Autonomic Tone Issues


Tone, as used in the TQ Assessment, refers to autonomic tone and relate to emotional stress building over a significant period of time, resulting in disruptions of the autonomically-mediated functions of the body, as well as relatively ongoing levels of anxiety or depression.

It’s important not to confuse the Tone category, which does include the over-wound autonomic response, with the specific brain activation patterns that make it up. Tone is a meta-category, which takes in folks whose brains are using the strategies of Disconnect, Reversal or Blocking as well as those who have high levels of fast beta, which may be in temporal or frontal or even parietal areas and may or may not co-exist with high coherences in the fast frequencies. The problem with Tone is that it doesn’t lead us anywhere in terms of what and where to train–which are always my focal questions. The brain strategies do guide us toward answers to those questions.

If a person has happened to have lived through a period of fairly severe and unremitting stress, they will often find that their nervous system gets “wound up” fairly high, so that they are either in “fight or flight” more for a greater percentage of their experience–or pop into it more easily–than is necessary. This can result in feelings of anxiety or depression or just of being highly stressed. It can result in rebound effects such as panic attacks, migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome. It can result in breakdowns in physiological function, like sleep problems, digestion problems, cold hands/feet, sweating, racing heartbeat, inability to catch your breath, etc.

As this level of “emotional drive” increases, more of the brain’s resources are drawn into the task of controlling the emotional responses, so they are less available for cognitive work such as paying attention, processing language effectively, remembering, etc.

If the brain has established a pattern which is a strategy for dealing with these (what we call) Tone problems, then simply training to deal with the cognitive side-effects will rarely have a lasting effect. It’s like turning on the air-conditioning in a building that is on fire. It may have a temporary cooling effect, but it’s not dealing with the true root cause of the heat.

These Tone strategy patterns were almost always survival strategies that worked at some time in the past, but they are now maladaptive because they result in a waste of brain energy and they often end up KEEPING the client in the very state that they were originally meant to protect against. Training that guides the brain away from these old patterns can not only reduce the emotional drive, but often result in improvements in cognitive function as well.

When the system is overbalanced to the sympathetic side (stuck in fight-or-flight), that would be considered high tone.

Part of the job of the cortex is to control and integrate emotional material (and memory) with sensory information to keep us alive and moving toward our objectives. When Tone issues become dominant, more of the cortical energy needs to go toward just keeping emotional drives in check, and the Tone strategies (disconnect, hot temporals, reversals and blocking) are commonly seen patterns that cortexes adopt to deal with excess emotional drive.

The orbitofrontal cortex and cingulate combine to control how much emotional material gets into the prefrontals’ decision-making process. When the strategy is to block ALL emotional material (denial) then this system either gets overheated or (later) burned out. Yes, I generally teach that since this strategy is more a way of defending against the emotional drive than a way of changing the way it’s processed, it’s probably best not to start with training this until you’ve worked with the other Tone strategies.

Stress and Control

Autonomic arousal levels are related to stress response, which is related to need to control. If I want to have more control over a situation than I can have, that results in a stress response in me. Another in the same situation, but without the need to control, may not find it stressful at all. When stress becomes an ongoing element of one’s experience, then the ANS tends to slide increasingly toward sympathetic–high levels of autonomic tone. That may go along with excessive fastwave activity, but in many cases it does not. And it’s perfectly possible for a person to stay in that stressed state so long that they exhaust their adrenal glands and become seriously under-aroused, even though they are highly anxious.

In many cases the disconnect category has a link to dissociation.

Remember that, with Tone problems, training alpha up can result in relaxation all right, but that can mean that sympathetic tone drops, resulting in a sympathetic rebound. In many clients this takes the form of a burst of anxiety or even a panic attack.


The disconnect pattern is a very specific one: left or right temporal high beta at 2 times or more the other side. High levels of fast activity in the temporal lobes are important to a disconnect pattern, but without the differential they don’t constitute a disconnect.

