Comment on what I found

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Q: I  found there are 3 ways neurofeedback can be used:

1. Train the brain to maintain a certain brain wave (alpha, beta, etc.) – very basic and not really used any more

A) The brain rarely, if ever, maintains “a certain” frequency in any place for any length of time–at least not a healthy brain. It is always doing multiple things in multiple places at any given moment. Peak brains are able to shift largely into a “resting-ready”state in those areas which are not momentarily involved in performing a task, but it is constantly shifting areas into and out of that state. You can train to increase the ability to get into alpha or to block slower frequencies or very fast frequencies, but the benefit of doing those things tends to be dependent on how well the brain already does them. You find that out by doing an assessment.

2. Train certain regions of the brain to have brain waves that are more normal (based on a more highly functional average of the human brain) in context of certain activities / tasks – my understanding is that this is what we will be doing with the TLC

A) Whole-Brain training is made up of several key elements guided by the TLC7, which looks for patterns in which the brain is “stuck”. Any frequency (level of activation) is useful in the right place at the right time, and any frequency is problematic at the wrong time or place. When a brain develops a “habit” of producing a certain frequency or combination outside of the times it is useful, problems begin to appear in mental, emotional, physical function and performance. We look for those patterns and, when they match what the client wants to change, we train them toward greater flexibility.

Brain function is dependent on its ability to link independent areas, which we can measure with EEG by looking at synchrony (stable phase) relationships. Those are also a major focus of the TLC7.

Finally, brain performance is mediated to a large extent by the human prefrontal cortex–the so-called “executive center”–which controls and orchestrates operations throughout the brain. We use HEG to work that crucial area, which is difficult to train with EEG.

3. Let the brain see itself and optimize itself. Brain directs its own optimization. – Do you have any idea of how to accomplish this? Are there any protocols for this?

A) The assumption here is that the brain is not ALWAYS trying to “optimize itself” based on the feedback it gets from the world around it. That’s what brains do! When we train a brain, we do so by giving it a mirror in which it can see itself, try new things and perhaps learn to change itself. So which of the areas of the brain do we choose to do that? What elements of brain activity do we show it? Even processes that supposedly do as you describe have to make those choices or how do they give the brain feedback?

The “optimize itself” folks should, by definition, simply show the brain hundreds of pieces of information at the same time showing all frequency bands at 19 or 32 or 64 sites on the head, coherence and phase relationships among them all, etc. Just let the brain watch its own EEG without any feedback at all. But that’s not what they do.

NeurOptimal (NO) and Brain State (BS) are highly-marketed systems that make such claims. NO always measures C3 and C4 and looks only at one thing–variability. BS uses a stripped-down old version of the TLC and “identifies” sites and frequencies to train.

Of course the brain “directs its own optimization” in any system, because the idea of NF is that we show the brain itself in an accurate and responsive mirror. But we are always giving feedback. Someone has to decide where and on what basis to give the feedback. If you look at your back in a mirror, you can’t see your front and vice-versa. NO is another one-size-fits-all training that can have very positive effects if what and where they train is what and where the brain can benefit from it. BS is a super-expensive simplified and derivative version of assessment-based training which also works for some clients.

It’s useful to get clear about the difference between marketing and function. You can put salt into a package and call it
“All Natural, Low-calorie, Lactose-and-Gluten-free gourmet condiment”. Sell it for $50/oz and some people will buy it because they can’t see beneath the hype–but it’s still just salt.

4. Have you heard of the Tag Sync protocol. What is your opinion of it’s usefulness?

A) I doubt that anyone who has looked into brain training in the past couple years–HASN’T heard of the miraculous TAG sync protocol. About a decade ago, Richard Davidson and others looked at the brain patterns of meditators with 10,000-50,000 hours of meditation experience over 25-40 years. They noted that in a certain type of meditation state, the brains of these people who had meditated an hour or more every day for decades produced–in addition to the highly synchronous alpha that has long been a characteristic of peak-state brains–synchronous gamma frequency as well. Since so much of the data in so-called “normative databases” of brain function was gathered in the 80’s and 90’s with amplifiers that did not read frequencies above about 30 Hz, gamma (35-45 Hz or above) doesn’t even appear and was largely unrecognized.

So this was a hot new discovery! But what did it really mean?

The gamma synchrony appeared in bursts when the meditators were asked to produce a state of “unconditional loving kindness and compassion”–not, unfortunately, a state commonly found in our society.

Do a search for theta alpha gamma synchrony and see what you find. Ordinarily in searches related to brain patterns the results begin with several “scholarly articles” on the topic. My findings in this case were headed up by the TAG sync website and the bulletproof executive blog. The first “scientific”article was about decerebrated cats.

One article that surveyed literature about the Default-Mode Network (including Fz and Pz where TAG sync is trained) explained that the DFN was all about “self-referential thought”–not related to a specific task–and found that “spontaneous self-referential mentationi (was) most associated with the alpha frequency band.” No mention of gamma or theta.

