Brain Health,
Neuro-Tech,
Smart Drugs,
27 MINS

#004: Neurofeedback for Brain-Driven Self-Optimization

December 25, 2012
MP3

In this week’s episode, Jesse speaks with Samantha Diavatis of the Canadian company Zengar, which produces a non-invasive, non-drug-based brain optimization product called NeurOptimal.  NeurOptimal is a neurofeedback-based system which allows a subject to hear an audio representation of his or her brain’s electrical output in real time – giving the brain the ability to self-optimize by recognizing and adjusting its own output.  Zengar characterizes this process as being analogous to seeing a mirror image of yourself and having an easier time recognizing and managing your own cleanliness, style, facial makeup, etc., than if the mirror wasn’t there.

NeurOptimal’s “Do It Yourself” Approach to Neurofeedback

Zengar’s NeurOptimal system varies from “traditional” neurofeedback methods in that the process is entirely brain-driven rather than being directed by a human operator.  In the traditional system, a subject’s brain has a “neurological snapshot” taken during a first session, and then, in subsequent sessions, real-time neurofeedback is used to fine-tune  a subject’s ability to achieve a predefined state, determined by the professional analyst (typically a doctor, psychologist, or other neurofeedback expert).  NeurOptimal’s system removes the fundamental role of the analyst and allows the subject’s own brain to decide and direct its responses to the feedback.

In this way, if the brain “likes” what it hears within the neurofeedback, it can improve and strengthen its behaviors that drive those results, and vice versa.  Over the course of repeated sessions, the brain’s increased awareness of its own output seems to result in various efficiencies that transfer into the subject’s everyday life – from mood enhancement to improved ability to concentrate, focus, sleep, etc.  Zengar says most patients begin to see real-life results within six sessions, experience significant optimization within a dozen or so sessions, and within 25 sessions most people have – for the short-term, at least – gained most of the benefits possible from neurofeedback.

Neuroscience Headline of the Week: Smog Found to Reduce Brain Power

Breathing heavy fumes in a major metropolitan area?  Not like you probably thought this was a good thing – but now science confirms that it’s not.  Wear-and-tear from heavy particulate matter suspended in the air you’re breathing can prematurely age your brain, as shown in a study of 2004 data from retirees in a variety of cities.  Recommendations based on this article:

  1. Opt for clean-air when possible – especially when making major decisions about where to live long-term.  (A month or year or two in a polluted city might not matter to your brain much over the course of your life; a few decades makes a difference.)
  2. If breathing bad air is a must, double-down on healthy choices in other areas of your life.  No smoking, lots of water/fluids for hydration, etc. will help lessen the effects of airborne toxins.
  3. Face-masks in the worst air-quality conditions might not be a bad idea.  In the West, face-masks are normally worn only by the extremely sick, or by bank robbers.  But in many parts of the world, face-masks in heavy traffic environments are the cultural norm.

Read the full article here.

Key Terms Mentioned

15 comments

  1. Andrew says:

    Hey Jesse,
    Your first woo woo interview, it would have been great if the skeptic in your challenged answers Samantha gave and then contradicted. You asked how the brain knows how to change by watching the feedback on the monitor and she says “it just does”, then later says you can watch a movie and I guess the brain still just knows to change because you are using the device (but it is not a placebo effect).

    She made many claims that were wrong and raised redflags … eg
    1)When you are asleep your autonomic system does NOT still process the outside world.
    2) Safe up to twice a day – but doing more will work faster and the brain might not process the change so well?
    3) The brain just knows what you want and makes changes (then why not just decide to change .. how do electrodes monitoring brainwaves make a difference?
    4) You don’t need to take a baseline reading or know what your doing to use the device
    5) You work with one brainwave at a time (brainwave readings are a combination of all brain activity not a specific single thing)

    Neuro feedback training is just that, a psychologist will train you based on the feedback to control your brain state and therefore emotional responses. To achieve this by an ‘automatic brain knows what to do’ is just woo woo. Having no evidence for the product and selling it to anyone with $10k is classic fringe quackery.