The word disconnect is not negative (“I disconnected from my stress” wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?). It is simply descriptive. It describes the findings of Teischer that the declarative and emotional memory systems are disconnected and functioning independently instead of together, meaning that adults who had childhood histories of abuse did not activate their temporal lobes together when asked to recall prior events as most of us do. They tended to activate only on the left (around T3) when recalling positive events, suggesting that the amygdala/hippocampus memory structure that deals with declarative detailed story memory was active, but the right side, which handles feeling tone, was not. Hence they had intellectual memories of positive events but no feeling related to them. On the other hand, they activated the right side strongly and not the left in response to painful memories (and hence events in current life which trigger them). They had no intellectual context for understanding those memories–and indeed, in many cases, didn’t even HAVE a memory–but there was a strong feeling tone triggered.

The disconnect category is related specifically to 23-38 Hz, but if ALL frequencies have 2X as much activity on one side as the other, then there is no disconnect. The TQ Analyze page looks at both the level of amplitudes (Raw Amplitude in microvolts) on both sides, and it looks also at the relative value–the percent of each frequency. If either achieves a 2:1 relationship in 23-38 Hz, it will tell you to rule out a problem, but I personally only look at the relative values. If the percent high beta on one side is 24% and 12% on the other, that could be a disconnect.

If you have a significant (2X or more) differential between high beta readings at T4 (higher) and T3, then I would train down highbeta between T3/T4 and train up activity starting at 12-15 Hz but reducing the frequency range in 5-minute intervals (e.g. after 5 minutes try 11-14Hz) until you find a frequency where you feel a “release” or something positive.

Left Temporal Lobe 2-3 Times the High Beta than Right

People with this pattern do not have the regressive emotional reactions to negative events that the folks with the pattern strong to the right (T4) have. It’s probably a disconnect, but in a very intellectualized way. This is what it has been discussed anecdotally, at least. The affects were generally quite flat. I’ve never trained to re-balance that, and so the formula only looks for imbalance to the right in the temporal lobes in high-beta, since that is such a severe problem.

This pattern of very high left side often relates to lack of nurturing during early childhood–emotional neglect instead of abuse. I think that finding something that reduces the activation at T3 will likely have the most positive effect

Hot Temporals

Hot temporals are related to excessive activity–sometimes on one side but more often on both–in beta and/or high beta showing that the amygdalae are over-responding to either internal or external “threats”. The amygdalae turn on the sympathetic/adrenal emergency response system. This forces the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to focus on evaluating the “emergency” and turning off the response, thus keeping it from doing more generally useful tasks. If it happens often enough, the sympathetic response begins to dominate over the parasympathetic (rest & digest–maintenance functions) autonomic responses. It can also lead to excess cortisol build-up in the temporal lobes and the loss of neurons there and in the hippocampus, causing reduced ability to access memory and to feel things appropriately. And it can result in adrenal fatigue to the point that the person can no longer respond to potentially dangerous situations except by freezing. Of course this derailing of the PFC from its true executive functions can result in fatigue there as well–at least in a breakdown of its performance.

I usually train hot temporals based on the patterns that exist there. Are they only present with eyes closed, or do they show up in eyes-open conditions as well? Are they primarily in beta (15-22 Hz) or high-beta (23-38) or both? Are they significantly stronger on one side than the other (though not rising to the level of a disconnect)? Are the temporals hot–or is the whole brain hot? Looking at the TQ you can see the percent of beta and high beta left and right relative to the average for the entire hemisphere. Hot temporals which are less than or equal to values in the rest of the hemisphere aren’t necessarily hot temporals–they’re part of a hot brain! What kind of alpha appears in the temporals with EC and EO? Are the temporals highly asymmetrical?

Based on these things I may or may not train the temporals first–and I may train them with a bipolar montage (T3/T4) or a one-channel monopolar, or a two-channel squish, sum-difference squish or a windowed squash depending on what I want to do in addition to cooling them down. You could use Options–1C (IN 2-38–or whatever band dominates–; REW 9-13 or 6-13 or 12-16–depending on the EEG). Or with T3/A1/g/T4/A2 Options–2C choosing your inhibits and rewards based on the EEG. Use the Music/Video versions of the designs.

I do use the subjective assessment with every client I work with. I am a strong believer in intervening in the whole system, not just the client’s brain. The subjective gives me a good picture of the parents, spouse, client, etc., and I often use large differentials in the ratings to open the discussion of the homeostatic system in operation (how come dad rates the kid as “trying hard with a few problem areas” and mom rates him as “spawn from hell”?!) Often the subjective of the client will show issues that the parents aren’t even aware of. And the summary pages help me to determine if I want to assess an optional site and, if so, which one(s). It also gives me a great start on a set of training objectives and focuses my interview time by highlighting areas where I want more information.

