Our brains are malleable; with new information every day, they are constantly changing and building new habits.
Researchers have found methods to optimize building our brain’s habits and changing existing ones. It’s called neurofeedback and is pretty simple to understand.
Neurofeedback is pretty easy to understand logically. As mentioned in its name, you are giving some sort of feedback (feedback) to your brain (neuro). The main questions are, when, why, and how.
To answer when we first have to dive a little bit into some basic neuroscience. Your brain emits neural oscillations, which are patterns, or rhythms of repetitive neural/brain activity. These are what people call, “brain waves,” so today, we are sticking with that term.
Brain waves are classified by the speed at which neurons communicate in Hertz (Hz) and are divided into 5 categories:
Their power is defined by microvolts. When we talk about brain waves changing, we are referring to their power.
- Gamma waves are the fastest and are stimulated during fast neuronal communication. They’re correlated with information processing, executive (quick, undisputed), and rational decision making. Gamma is also linked with motor activity
- Low-Beta (isn’t shown on diagrams) is often called the “motivation brainwave.” They affect your motivation heavily and a little bit of your focus
- Beta waves are what your brain usually emits during your waking hours. Beta waves are stimulated during problem-solving, decision-making, and concentration. They are also responsible for sensory information intake (see, touch, smell, taste, hear).
- Alpha waves are generated by the occipital lobe when closing the eyes or relaxing. They’re linked with feeling calm, and relaxed.
- Theta waves are low-frequency and low-altitude waves that are emitted in sleep, daydreaming, and meditation. Theta waves are often linked with focus and creativity.
- Delta waves are usually associated with deep stages of sleep and meditation. They don’t really matter, to be honest.
Whenever these brain waves are out of balance, this is usually when mental illness occurs. For example, there is not enough Gamma in your brain, your rational thinking ability decreases, which is linked with depression. To answer the question of when; neurofeedback is used when your brainwaves are imbalanced.
Your brain waves must always be in balance. If one brain wave is stimulated beyond normal amounts or vice versa, there can be some negative effects.
For example, if your Beta waves are irregularly stimulated, there is a massive influx of information which can be overwhelming. This is what causes anxiety.
At the same time, if we don’t have enough Gamma, we lose a lot of our ability to rationally think, and process emotions, a key symptom of depression.
This happens because depression causes your brain to send less blood to your prefrontal cortex which is responsible for rational thinking and deeper emotional processing (not just fight or flight). This shrinks your prefrontal cortex, which correlates to less Gamma being produced.
As a general rule of thumb, whenever there is an imbalance with your brainwaves, there is usually an influence on your behaviour or actions. This is because your brainwaves are essentially just indicators of your neurons talking to each other, and if that’s screwed up, what else is?
Neurofeedback is used to revert this imbalance and restore homeostasis to your brain.
First, we need to get your live brain data (EEG data) from a Brain-Computer Interface. From there, we can detect anomalies in your brainwaves. As you can see below, this is relatively difficult, so we have to use machine learning classifiers.
Afterward, we have to specify a neurofeedback protocol for the patient to follow. This is essentially a fancy way of declaring which brain waves you want to stimulate, and what brain waves you want to inhibit.
For depression specifically, protocols can differ heavily. However, there is a nice diagram that lays out which combination of brain wave imbalances causes depressive episodes.
All we have to do is revert the imbalance in the brain causing the depressive episode. Sounds easy right? Well, it is for the patient, all they have to do is consume some type of media. As shown in this diagram here, a patient consumes visual/audio feedback (usually a game) and based on their brain data, the media would change accordingly.
Let’s take this scenario: you are then told to play a brain-controlled racing game, where your speed is all dependent on your brain waves, and your neurofeedback protocol is to reward Theta and inhibit Beta.”
Eventually, this teaches your brain to create habits in your brain which are healthy and balance out your brain again.
This happens because neurofeedback takes advantage of neuroplasticity; a natural process of the brain making your brain malleable and easy to change. Neuroplasticity is the same reason we learn things, like writing brain-computer interface articles and playing video games with brain signals.
Self Medicating Your Brain
Neurofeedback can serve as an affordable alternative to psychiatric therapy and anti-depressants. All you really need is an EEG, and neurofeedback software.
This can be game-changing for people with mood disorders in general, and especially for depression. There are datasets of people with depression at rest so that we can classify depression easily.
There are also diagrams like this where we can easily tell if someone is in a depressive state/episode.
It has never been easier to self-medicate, than right now.
In general, we know a lot about depression and how to treat it. It’s an exciting time for neuroscience and the field of Brain-Computer Interfaces.
Hopefully, neurofeedback progresses to the stage that you can just use software to balance out your brain waves and remain (relatively) stress-free.