    It would have been great if you challenged the lack of knowledge the spokesperson had on the basics of neuro feedback, and complete lack of understanding of how the brain works – rather than giving an endorsement and advocating you will give it a try.

    1. Jesse says:

      Andrew – Thanks for the feedback. MUCH appreciated and nice to know there’s an audience out there to “keep me honest.” Since I haven’t had a chance to try neurofeedback myself (yet), I’m withholding judgment — although I was pre-inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt based on first-person anecdotes from some folks I know. But you’re right, Samantha’s “It just does” was a thoroughly underwhelming response. But I figured that the audience would make that judgment themselves, without me necessarily needing to attack the interview guest.

      Your message gives me a lot to think about. I’m still just taking baby steps into learning how interviewing people works, and I should probably think about how I’ll handle these types of situations in the future, as I’m sure they’ll come again. 🙂

      1. robert says:

        checkout this radio interview with Dr Valdeane Brown,creator of neuroptimal. almost 2 hours long he goes into great detail about how neuroptimal works
        http://www.futurehealth.org/Podcast/Valdeane-Brown-on-Non-Lin-by-Rob-Kall-100307-885.html

    2. robert says:

      I would like to address point by point andrew comments about the interview with Samantha Diavatis from NeurOptimal. I am a NeurOptimal user/trainer with 8 years experience with the system. Most of the comments Andrew makes involve some misunderstanding of how neuroptimal works and the fact that neuroptimal simply provides information to the brain and not trying to force the brain to change to meet clients goals or the interpretation of a QEEG. Granted Samantha was unclear, and innacurate about some points and needed to flesh out more on how neuroptimal works, specifically the “it just does” statement. Their is nothing woo woo about NeurOptimal, this system is used by savy profesionals, many who have used other neurofeedback systems and switched to neuroptimal.. People use it because it is simple, safe and effective. if it wasnt they would be out of business. It is an incredibly elegant system and fundamentally different than any other system around. I think that difference is where much of this confusion lies.

      I dont understand the point about having an issue with using a movie as the feedback medium. the feedback is given through interupts in video and audio the client is watching and/or listening to. that can be a movie, g-force music visualizations, just music etc. I think the confusion here is the host of the podcast and sounds like andrew as well are assuming the client is looking at a screen that is showing the clients their brainwave information. the feedback information is the interupt (skip or pause) in the music or movie or video or whatever the feedback media is. It is completely irrelevant what the media is, the information given to the brain is the same. (btw: movies are pretty much only used wih kids, who are not going to sit still for 30 minutes and listen to music)

      agreed the brain “just knows what to do” is not a great answer. on one level we can say that we have no hard evidence exactly how any neurofeedback system works. (as mentioned by Dr Hill in his podcast) However, the brain just knows what to do is accurate in the sense that it will figure out that the pattern of feedback is infomation about its functioning and will use that information to function better. the system simply provides information and the brain sorts out that infomation in whatever way it will. There are no goals. It doesnt matter what outcome the client wants, the outcomes from neurOptimal training are completely unpredictable. there seems to be great confusion here about this, that somehow if you want to be less anxious the brain will know to change your anxiety levels because that is your goal. This is not what Samantha was saying. The confusion is understandable because most other forms of neurofeedback are forms or therapy or treatment with specific desired outcomes. Thats fantastic, but fundamentally not what neuroptimal is about, it is not neurofeedback in the conventional sense of the word. The only similarity with traditional neurofeedback is we use the same hardware and we are working with brainwaves. the software is radically different. neuroroptimal only gives information about them not trying to change them in any specific direction.

