How can CARE Neurofeedback Work?
"I don't get it", I can hear you thinking. "How can this CARE approach to neurofeedback possibly work? I'm just sitting watching a screen and listening to music and my brain changes? How can that happen?"
To answer your question, I need to let you know a little bit more about how the brain functions.
First, the brain is an incredibly sensitive "difference detector".
That means it is alert for any change in your internal or external environment.
You can perhaps relate to this by thinking of examples from your own experience. I'll give you some ideas...
Maybe you go to a mall that plays muzak. You're going from store to store, doing your shopping, when you suddenly notice that "something's different". It may even take a while for you to realize that the "something different" is that the muzak stopped. Your brain noticed and alerted you about a change even before you could make sense of it.
Or maybe you just had your hair styled or got new glasses. How many times has someone said how great you look and guessed (wrongly) at what's different? ("Wow, Karen, you look great! Have you lost weight or something?") Their brain identifies that "something" about you has changed, but again they're not consciously sure of what it is yet.
My favorite example is from having my partner come home from a late shift. If he does what he usually does, I sleep right through. No change. Yet if I hear any similar noise on a night he's already home and in bed, I wake up immediately -- listening for a repeat of the sound so I can figure it out.
Change from expected --> the brain alerts. That "alert" lets us figure out what's going on and whether it's something we need to do something about.
One more example-- from the big screen. Think of the last mystery or thriller you've seen. Likely there was a scene where the clever detective or innocent star walked into a room and "knew" something was wrong. Intuition? Maybe. But that intuition is based on the brain being able to be ultra-sensitive to changes and differences from what we expect.
Application to CARE neurofeedback:
You are sitting in front of the video screen watching an active display and listening to your favorite music.
When your brain becomes unstable (or turbulent -- same thing), its EEG activity briefly turns off the music and stops the visual display momentarily.
What does your brain do?
You know the answer to this! --- It alerts! And generally when the brain alerts, the turbulent activity stops and the music and screen display restart.
That brings us to the next important quality of the brain.
Your brain is a pattern maker.
Even if you don't intentionally try, your brain is working all the time to discover patterns and to make sense of the world around you,
"I can't eat raw onion".
"Air conditioning gives me a headache."
"Joe works best when he has a deadline."
"Look at that sky -- it's going to rain soon."
(Substitute what you've noticed about yourself or others.)
Each of these examples is based on your brain collecting information across time (noticing change) and then trying to figure out why it's happening -- what's the connection that makes it all make sense (when _____happens, then _____happens)?
Application to CARE neurofeedback:
As your brain repeatedly produces turbulent activity that causes the music and visual to briefly pause, it is also working to identify why the pauses keep happening -- to identify a pattern.
Eventually (and we're not talking about very long, here), your brain "figures out" that the turbulent activity is creating the pauses -- it identifies the pattern.
Again, so what?
That brings us to the third critical characteristic of the brain.
Your brain is self-regulating.
This doesn't mean that the brain never "messes up".
It does mean that, given accurate information in a timely way, it can change course to perform more effectively and efficiently.
Let's look more at what self-regulation of the brain means.
First, let's start with the notion of self-regulation of your home's temperature. You have a thermostat that you set to a temperature you find comfortable (or assume you do -- maybe it's set by your landlord who always seems about 2 months ahead or behind the weather ;-). The thermostat allows your home to be "self-regulating" by turning on the heat when the temperature sensed is below your setting and to turn off the heat when it gets above your setting.
Based on the information received by the thermostat, your home "self-regulates".
Your body does the same thing.
You have a certain internal temperature setting that allows you to function. Too much above that setting, you have what is called a fever and you feel ill and unable to think clearly; too much below and you are hypothermic -- your body starts shutting down to save energy and you can't think clearly. So there is a narrow window of ideal temperature and your brain and body sense your temperature variations and do their darndest to maintain it at the optimal level.
Or let's use a more visible example -- riding a bike. When you learned to ride a bike, you practiced balancing on two wheels. Your brain and body used the information they sensed from the micro-movements of the bike to the left and right to learn to stay quite precisely in the "middle", based on the bike's trajectory, your weight distribution, the weight distribution of anything you were carrying, etc. So once you learned, your brain and body take care of balancing automatically - they self-regulate.
Your brain does the same thing for its own internal functioning. Typically, when it's alerted by its internal information systems that something is not optimal, it adjusts.
Neurofeedback gives your brain an "edge" -- it gets additional information about what it's doing that allows it to adjust more precisely, more quickly, more effectively and efficiently.
But how can my brain use that information when I can't understand it?, I hear you asking.
That brings us back to the examples we used for the brain as a change detector.
The brain detects and responds to change even before you are aware that's anything has happened!
So during CARE neurofeedback, we rely on these characteristics of the brain to let it adjust its own functioning:
- your brain notices change before you do
- it identifies patterns whether or not you are aware of them
- it self-regulates whenever it receives relevant information - it doesn't wait for you to direct it (remember the bike example?)
And that's all that is needed for the CARE model of neurofeedback to allow your brain to create positive change.