Neurofeedback & Cognitive Performance Enhancement
From managing the household to boardroom presentations, we are constantly in situations requiring a large amount of mental energy to address. While fulfilling, more often than not this high paced lifestyle leaves us unable to focus, forgetful and stressed – often accelerating symptoms of ageing.
Given we cannot change the essential components of modern life, the question remains, how can we reduce sluggishness, increase efficiency and work towards achieving that ever elusive work/life balance?
Optimising the way in which we think and feel is a key question with which researchers and clinicians constantly grapple.
However, a large proportion of current literature highlights the efficacy of Neurofeedback therapy (NFT) in promoting various higher level brain functions including; attention, working memory, emotional regulation (affect) and creativity. The following addresses key findings supporting these functions, citing academic sources for your exploration.
Improved Attention & extended Working Memory due to Neurofeedback Therapy
Many studies have used alpha wave and theta wave frequencies as the basis for exploration into the efficacy of Neurofeedback Therapy (NFT) in enhancing attention amongst other cognitive skills (Klimesch, 1999; Wang, 2013).
Researchers at The Otto-Von-Guericke-University and Carl-Von-Ossietzky University in Germany performed a joint study using 24 healthy participants to see if NFT stimulating the upper alpha (UA) bandwith could improve spatial awareness and general cognitive ability (Zoefell, Huster & Herrmann 2011). Participants were presented with a randomly changing coloured square on a computer screen and asked to count how many times it change to red and to note their drowsiness. After this, they were placed into a test group which received NFT and control group, which received no training then tested in their ability to mentally rotate objects. Results obtained from the five coloured square and mental rotation training sessions demonstrated that only the group undergoing the NFT showed a statistically significant increase of 12.8 items. Thus, participants who had undergone Neurofeedback Therapy had shown increased attention by both recognising more cubes doing so in a faster period of time than participants who did not receive NFT and were only were exposed to the cube session. These findings fit well with the existing body of literature supporting that increased cognition can come from NFT utilising alpha and theta frequencies (Klimesch, 1999; Missioner, 2006; Wang & Hsieh, 2013).
Interestingly, work by Wang & Hsieh (2013) further solidifies these claims by showing increased cognition in attentional processing tasks for individuals undergoing NFT compared to the control group. This increase in cognition was measured as theta wave activity of 14 healthy younger and older participants. Theta waves have often been shown to facilitate working memory and are highly correlated with alertness, increased concentration during complex and mentally demanding tasks and creativity (Missonnier 2006). Fourteen healthy participants of various ages were randomly separated into sham neurofeedback and real NFT groups. As part of the testing procedure, participants underwent two tests over 12 sessions of either sham (control) or NFT. Initially, they were asked to fixate on a target on the centre of the screen and were asked to respond to cues in the periphery. In the test following, an initial image was presented on a computer screen to participants, then they were shown a sequential list of items and asked to identify if they had seen the first image within that list. Comparing performance on these two tests between the NFT and sham feedback groups, it was clear the NFT group showed statistically significant increases in performance on both tests compared to the sham condition, with older NFT participants experiencing statistically significant increases in cognitive ability in comparing their results on the two tests at the beginning and end of the experiment. Therefore, present literature attests to a robust body of evidence supporting NFT as a treatment for healthy individuals aiming to enhance their cognitive performance.
Neurofeedback therapy (NFT) improves creativity; divergent thinking abilities and artistic expression
Creativity is often misconstrued as simply artistic or musical expressionism. Psychologists define “creativity” as “the three most readily agreed upon divergent thinking abilities: (a) fluency (the ability to generate numerous ideas), (b) flexibility (the ability to see a given problem from multiple perspectives), and (c) originality (the ability to come up with new and unique ideas” Boynton; 2001). Numerous studies have explored whether neurofeedback therapy (NFT) can be associated with increased creative thinking ability. Perhaps one of the most interesting studies on NFT and enhancement of creativity and well being was published in the Journal of Neurotherapy. Boyton and colleagues (2001) aimed to investigate the effects of NFT on the state of creative focus, where specific patterns of alpha and theta wave activity have been shown to enable peak creativity and drive (Fink & Benedek, 2014; Gruzelier, 2014).
62 healthy male and female participants were involved in the study which randomly assigned them to eight sessions of either NFT or sham (control) groups, they were tested on their fluency and originality in naming exercises and lateral thinking problems. Results showed NFT groups showed performed indistinguishably to control groups (no NFT) regarding fluency within word exercises however participants who had undergone NFT displayed relatively higher increases in problem solving and flexible thinking ability than control groups as measured in lateral thinking tests. Furthermore, ‘well-being’ surveys conducted after the testing period demonstrated this increase in fluidity of thought permeated into other aspects of life, with under half of NFT participants reporting substantial increases in self awareness, emotional regulation and/or increased work performance (Gruzelier 2014).
Neurofeedback Therapy however, not only translated to cognitive improvements in intellectually creative pursuits. Participants in a study conducted by Gruzelier (2014) showed increases in stylistic flair and originality of performance in small scale studies conducted in London dance studios. Participants were allocated to groups according to dance ability pairing novices with professional dancers placed in either NFT or sham conditions. A two pronged methodological approach was adopted, whereby participants would provide subjective self – reports before and after treatment, as well as undergo independent assessment via an expert panel of judges to assess their performance either in music, theatre or in dance prior and post the experimentation phase.
