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The Birth of Neurofeedback

The birth of neurofeedback brain training came about as a response to the growing field of brain wave (EEG) research. EEG or electroencephalogram, is the technical measure of a single unit of brain wave signal. The physiology of the brain is such that the synaptic chemical events that occur when one neuron transmits a signal to another, also produces an electric discharge, which can then be read by specialized hardware. Much of the modern narrative around neuroscience and psychology is centered around the biochemical descriptions of human cognition and behavior. However, concurrent to the growth and development of the field of neuroscience, brain waves have been an area of interest, since their discovery by a German psychiatrist, Hans Berger, in 1924.

It wasn’t until 1950’s that Dr. Joe Kamiya, a psychology professor, discovered that certain brain wave frequencies were able to be reinforced through external feedback. About a decade and half later, the first scientific work that showed how neurofeedback was used to condition brain wave activity, was published by Dr. Barry Sterman from UCLA. The origins of this finding were anything but ordinary:

Dr. Sterman was hired by NASA to study the effects of monomethylhydrazine (rocket fuel) on cats, due to its unexpected noxious effects on NASA staff. Dr. Sterman decided to use cats for this work, to find out exactly how the rocket fuel affects an organism. By pure coincidence, Dr. Sterman had unintentionally used the same cats in this study that were previously used in a separate neurofeedback study, who had adulterated brain activity as a result. It was not long before it was discovered that the neurofeedback cats were significantly more tolerant of the rocket fuel exposure. It was also in this case that neurofeedback’s entry into the arena of legitimate science, was due to it’s ability to prevent and treat seizures. In fact, the very first human subject of neurofeedback was a 23 year old woman, who has suffered seizures since the age of 8, was virtually free of them after 3 months of neurofeedback training.

These first discoveries of the potential of neurofeedback began to gather acclaim, until the discovery of drugs had drawn most of the attention away from the field. In the middle to late 1970’s the emergence of psychiatric drugs drew most of the academic and public focus toward the chemical model of the mind. As this attention shifted away from the study of EEG, the field of neurofeedback incurred a recession as a result. The popularization of terms like serotonin and dopamine, had a huge effect on the role that research funding was going to play in dealing with the mental health of the public. Everyone from neurologists, to psychiatrists, were forced to look at human wellbeing through the lens of pharmacology. By and large, mental health became a matter of taking the right drugs, and the United States gradually became the leading country in the world in the rate of psychotropic drug prescriptions.

However, just outside the fringes of mainstream neuroscience, it was icons like Dr. Sterman, Dr. Kamiya, Niels Birbaumer, and Joel Lubar that quietly continued their work in expanding and refining the science of neurofeedback. This electrophysiological side of the neuroscience “story” has built up decades of research and clinical application since its discovery. Along the way, specific brain wave signatures have been found to have remarkable validity in predicting brain and mental health symptoms, which have given clinicians a big diagnostic advantage. In medicine, the precision of the diagnostic tool makes the biggest difference in which therapy will then be most useful.

In the late 1980’s, biofeedback began to surface on the market. Biofeedback was a more simplified version of controlling autonomic function by using biological markers such as heart rate, or galvanic skin response. This type of feedback technology, although not as sophisticated or as individualized as neurofeedback, gained fame because it was a lot easier to use and understand, as well as more affordable for the consumer.

As digital technology grew more rapidly from the 1990’s to the present, the field of neurofeedback continued to evolve and progress. More thorough and well designed research on neurofeedback has been completed, and the failure of drugs to live up to their promise, brought more mental health and peak performance professionals to utilize this method of brain training. The cultural shift around health and wellness throughout the world, has also included the concept of brain health itself. The popularity of everything from smart drugs, to using lifestyle biohacking techniques to improve cognitive performance, is evidence that the brain has become the subject of curiosity. It is no longer the quiet and sterile world of academia who are interested in the brain. As information is becoming so widely accessible through the world wide web, the average citizen is beginning to realize that there is no better resource to invest time and effort in than the infinitely complex organ between one’s ears.

The reader may find relief, that the current era within which they live, is able to offer this staggering tool. The growth and improvement of the mind has never been so directly accessible as it is now.

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