      1. Neuroptimal can still work when you are in a light sleep. not when you are in deeper levels of sleep. this point was not made clear during the interview.
      2.think she just got lost on this one. her point is the system is very safe as far as an overtraining goes. none of my clients trains more than twice per week. the standard is once or twice a week. There is really no point in training more often than that.
      3. this point is, i think confusion on Andrews part, sounds like he misheard what was said. Of course the brain doesnt just know what you want and make changes. the brain is simply given information about its current functioning and the central nervous system is left to sort it out, period, thats all.. How each individual brain uses that information is unique and unpredictable. It has absolutely nothing to do at all with what the client wants or why they came in the door. the NeurOptimal folks are very clear about this point. The theory is the brain is an energy conserving system and excels at pattern recognition. The brain figures out the pattern of the feedback is information about its own functioning and learns to use that performance information to operate more efficiently. problems associated with stuck or inneficient brain functioning begin to fall away: ie sleep problems, cognitive problems, attention issues etc. But we have no idea how each individual brain will use the feedback and no way or desire to try to point neuroptimal at a specific desired outcome. NeurOptimal is a general training system not a treatment or therapy for any specific condition.
      4 We do take baseline readings and you obviously do have to know how to operate the software, hook up sensors, run baselines etc. However, traditional neurofeedback does require you to be an expert, with a health care background because it is a medical treatment that is actively trying to change the brainwaves to meet certain goals. you better know what you are doing in that case because you can run into side effects of over or under training.
      Neuoptimal is simply providing information, it is not doing anything to the brain or forcing it to change at all. In that sense anybody who has computer skills can operate the system. the expertise is in the software and the brain being trained.
      5 she never said NeurOptimal works with one brainwave at a time. She was talking about other forms of neurofeedback, yes all the brainwaves are happening all the time it doesnt mean you cant single out and train just one frequency. To clarify NeurOptimal works with all frequencies up to 42Hz during a training session. those frequencies are broken down into 16 targets the software is monitoring for turbulence. 8 in each hemisphere. Each target is a range of frequencies.

      The last bit is the most confused statement. “Neuro feedback training is just that, a psychologist will train you based on the feedback to control your brain state and therefore emotional responses. To achieve this by an ‘automatic brain knows what to do’ is just woo woo. Having no evidence for the product and selling it to anyone with $10k is classic fringe quackery”

      I think you are very confused on this point. the brain knows what to do with the feedback information it recieves about its performance. that is, it will use it to its best advantage, just like the brain does with the vast amount of infomation it is flooded with every moment of every day. Think of it in the same way as how a child learns to walk or talk, the brain just knows what to do to make those milestones happen. The child is not figuring out conciously how to talk, or walk. the brain processes the infomation gained from experience and the child talks and walks.The brain just knows what to do to make that happen. The brain just knows what to do with the food you eat, and how to regulate your body temperature. You are not conciously controlling the vast majority of what goes on in your brain. Your brain just knows what to do. Is it such a leap to think that the brain will use information about how its operating to operate more efficiently? I think the confusion is you think there is some sort of goal that Neuroptimal neurofeedback is aimed at, and that is simply not the case. Again I will repeat: it does not matter in the slightest what outcome the client wants that just doesnt fit into the equation, NeurOptimal is not treatment or therapy for any specific diagnosed condition.

      Neuroptimal has been around a dozen years and has evolved into a fully automated, powerful and elegant neurofeedback system for brainwave optimization. To dismiss it as quackery is to radically misunderstand how it works and exactly what it does and doesnt do.. Dr Valdeane Brown is a respected leader and pioneer in the field of neurofeedback. There is no question in the neurofeedback community of his unique and valuable contribution to the field.

  2. Rick says:

    In terms of a better answer than “It just does”, what I’ve gleaned from hearing the developer (Val Brown) speak about elsewhere is that the brain is inherently a pattern matcher and a learn-from-feedback machine.

    These qualities are what allow it to recognize and learn from the additional feedback.

    With a mirror, you learn to recognize yourself in the mirror by matching visual input to your kinesthetic body perception (that’s your brain doing that too, remember).