Scoring on average higher than non NFT participants, both novice and professional actors and musicians experienced improvement in artistry and technique, consistent with Fink, Graif & Neubauer 2009 in similar cognitive creativity experiments involving novice and professional dancers. Benefits to individuals directly involved in dance or music based occupations were substantial with statistically significant gains among categories of imaginative expression, conviction, characterisation and engagement; a sentiment echoed within the current literature (Thomspon, Steffert, Redding & Gruzelier, 2008; Gruzelier, Thompson, Redding, Brandt & Steffert, 2014). Additionally, Gruzelier (2014) found substantial cognitive improvements individuals without prior musical or dance experience, reporting higher well being (Gruzelier, 2014).
Thus, the literature supports the role of NFT in enhancing creativity with substantial flow on effects into increased emotional stability, occupational performance and focus generally (Fink, Graif & Neubauer 2009; Gruzelier 2014).
Significant improvements in emotional regulation due to the role of NFT in decreasing amygdala activation
Murphy’s law suggests anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. While this outlook is overly pessimistic, at times present day life can seem to follow this pattern with high stress, frustration and anger characterising typical work and home life. What if there was a way to tackle these uncomfortable and unnecessary feelings, to make life easier?
University of Heidelberg in Germany conducted studies using NFT to train participants suffering from emotional dysregulation to dampen down signals from their amygdala, keeping them on a more even keel. The amygdala, is a region of the brain crucially involved in fear/stress responses (Paret et al, 2014). Excessive activity in the area corresponds to high stress and trauma often a precursor or exacerbating factor of mental illness. Therefore, researchers wanted to see if NFT could reduce the activity of the amygdala as a psycho-therapeutic treatment for emotional dysregulation and reduce the likelihood of progression to more serious mental dysfunction. Healthy female and male participants were sorted into neurofeedback and non neurofeedback conditions and exposed to a series of distressing images before and after the sessions. Results obtained demonstrated one session of neurofeedback was successful in down-regulating amygdala activation in response to these stress inducing images. Upon re-exposure to similar images later in the testing procedure, subjects were able to decrease right amygdala activation without the feedback signal, hinting at a possible learned effect. Thus, reduced amygdala activity after NFT serves as strong support for its use in clinical settings to assist healthy individuals in maintaining more regulated emotional states in response to inherently stressful or disturbing situations.
Extending on this evidence, researchers at the University of Bangor in the UK, tested the ability of neurofeedback to assist in self – regulation of emotion (Johnston, Boehm, Healy, Goebel & Linden, 2009). Participants were trained to do tasks which upregulate activity in the insular and amygdalar corticies, areas strongly activated in high stress situations. Interestingly short neurofeedback training resulted in increases of emotional control in these tasks, adding further weight to NFT as a key clinical tool.
Attention & Working Memory
Klimesch, W. (1999). EEG alpha and theta oscillations reflect cognitive and memory performance: a review and analysis. Brain research reviews, 29(2), 169-195.
Missonnier, P., Deiber, M.P., Gold, G., Millet, P., Pun, M.G.F., Fazio-Costa, L., Giannakopoulos, P. and Ibáñez, V., (2006). Frontal theta event-related synchronization: comparison of directed attention and working memory load effects. Journal of Neural Transmission, 113(10), pp.1477-1486.
Wang, J. R., & Hsieh, S. (2013). Neurofeedback training improves attention and working memory performance. Clinical Neurophysiology, 124(12), 2406-2420.
Zoefel, B., Huster, R. J., & Herrmann, C. S. (2011). Neurofeedback training of the upper alpha frequency band in EEG improves cognitive performance. Neuroimage, 54(2), 1427-1431.
Fink, A., & Benedek, M. (2014). EEG alpha power and creative ideation. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 44, 111-123.
Fink, A., Graif, B., & Neubauer, A. C. (2009). Brain correlates underlying creative thinking: EEG alpha activity in professional vs. novice dancers. NeuroImage, 46(3), 854-862.
Fink, A., Schwab, D., & Papousek, I. (2011). Sensitivity of EEG upper alpha activity to cognitive and affective creativity interventions. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 82(3), 233-239.
Gruzelier, J. H., Thompson, T., Redding, E., Brandt, R., & Steffert, T. (2014). Application of alpha/theta neurofeedback and heart rate variability training to young contemporary dancers: State anxiety and creativity. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 93(1), 105-111.
Gruzelier, J. H. (2014). EEG-neurofeedback for optimising performance. II: creativity, the performing arts and ecological validity. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 44, 142-158.
Thompson, T., Steffert, T., Redding, E., & Gruzelier, J. (2008). The effect of alpha–theta and heart-rate coherence training on creative dance performance. Rev Esp Neuropsicol, 10, 60.
Boynton, T. (2001). Applied research using alpha/theta training for enhancing creativity and well-being. Journal of Neurotherapy, 5(1-2), 5-18.
Paret, C., Kluetsch, R., Ruf, M., Demirakca, T., Hoesterey, S., Ende, G., & Schmahl, C. (2014). Down-regulation of amygdala activation with real-time fMRI neurofeedback in a healthy female sample. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 8, 299.
Johnston, S. J., Boehm, S. G., Healy, D., Goebel, R., & Linden, D. E. (2010). Neurofeedback: A promising tool for the self-regulation of emotion networks. Neuroimage, 49(1), 1066-1072.
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