Many people who train hot temporals experience a quieting of their minds, a sense of being more relaxed and having more energy at the same time, etc. Ideally there would be a reduction in anxiety. You are likely to get a release of energy, without necessarily experiencing the old memories: I feel more relaxed and more energized at the same time.


Daniel Amen’s term “hot cingulate” relates to a cingulate where there is a lot of very fast activity (generally beta and/or high-beta which are significantly stronger at Fz than at F3 and F4 (or Cz than C3 and C4). Again, theta would not be included.

In the TQ, we use an approach developed by Tom Brownback, which looks at the subjective issues (are there obsessive, compulsive, addictive or phobic problems) which would suggest frontal midline disruptions. If those are present, we would look at the frontal midline (Fz) to see where those show up in the frequency relationship. If you are using the latest TLC, on the analyze page there is a graph of slow/middle/fast waves for F3, F4 and Fz and a comparison of percentage differences.

Autonomic Tone Issues - Cold Cingulate
Cold Cingulate

The idea of looking at theta (or alpha) is that a person whose cingulate has been “hot”–working way too hard–for a long time can end up with “ashes” there instead of a fire. The cingulate, which controls the flow of emotional material to the decision-making pre-frontal cortex (among other things) is exhausted from working so hard for so long and produces excessive theta or alpha.


I don’t necessarily have a single protocol for limbic calming, because I think the brain establishes various strategies to deal with limbic over-drive situations. If the drive is related to later stress issues, then I am more likely to find the most common pattern in adults, which I call Reversal. The parietal and/or occipital lobes show greater activation (higher beta levels and lower alpha) than the frontal areas. Instead of the back of the brain simply integrating sensory inputs into a unified picture to be sent forward for processing (an alpha task), they attempt to process the individual bits of information (can’t wait for the bad news!). The frontal lobes seem to “let go” in response to this usurpation of their processing function. These clients often show with a “driven” character, very productive, demanding of themselves and others, working long hours and then occasionally “crashing” (if any of this sounds familiar, stop me…), sometimes showing explosions of anger–sometimes after controlling it for a long time–and often have a sleep pattern of falling asleep easily but awakening after an hour or a few and not being able to sleep again. These folks often show anxiety–or at least experience it. They may also be reversed in terms of left vs right prefrontal beta/alpha activation–too active on the right–which is more likely to be depressive and may not show some of the other elements of this pattern. I find that training alpha/theta ratio up toward 1.5 at P4 or training alpha coherence up at P3 and P4 works well as a start, and then finishing with a bit of beta up/theta or alpha down at F3.

If you work with adults, you can pretty much expect to see a lot of reversals. When I first identified the pattern and began training with it, I was sure I must have made a mistake, because the first 10-12 people we assessed had one or the other or both. I looked at my brain, and I didn’t have them, so I knew at least it was possible, and I’d say probably 20-30% of the adults I see as clients or as trainees don’t have reversals, but they are a common strategy the brains in our culture adopt to respond the stresses and demands they face.

Left/right reversals essentially damp down the expectations of a positive universe, so there is less of a mismatch between what the brain expects and the generally negative view a highly stressed brain has of the world; front/back reversals shift the process of evaluating the “meaning” of sensory inputs to the back of the brain (remember the boss and the administrative assistant from the level 2 training?), which gets them faster but is not really equipped to evaluate them. Those inputs are then processed quickly (nobody can sneak up on me), but before it is integrated (the real function of the back of the brain

The approach I recommend is to start with problems like hot temporals, reversals, etc. which are more related to the source of the emotional drive before changing the defense against it (hot cingulate). Better to fix the broken leg before training away the crutch. But the dictum is, if it works, go ahead and do it.

Beta Reversals

Beta reversals mean that beta is higher on homologous right hemisphere sites than left or in the posterior sites than the frontal. Of course this depends on what the beta relative values are. If beta values are running 14-16 or thereabouts % in both areas, then alpha beta symmetry training may be indicated. If the beta values on the right are above 16% and higher than the left sites, then you’ll probably train it down on the right. If they are below 14% on the left, then I’d train down whatever is high (delta, theta, alpha) on the left to increase the relative beta–with or without a beta reward. Ditto front/back reversals.