    The same thing happens with the neurofeedback.The pauses in the music coincide with state shifts in your brain – NeurOptimal is set up so you hear a pause when a different neural network becomes dominant (which Samantha didn’t explain).

    The brains pattern-matching nature starts to recognize that the pauses correlate with state-changes, and it’s learn-from-feedback nature starts to act upon that – reinforcing positive ones and starting to inhibit ones that it perceives as detrimental before they become dominant.

    A brain state might be more complex than just a “dominant neural network” – it might be an back-and-forth oscillation between two competing networks, for example – but the point is that there’s a way of identifying state-transitions in complex systems (i.e. the brain) and feeding back precise information to the brain about when they occur. And it’s simply in the brain’s nature to pattern-match and learn from new information, so in some sense, Samantha’s comment is appropriate – It Just Does, because that’s what it’s evolved for.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thanks Rick. That is a considerably more satisfying answer, and I’m sure that other readers (and certainly myself) appreciate it. I am still planning to make a guinea pig of myself in the next couple of months and go in for a few neurofeedback sessions, and will be sure to bring the Smart Drug Smarts community along for that journey.

  3. Rick says:

    In terms of a better answer than “It just does”, what I’ve gleaned from hearing the developer (Val Brown) speak about elsewhere is that the brain is inherently a pattern matcher and a learn-from-feedback machine.

    These qualities are what allow it to recognize and learn from the additional feedback.

    With a mirror, you learn to recognize yourself in the mirror by matching visual input to your kinesthetic body perception (that’s your brain doing that too, remember).

    The same thing happens with the neurofeedback.The pauses in the music coincide with state shifts in your brain – NeurOptimal is set up so you hear a pause when a different neural network becomes dominant (which Samantha didn’t explain).

    The brains pattern-matching nature starts to recognize that the pauses correlate with state-changes, and it’s learn-from-feedback nature starts to act upon that – reinforcing positive ones and starting to inhibit ones that it perceives as detrimental before they become dominant.

    A brain state might be more complex than just a “dominant neural network” – it might be an back-and-forth oscillation between two competing networks, for example – but the point is that there’s a way of identifying state-transitions in complex systems (i.e. the brain) and feeding back precise information to the brain about when they occur. And it’s simply in the brain’s nature to pattern-match and learn from new information, so in some sense, Samantha’s comment is appropriate – It Just Does, because that’s what it’s evolved for.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thanks Rick. That is a considerably more satisfying answer, and I’m sure that other readers (and certainly myself) appreciate it. I am still planning to make a guinea pig of myself in the next couple of months and go in for a few neurofeedback sessions, and will be sure to bring the Smart Drug Smarts community along for that journey.

  4. Mitchel M.D. says:

    Nice session. Creatine, ALA (alpha lipoic acid) and Acetyl-L-Carnitine are all beneficial for brain health and are showing promise in cognitive disease such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

  5. Scienced says:

    a little late but I really had the urge to point this out:

    This technology dates back to the 60s and 70s. Back then companies with futuristic names like Zygon Corporation cashed in on the discovery that experienced meditators show high levels of alpha brave-waves (8 to 12 hz) when they are in a meditative trance. You could buy a home EEG kit from one of these outfits and teach your brain to achieve this state of “alpha consciousness”.

    Unfortunately, the logic is flawed, as the late psychologist and skeptic Barry Beyerstein explained in a series of essays and book chapters published in the 80s and 90s. Just because a meditator in a state of bliss exhibits high levels of alpha waves doesn’t mean those alpha waves are playing a causal role in her state of bliss. As Beyerstein wrote, the correlation no more implies “that alpha wave production can produce a meditative state than opening one’s umbrella can make it rain.”

    There are other issues too – Beyerstein’s research showed that the beneficial effects of EEG feedback were related to a person’s belief in the technology, not to any alterations in their brainwaves. Another study showed that people were able to produce high levels of alpha waves even when under threat of mild electric shock from the researchers – hardly a state of Zen-like bliss.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to top