Toward a New Model of Brain Training
Looking in a new direction
So far we have looked at brain-training from the point of view that informs most discussions of it—a pathology-based approach to “treating disorders” and making us all more “normal” so we “fit in” better and produce more. I’ve suggested that this view grows out of the fact that “neurofeedback” is sold in the journals and research papers, books, even the popular magazine articles and TV segments by academic researchers from the mental health field, and I’ve tried to point out the rather obvious flaws in this approach which are ignored by the “scientific community.”
It’s important to be clear at this point that brain-training is what it is. Like any real thing, it can be seen from many different sides, and none of them are wrong and none are right. You can describe a sunset, or a genius poet can describe it or dying person can describe it, but none of those descriptions is the sunset. It is what it is. The description tells us more about the describer than the thing described.
So what I want to do in this next section, before we get to the nuts-and-bolts of actually DOING brain-training, is to present another way of viewing it. Not right or wrong, but hopefully more liberating and less restrictive. Psychologists, therapists and even doctors use this approach. They see that it works, and they like the way it frees both them and their clients. I hope many of you will too.
An alternative viewpoint
Let’s consider brain-training to be “exercise”. I like that approach because:
1. It’s more inclusive. Anybody can exercise, and we know the effects it can have when done properly and consistently over a period of time. Training your body can change strength, flexibility and stamina—even that part of your body we call the brain.
2. It puts the client firmly in charge of what happens. He or she is the one who “does the work”; the trainer guides, reflects and motivates.
3. The same exercise may be used by a Physical Therapist to rehabilitate an injury or by an individual to get stronger or more flexible. Given the equipment, system and support, lay users and pros can guide the brain to positive results.
4. The same caveats apply. If you don’t have the time, organization or motivation to learn yourself, join a gym and work with a trainer. You’re more likely to produce a result that way. If you are comfortable with computers, motivated and organized, you may choose to buy the equipment and do the exercise yourself at home.
Does the Exercise Model really fit?
Let’s look at what actually happens when we train a brain.
1. HEG measures oxygenated blood available to support longer periods of faster firing by neurons in the prefrontal area. As aerobic exercise stresses the heart and lungs to draw blood into them and, over time, change their supply system, so HEG does in the brain’s executive center.
2. EEG measures how many neurons in different areas of the brain are firing at specific speeds (frequencies) and how well they coordinate. A brain stuck in slow frequencies needs to build metabolic support—again like aerobics. A brain stuck in very fast frequencies, needs to learn to idle when there is no work to be done—as with yoga, T’ai Chi or Pilates. A brain unable to work very hard or very long needs to build strength as we would with weight training.
3. Brain-training tools show us energy patterns and relationships. They show the brain when it is exercising a capacity it needs to develop. As it gets stronger, or more flexible, or more connected or more capable of producing energy, it uses those capabilities every day, so it need not keep training to sustain them.
Feedback in exercise
A pulse meter helps a person doing aerobic exercise recognize when she is in the training zone. She speeds up or slows down her efforts to stay within the target range. Feedback reflects brain pulses or beats in the same way. Doing Pilates or Yoga or weight exercises in a mirror helps to make the trainee more aware of what he is doing and how. That too is feedback that makes training more effective.
For these reasons, I will use the exercise model and call the process brain-training instead of “neurofeedback” or “neurotherapy”. Whether you are a pro, wanting to improve results with clients, a parent wishing to help a child catch up with his potential, someone wishing to improve his ability to access high-performance awareness states or just become more positive and energetic and under control, training your brain based on an understanding of what it is already doing can produce significant lasting changes that move in the direction you set.