Updated: Apr 27, 2021
It is important and helpful to consider what it is that allows us to enjoy our lives in the first place. What is it that makes the taste of strawberries, or the sound of music so delightful? This answer eventually comes down to the foundation of our conscious life, the brain and nervous system. It is what commands everything from externally obvious muscular contractions, to the private world of our very own thoughts. The function of the brain underpins everything from physical sensations, to psychological states. The brain is a dynamic and adaptive system which is itself reared and conditioned by the type of information it processes. This means that our particular experiences shape the way our brain works, by placing specific demands upon it. These demands constitute the environment we live in, such as climate, food availability, and socio-economic dynamics. To meet these demands our brains learn that some strategies work better than others. These strategies then become hardwired into the neuroanatomy of the brain, which we call learning. Your very ability to have learned the once complex task of walking or riding a bicycle so well, illustrates that the experience of learning is associated with structural changes in the brain. The malleability of the brain, in the terminology of neuroscience, is referred to as plasticity, or neuroplasticity. Our very own tastes and preferences are subject to plasticity as well, and what accounts for the fact that we can enjoy certain foods in adulthood that we did not as children.
Tastes and preferences are central to understanding pleasure, which is how the quality and enjoyability of our lives is measured. Since our brain is plastic in this way, it means that at any moment in time, its total ability is forged by all of the experiences that it has processed and learned in the past. Which also means that the way we enjoy and experience anything in the present, is strongly influenced by what kind of a past we have had. Pleasure is relevant because, as a living being who is enveloped in the biology of the body, it is not only healthy, but also necessary to have pleasant, fulfilling, and meaningful experiences. Even in the field of medicine, health is in part measured by how “good” someone feels. This also has an obvious evolutionary explanation due to the fact that the pleasures associated with eating, physical exertion, and social bonding, are the hallmark experiences of health, whose pursuit ensures a better chance of survival. The reason that human beings are fascinated with personal growth, learning, and peak performance, is because these are all extensions of the more instinctive survival pleasures just mentioned.
The way that our past affects this innate ability to enjoy something, can be observed when an early life adverse event negatively affects the healthy development of an individual. If a person has a bad first experience with a dog, that can often affect the comfort they will have with a dog well into the future, and impact their ability to enjoy a dog’s presence altogether. These examples and analogies are near infinite in their variety, and begin to sound familiar to our own pasts. It would be impossible to calculate in how many other ways we may have the same type of pleasure blindspot. Since all of this comes down to the function of the brain, it is here that we should be cautious of how and where we may not be getting everything we could from it. To the degree that our brain’s biology is functioning suboptimally, we are technically, chemically, and structurally unable to experience more of the positive feelings and sensations. Similar to how a smoker will not be able to experience the full range of their respiratory system and all of the positives attendant to that, a compromised brain doesn’t possess the anatomical hardware that allows it to have certain experiences.
The timeless pursuit for more fulfillment, enjoyment, and basic biological pleasures, is the single most important driver of human culture. Although fair criticisms might be levied at the insatiable craving for “more”, which categorizes the greed that we see impacting our modern world, we have to be careful to not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. If it was not for the desire to have better sanitation, nutrition, physical health, or society, many of our modern standards, including the ability to read these very words, would not exist. Human innovation has thus far been one of the most responsible factors that determines the quality of human life. Food production, clean water, and electricity, are incalculably valuable to the advance of the human experience.
Neurofeedback is one of these innovations that heralds an age where technology is finally able to intercede at the most fundamental level of human experience. It stands above the rest in its ability to provide people with an extraordinary opportunity at self improvement. It is a fairly simple concept, made possible by very sophisticated technology. Both the hardware and software of neurofeedback technology allows a monitoring and reinforcement of electromagnetic events produced in the brain. EEG (electroencephalogram) is a measure of the electrical discharge that occurs immediately following a chemical exchange in the brain. This electrical discharge referred to as brain waves, manifests at different frequencies (Hertz) and amplitudes, as the byproduct of the type of chemicals and their respective quantities, that are being exchanged. It can be understood by analogy to the exhaust from a car engine. The kind of fuel used, the efficiency of the engine, as well as the speed of its operation, can all be assessed by the exhaust that it produces. By measuring brainwaves at different locations of the head, neurofeedback technology can measure the performance of various brain regions, which in turn can be used to reinforce or inhibit whichever brainwaves the client choses. In classical behaviorism (a la B.F. Skinner) this type of reinforcement training is called operant conditioning, which is mainly predicated on rewarding desired behaviors, and is one of the best and most robust ways for an organism to learn anything. Without the incentive of a reward, the brain can have no interest in learning anything. This way, over the course of 20-40 neurofeedback sessions the brain learns how to operate according to the preset goals of the client. These changes then become permanent, much like learning to ride a bike is, without the need to continuously refresh the skill.
This kind of brain training is effective for those seeking alleviation from brain dysregulations, such as ADD, Depression, etc, as well as for those seeking an improvement and sharpening of current skills such as, focus, creativity, relaxation, etc. All of these states and abilities of the mind are nothing more than the brain simply learning new strategies to meet its perceived demands. In cases of dysregulation and pathology, the brain is simply stuck at managing a perceived demand in a way that is inefficient and taxing to the wellbeing of the individual. Once the brain is retrained, the symptoms of its previous strategies subside. Clients often report that the same circumstances that would have previously provoked a strong stress response, unexpectedly dont feel as heavy and inescapable as before.
As soon as it is understood that the majority of human obstacles in life just come down to the brain being able to marshall certain strategies better, it becomes apparent how staggering of a discovery neurofeedback truly is. This technology presages a new epoch, where the potential of the human mind begins to emerge at a wide scale. No longer will the experience of the enlightened be kept from the masses. The future of mental health in our world has the most hopeful promise with the influence of neurofeedback.
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