Neurofeedback - Definition

Neurofeedback is a computer-aided training method in which selected parameters of the patient´s own brain activity, which can normally not be perceived, are made visible to the patient. Via monitor and loudspeaker the brain is shown what it is doing at the moment (feedback).

Through this feedback, the patients learn to better self-regulate their brain activity. Many illnesses, disorders or unwanted behavior patterns are due to dysregulation of brain activity. With Neurofeedback patients can learn to better compensate for these dysregulations and to achieve more functionality.


People can learn just about anything related to brain function, provided that there is a feedback that relates what is intended to what is achieved. We would not be able to learn to ride a bicycle if we were not able to sense a tilted position.

However, most of the functions of our body and mind we cannot sense directly and also not influence consciously. They are controlled virtually automatically. In case such a function does not work properly anymore or even fails totally, it is hardly possible to train it simply for lack of appropriate targeting. This is where "bio-feedback" comes in. It clarifies the immediate objective of the recovery process through feedback of information to the trainee.

With biofeedback the parameter to be trained is measured with the appropriate equipment and is "shown" to the available senses. Normally, optical or acoustical feedback signals are used.

Take for example incontinence: In case the sphincter muscle does not function reliably anymore, it can be exercised to better function. This is for two reasons. First, it is because the state of the sphincter muscle can be sensed, and secondly because it can be placed under voluntary control. But even here, if the state of the sphincter muscle is measured with a (bio-) sensor and shown back to the client (feedback), the training suddenly becomes much more efficient and also more effective. The only difference between the two situations is the availability of feedback on performance.


Now consider how this might apply to brain function. Under typical conditions, we can neither directly experience our brain function, nor can we place it under our direct voluntary control. We tend to accept that a state of depression is either there or not. We don’t expect to be able to influence it directly. Here biofeedback can again be applied, because the very same feedback principles apply to our brain. This is not so strange, really. After all, even in the case of incontinence one is also training brain function, not just the musculature! But in order to train brain function directly, we must make “brain behavior” visible. This is where the EEG, or ElectroEncephalogram, comes in. It gives us a very direct and at the same time very simple method to learn something about the brain’s ongoing activity. 

Even though the recording of brain signals of a millionth of a volt on the body surface can be compared to a microphone attached to the outside of a big office building, the information that is obtained here is sufficient to bring the brain or parts of the brain into a feedback loop and to train it.

For example attention: Whoever does not pay attention in school will either come to hear or feel it sooner or later. Unfortunately such feedback is always much too late to be effective. In the EEG short phases of inattention can be detected immediately and reported back. Up to 2000 times within one neurofeedback training session. By and by the brain is supposed to sustain the attentive state.

The aim of the neurofeedback training is to teach the brain to attain an appropriate state and to be able to maintain that state. When we succeed, we can say that we have enhanced the brain’s capacity for self-regulation, and that we have done this with the help of neurofeedback.

Referring to the office building again: If the boss of the thousand people working in there complains about too much noise, that people are talking too loudly or trampling, one could measure the present noise level on the outside of the building with the microphone and every time it is less loud, send pleasant music through the loudspeaker system of the building. After some time people would get used to being more quiet and would keep this state for a time even after training is finished. Eventually, of course, there may be “extinction” of the training effect. So one might ask, is there a problem of extinction in neurofeedback as well?

The short answer is no. It can happen, of course, but that’s very unusual. This is because our training has produced better brain function. Why would the brain ever give that up? Life itself reinforces the learning that has taken place and sustains it for the long term. It is more likely, actually, that the brain will use its new capabilities to build on, and eventually the person should function even better than was the case at the end of the training.


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