and his partner discovered neurofeedback, they felt that they needed to break away from the traditions of the profession to fully pursue this new technology. “Psychology became a woefully insufficient vessel to contain what we were seeing in neurofeedback. Basically I left behind anything I ever did or knew in psychology, and I don’t carry a license anymore. This is that radical and that helpful and that useful.”

Although Dr. Bachers chose to leave, some may be forced to. He shared an anecdote of a colleague of his was ousted from two practices because she was giving some of the most difficult cases neurofeedback training, and getting results so good that her clients wanted to cancel their appointments for psychiatry or psychotherapy. “Psychology is that unfriendly. They say, ‘Not in our church, that can’t happen because I’ve never seen it.’”

One case, of course, is not representative of an entire professional community. And Dr. Bachers notes that his colleague has found a practice that welcomes her work. But divisions exist among neurofeedback practitioners themselves when it comes to which approach is the most effective or holds the most potential. Many neurofeedback applications use what is known as protocol-based training. The client gets a quantitative EEG (QEEG) reading that is used to describe a baseline state of brain activity. The practitioners compare that with baselines of supposedly normal brains, and determine which types of brainwaves or locations of brain activity need to get “trained up” or “trained down.” The “protocol,” then, is a targeted training program that is designed to coach the client’s brain in those specific areas.

Dr. Bachers, however, doesn’t necessarily think that neurofeedback can work in such a targeted way. “When you’re doing that,” he says, “you’re affecting the entire rest of the brain, too.” Dr. O’Malley believes that “protocol-based training has a higher risk of unwanted effects, like headaches or anxiety, which, however, are temporary and far less concerning than side-effects of most medications,” and requires a higher degree of expertise to use effectively. The idea behind the NeurOptimal system Dr. Bachers, O’Malley and others use is that it addresses the whole brain, looking at the entire range of brain activity, continuously responding to the individual's unique and changing brain pattern throughout the session. “It’s like changing the protocol 250 times a second,” Dr. Bachers says. When a client starts any new given session, this type of software is “adapting itself to this brain however the brain shows up, any day.” This holistic approach, he believes, is the best way to help people reach and maintain an optimal state of complexity, responsiveness and efficiency in brain processing. “It’s that more ‘bulletproof’ space. I call it the decisional space.”

Without a united professional push, neurofeedback popularity might have to build from the ground up. Americans might catch on to the idea of a system that helps their brains improve themselves – becoming mentally “bulletproof” sounds appealing. And market trends suggest that people will invest in that systems that they think will improve their wellbeing. FitBit, which makes wearable wristband trackers, recently took steps to go public , an indication that it is breaking through the mass market. The key idea for FitBit’s product is that people can collect and work with their own physiological data – counting how much they move, eat, sleep – to improve their health. Companies like Lumosity are finding a market for games that claim to help people keep their brains fit and sharp.

Theoretically, people could start taking up neurofeedback training in the same way. Promoters of the NeurOptimal system emphasize that it requires very little training, and that parents have learned quickly how to use it to run sessions with their kids at home. At the same time, neurofeedback might not put control quite “in hand” in the way that American consumers generally expect. The temptation is to say that a non- protocol-based neurofeedback software program is one-size-fits-all. “But it’s actually the opposite of that,” Dr. Bachers says. Theoretically the results for any one user are very targeted to that person’s particular brain state, and to decide that the system works in general, one has to allow that there is no specific, consistent formula that is working for everybody, every time. The results are similarly difficult to measure against a set scale. That might not suit the familiar model for those who need to know how many steps, calories, or puzzle points they’ve accumulated toward their goals.

If there is a revolution for neurofeedback, Dr. Bachers predicts it will start with people who have benefited directly from the training. “People who are changed with it, by it, through it, will be demanding it. And people who have been poorly served by other systems.” He’s seen the potential emerge from his own clients’ responses to treatment. “Whenever somebody shows up for sessions, the second thing that tells me NeurOptimal is working is that people show up with an ever-increasing list of people that need to do this. Rather quickly, whatever gig people are doing [health care, education, etc] they say, all the people I see ought to be doing this. I’d like to bring this into whatever I do.”

“This belongs in every prison, every detention center, every Montessori school, every obstetrician’s office…It will take people who are senior and seasoned in these industries and literally in these locations, and they have enough clout or street smarts or power in the system to get it inserted, to get it funded, to become, often, the people who are doing this. That saturates in wonderful ways these different environments.” Dr. Bachers might be thinking of people like Sue and Siegfried Othmer, who became interested when their son was offered treatment with an early system and are now among the leaders in the field.

When it comes to a last word on behalf of neurofeedback, Dr. Bachers returns to that concept of cosmic opportunity. “If humankind is the absolute or best thing the universe has come up with, well they probably shouldn’t have gone to all the bother.” He laughs and throws up his hands. “14 billion years of stuff flinging through the universe and this is it?!”

He returns to his claim that every moment during a session - in that leather chair, with a few wires, a fancy screensaver and a soundtrack, is a moment full of infinite potential. This equipment is letting a brain watch and learn from itself, which could open a door to changes we can’t yet imagine. “We have the privilege of having the capacity to be at that front door to show up to see what might happen and to be the propulsive force for that.”

Emily Avery-Miller writes and teaches in Boston, MA. She loves tracking tech buzz, exploring new trails, and snooping around other people's bookshelves. Her work has also appeared in Literary Bohemian, Bird's Thumb and 48 Review. Follow Emily @EBAverymiller.

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