When I see a beta reversal, my first question is always whether the problem is too much beta on the right or too little on the left. If the reversal relates to excessive fast activity on the right, train it down (and alpha up) on the right. If it relates to low beta levels on on the left, train down whatever is high on the left. If the betas are in the 14-17% range, use the symmetry designs.

Front-to-Back Reversal

You can have a front/back alpha reversal with low levels of alpha in both areas (e.g. Alpha/Theta ratios well below 1 with eyes closed). Or you could have reversal with high ratios (above 1.5 in the front). The former would probably show us a person with anxiety, perhaps depression, perhaps sleep issues; the latter probably low motivation and drive. Of course how fast the alpha is could also have an effect as well as relationships in beta, etc.

With front/back beta reversals, I always teach that you can train down beta in the back IF there is enough alpha! If the alpha theta ratios are lower than, say, 1.3 or so, I would train up alpha. Especially get the 10-12 Hz alpha going.


Blocking has to do with denial of emotions, blocking their flow by the anterior cingulate. It shows as unexpressed and unfelt emotional material–as with OCD, addictive and sometimes phobic clients, and it causes the pre-frontal midline loop (orbito-frontal cortex, basal ganglia, cingulate gyrus) to work excessively in order to keep emotional material from reaching awareness. When this process is active it can appear as what Daniel Amen calls the Hot Cingulate. The cingulate runs beneath the sagittal line that separates the two hemispheres, so we look for traces of cingulate issues by looking at Fz (and/or Cz) relative to F3 and F4. If the place where the two hemispheres meet is clearly different from the hemispheres themselves, it may well be the “shadow” cast by the anterior cingulate. A “hot” cingulate with a lot more fast activity, may be actively blocking emotional material from reaching consciousness. A “cold” cingulate, with slow or middle frequencies dominating may be “burned out” from working too hard for too long and emotional content may be overwhelming the client. Looking at the maps page often clearly outlines the area where the colors are brighter at Fz and Cz.

It’s not generally a good idea to train a hot cingulate first, since it usually relates to a denial pattern (blocking). Excessive control is a way of blocking emotional drive issues, so the brain may well choose to avoid the changes you are asking it to make if you haven’t done anything to resolve those underlying issue. It’s easier to recognize a crutch than, say, a broken ankle, but training to get rid of the crutch probably won’t be as useful as training to fix the fracture first. Then the crutch is no longer needed.

Blocking issues are the last ones I would usually mess with. OCD behavior is a defense against some underlying emotional issue in most cases, and I can’t think of a case where I’ve ever seen Blocking as the most basic category. When I do train it, I usually train with a bipolar hookup between the right mastoid crease and Fp1, increasing lobeta and decreasing theta.


Locking (excessive fastwave coherence) is a measure of the brain’s ability to communicate between pools of neurons in the cortex. This ability to connect should be relaxed most of the time in alpha, theta and delta frequencies, independent and flexible in beta states and free of every high “background noise” (high-beta).

The ability to connect in resting states appears in coherences in the range of 40 and 80. Slow frequencies come from single generators in the sub-cortex. All signals in these lower frequencies come from the same place at the same time. If they appear at two different sites at nearly the same time, the sites are well-connected and clear. Low levels of slow-wave cohernece suggest an excitable brain, bursting into beta at different locations at rest. Energy is wasted and relaxation can be difficult.

Faster beta signals show areas of the cortex that are excited. For an efficient brain, levels of excitation during waking states should be in the alpha/lowbeta range with bursts of beta in areas where work is being done. Channels of communication should be open and flexible. High coherences in beta speeds when not performing a task should be below 40. If these are high, communication between the sites has a lot of background noise. There may be constant thinking, anxiety, getting stuck. The effects may differ at different sites.

When coherence measures are high, that suggests that either the two sites were communicating with one another or that both were communicating with a third site.

Slow frequency coherences are expected to be fairly high since slow frequencies generally come from a single source, a sub-cortical rhythm generator. Fast alpha pretty much anywhere in the brain comes from a set of nuclei in the thalamus which produce the alpha rhythm and broadcast it up to the cortex. So we expect it to be coherent.

Fast frequencies are produced in the cortex itself when a pool of neurons is working. There isn’t really a “generator” for fast frequency activity, as there are for slower frequencies, so we would expect coherences in those frequencies to be lower unless we happened to catch the cortex performing a task that involved the two sites communicating with one another.