In every search I did, the TAG sync website came up in first place, generally followed by other commercial sites touting the technique–including one which offered to teach buyers to meditate “like top CEO’s”, since, I suppose, corporate executives are such widely-recognized models of “unconditional loving kindness and compassion”. And who knew they meditated?

What I find interesting about the whole TAG sync fad is that the people who are most drawn to it are doing it so they can “perform” better. That’s what the brain “hacking” groups are all about. Your body and brain are a machine, and you need to “get the most out of it” by taking certain supplements, using certain diets, exercises, games, etc. The work with people who have dedicated their lives to sitting quietly for an hour or more a day and just being still seems like an odd choice for a model to such folks if they really understand what it’s all about. The whole premise of “getting the brain of a 25-year zen meditator” as quickly and effortlessly as possible is a perfect example of the mechanistic view of life which is the absolute opposite of what the actual practice of meditation is all about.

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2 Responses to “Comment on what I found”

  1. Mike

    Do you have a perspective on the benefits of the Loreta approach to NFB, and do you plan on integrating that approach/software/equipment into the Brain-Trainer product line ?
    Thank you,

    • Peter Van Deusen

      There’s a difference between research tools and training tools. LORETA is a technique for statistically projecting from surface EEG (the only kind there is) to the “sources” of the signal in sub-cortical areas which don’t produce EEG. In other words, it attempts to match what fMRI shows using EEG signals. That’s cool. It’s probably of interest to researchers, based as it is on the normative concept. But if what you want to do is train a brain, the only real argument in favor of using more and more complicated and costly approaches like z-score and LORETA would be that they produce faster or better changes than more traditional approaches.

      So far, to the best of my knowledge, they don’t. Of course I understand why BrainMasster and NeuroGuide would like to sell this stuff. Frankly the market among researchers is not that big. If they can convince people who “just” want to help clients CHANGE their brain activity to buy their stuff, it’s a much larger market. Lacking (at least so far) any ability to demonstrate that there’s a funcional difference in outcomes, they go for the western consumerist approach: It it’s bigger and prettier and more complicated, it MUST be better. More importantly, it’s more “scientific”. It must be, because look at all the data and 3D imagery and pages of reports, etc.

      Where I run afoul of the approach is when people start training to “train LORETA”. Especially when they begin denigrating standard EEG approaches as “just surface training”, whereas THEY are training “deep structures”. If I put a puppy on a table and toss a sheet over him, I can’t see the puppy any more, but I can still tell you a lot about what he’s doing. If I notice him crawling toward an edge of the table and I tap his nose under the sheet, I’ll be able to train him not to do that. Of course I could buy at XRay machine and watch the puppy in that, and tap his nose when I saw him crawling toward the edge (perhaps a little later than I would if I were just watching his movements under the sheet. It would be, I guess, more “scientific”–certainly a lot more expensive–and it might produce the same results in terms of training the puppy. But would it really be in any way more desirable? Not to me. I have to buy that machine and learn to use it and pay for the processing it does, etc. That means I have to charge more, which means some clients will not be able to afford to train with me. Or I have to get along with less for my time and expertise if I keep the price the same and pay more for the lease or purchase of the equipment. For no functional benefit? Why would I do it?

      Visible EEG is produced by pyramidal neurons which are found primarily in the cerebral cortex (the main processing area of the brain–that boring old “surface” training. It can also be seem to a lesser degree from the hippocampi inside the temporal lobe on either side of the brain and the cingulate gyrus which runs below the cortex under the midline which separates left and right hemispheres. That’s it. Bottom line: if you are training EEG, only pyramidal neurons can be seen, and hence only pyramidal neurons can be trained–no matter how much money you spend on fancy displays.

      If a signal has its source in subcortical areas, but we read it on the surface–which would be the case with much of the EEG–then if we train to change the surface signal use EEG training, how does that happen without the sub-cortical source either changing or being modulated more effectively?

      If you want to do research (which, by the way, you won’t do comparing a single individual brain against a population), go for it. Get someone to buy you LORETA and a database or 2 or 3. Heck, get yourself an fMRI machine. You don’t care. It may give you useful information with which to test a hypothesis.

      If you want to train brains, I’ll stand by Whole-Brain Training, which focuses on training specific patterns in the client’s brain that research has already linked to symptom constellations. It trains on the surface because it is quick and accurate, and it trains multiple patterns that hold the brain’s homeostasis in place to allow the whole system to move. Is it proven to work faster or better than anything else? Nope. We’re trainers, not researchers, so we spend our resources on getting results for our clients. But when you can buy an entire integrated system of hardware and software for $4,300 that will give you a 20-site picture of brain activation patterns and train them to help deal with most anything that walks in the door, and you get results with minimal if any negative rsponses, without additional costs and within the range of sessions that other systems produce…well, what’s the argument against it?


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