Usually, I can tell when someone wants to ask me why they haven’t heard of neurofeedback before or why, although they have heard of it, they haven’t heard more. People get a funny look on their faces, as if trying to find the right way to ask the question without sounding accusatory or rude. After all, the question makes it sound a bit like they suspect some kind of snake oil promotion is afoot.
Obviously, I cannot answer why any one individual does not know more about neurofeedback, but I understand the point behind the question. Neurofeedback has been around since the late 1960s, and it works, so why isn’t it the most popular tool in town? Those of us who use neurofeedback discuss this from time to time, and these are some of the answers we have for ourselves, in no particular order.
It’s a Tool, Not a Field. Most people have heard of occupations like chiropractor, acupuncturist, psychologist, or teacher. Occupations usually have some professional, guild-like organizations behind them that promote interest in the field and increase awareness. Neurofeedback, however, is not an occupation, it’s a tool. And, the people who use neurofeedback span many occupational categories, including tutors, coaches, occupational/physical therapists, chiropractors, spiritual guides, doctors, mental health care providers, and enthusiasts with no related occupation at all. The result of this broad usage means that because neurofeedback doesn’t belong to any one field, it doesn’t have any one champion. Most people end up hearing about neurofeedback from a friend who’s had a good experience.
Infighting. Sadly, a subset of neurofeedback practitioners fight among themselves over who “owns” the right to use and practice neurofeedback. Some, especially in the mental health care professions, even go after each other legally, accusing each other of practicing medicine or psychology without a license and dragging various professional licensing boards unwittingly into the fray. It’s unseemly, ego- and money-driven, and this sort of infighting does nothing to improve the image of those who use neurofeedback. It also does the opposite of what these people are hoping to achieve, undermining instead of improving the reputation of the tool.
Research. Neurofeedback is a gentle teaching tool for the brain, but many skeptics treat it like it’s a pharmaceutical and argue that because there aren’t “enough” double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, it must not be a valid tool. One of the problems researchers run into when trying to create this gold standard type of study, though, is that many trainees can tell when their neurofeedback is sham training, so an approach more like doctors use with surgical techniques is probably more useful. Moreover, when someone is trying to use neurofeedback for mental health reasons, they often run into the problem that the brain does not subscribe to the committee-created diagnoses contained within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). So, researchers who are studying people with, say, depression, may not be looking at study participants with similar-looking brainwave patterns at all.
All that said, there are many well-done studies on neurofeedback showing that it works for people. The bigger problem is not the issue of how to design double-blind studies, it’s determining what is “enough.” Someone who has a bias against neurofeedback will never accept its validity no matter how many studies get published in peer-reviewed journals, and someone who is gullible may not care even to ask the question. Add this to what appears to be a concerted effort from the pharmaceutical industry to undermine the reputation of neurofeedback, and it is enough to keep some people dubious about whether neurofeedback works.
It Does Too Much. In theory, neurofeedback can affect anything the autonomic nervous system covers. In reality, neurofeedback’s impact is less than that, though still quite broad. Researchers have shown that it works on a wide variety of training goals, and practitioners around the country use it for a long list of goals: migraines; traumatic brain injuries including stroke and concussion; seizures/epilepsy; mental health diagnoses such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, among others; personal performance improvement, especially with educational/school goals, sports, and musical performance; spiritual development; personal growth and awareness; serenity and calm; and still others that I may not even have heard of yet. With so many potential uses and applications, it’s no wonder that the field ends up spread thin and not well known.
People Want Privacy. Some people like to share broadly about their experiences with neurofeedback (I’d have no practice if this weren’t the case.), but many others like to keep their training to themselves, almost as if it’s a secret weapon. Neurofeedback is popular among professional and elite amateur athletes, and sometimes, you’ll hear about them in the media, as with the Canadian Olympic team prior to the Vancouver Olympic games. More often, though, athletes seek confidentiality. This means that, although it’s being used effectively, the public never knows that neurofeedback helped someone.
Technological Improvements. In the early days of neurofeedback, the equipment was large and expensive, meaning that very few had the means to use or apply neurofeedback tools. Even though it existed as a tool, it was only for people with the passion and money to make it happen.
The advent of personal computers and, especially, the development and rise of laptop computing meant that the speed of everyday computers was enough to provide the brain with fast enough feedback. Plus, the cost of purchasing laptops and the gear required to do neurofeedback has fallen over the past 15 years, making it affordable for more and more people. I suspect that as the technology improves, a greatly expanded number of people will know about and be able to apply neurofeedback in their lives.
Despite improvements in technology and decreasing costs, we’re still hamstrung to a large degree in bringing this into private homes. Professionals now find it affordable if they shop well, but the technology is costly enough that only people with powerful motivation are investing in and learning to do neurofeedback on their own. And, despite burgeoning efforts to make free apps for anyone to use some aspects of neurofeedback/brain training, they are no match at all to seeing a professional practitioner. However, even toy and game makers are interested in how to bring neurofeedback profitably to the masses, and if they succeed, the field of personal growth and development will expand dramatically.
The bottom line is not to let the absence of major, positive media coverage of neurofeedback stop you from considering whether to use neurofeedback on yourself or a loved one. If you do your homework, you’ll find that neurofeedback is safe, effective, and powerful—so powerful that it’s used for dozens of reasons by people from all walks of life—and the future looks bright.