That said, we always have to remember Pete’s first rule of neurofeedback. When we see something unexpected or unusual in the EEG, we want to verify first that it wasn’t caused by the client, the electrodes, the software or some other extraneous source. We know that muscle activity tends to cause all frequencies to surge in amplitude at the same time. Hence the activity we might see (in slow, medium or fast frequencies) when one, say, grits his teeth, does in fact all come from the same place. It’s just not coming from brain cells; it’s coming from EMG. And since it’s coming from the same place, we often see coherneces very high in all frequencies. So a client who was, for example, tightening muscles in his face or forehead to try to keep from blinking could end up producing high coherences in all frequencies that have nothing whatsoever to do with the brain.

Coherence is directly related to phase relationships (phase is a measure of the timing delay between what is happening in a particular frequency between the two sites). The further apart the two sites are, the harder it is to see high coherence. We rarely see coherences high between T3 and T4. Ditto F7 and F8 or T5 and T6. Fp1 and Fp2, on the other hand, are so close together that timing relationships tend to be pretty strong and coherences are often high there; same with Cz and Pz.

Slow wave coherence can be thought of as a measure of the degree to which the areas being measured are capable of “letting go” of beta. In an anxious brain, the brain is constantly bursting into beta–even when there is no work to do–so the neuron pools don’t do a very good job of linking up to the sub-cortical generators. P3 does, but at that moment P4 produces a burst of beta; then P4 synchs up but P3 bursts into beta. The alpha coherence between P3 and P4 remains very low. Those slow-wave coherences are often related to very low-energy resting/ready states, very efficient, like a first-rate athlete coasting between bursts of activity toward the goal. So brains that can’t do that state very well tend to be tired, incapable of resting, always running around in circles and wasting energy.

Fast wave coherence, if it is really there (not an artifact of muscle tension or electromagnetic field radiation), suggests that the neuron pools are locked together. Neurons producing beta should act like commodities traders with cell phones: take a quick order from a client, ring off, call in the order, ring off, get another call, ring off, make a call, ring off–very efficiently sharing information among sites, like the pivot-man in a double-play in baseball: catch the ball, tag the base, throw the ball, all so fast that you can’t really be sure he touched it. But when fastwave coherence is high, that suggests something more like two adolescent girls on their cellphones together: hours at a time, sharing very little information, but locking up the communication capability so neither can take other calls or make other calls. You might expect to see cognitive inefficiency, rigidity, difficulty with switching appropriately.

With Multiband coherence training (up or down or combined or rocking) now easily do-able with the brain-trainer Design Package, and with connectivity being a critical issue in many brains, it’s not uncommon to see 4 site pairs trained for synchrony or gamma in a training plan, making up 25-50% of the segments depending on the state of the brain. For trainers using 4C amps like the Optima4 or the Q-WIZ, 4C synchrony and coherence can halve the time required for this.

Slow-Wave Coherence

Coherence in slower frequencies like alpha is an indication of how effectively the neurons are going into neutral and (in alpha) remaining in a ready state, present but not processing. Low coherence suggests either that there are differential timing loops between sets of neurons and the rhythm generators in the thalamus or, more likely, that the neurons on the surface of the cortex aren’t really letting go very well. They keep trying to burst up into beta.

Problems related could be anxiety, inability to be still and relaxed, difficulty performing sensory integration tasks (in the back of the head) and perhaps some sleep issues.

Some people find alpha coherence to be tremendously positive and restful and calming; others don’t get much from it and have a hard time doing it. Try it and see.

All coherence training should be done with linked ear reference and should be done with FIR filters as opposed to IIR filters. Alpha coherence should be done eyes closed.

Coherence at Fp1 and Fp2

Delta and high coherence at Fp1 and Fp2 don’t necessarily mean much. Chances of eye artifact on the forehead, which appears as delta, are very high. Fp1 and Fp2 are very close together, so coherences are often high, especially in slow frequencies when the signal is affected by artifact. Train the prefrontal with HEG.

High Coherences in All Locations and Frequencies

I’d start by looking for electromagnetic artifact or muscle tension. This would be so rare in real life–and so easily caused by tension or noise, that, seeing it while you are gathering the data, you should try everything to figure out what is causing it.