SANDPOINT — For all the advances in medial science and understanding, the human brain remains mysterious.
We know, of course, that the brain is the central control hub, managing the bewildering interplay of anatomic systems. Somewhat more tenuous is the relationship between the physical brain and individual personality. What neurological make-up determines the wide variety in human personality? And what can we blame when those individual quirks make life difficult?
Those were the questions I had in mind when I started a series of neurofeedback sessions with certified technician Kim Birkhimer, who operates a Sandpoint neurofeedback practice called Change Your Mind.
Neurofeedback is a form noninvasive therapy that attempts to train the brain. By attaching sensors to the scalp, a neurofeedback technician operates a program that detects the brain’s electrical activity, rewarding positive behavior while inhibiting undesirable behavior.
“What each session does is train the brain to find the most comfortable and efficient patterns,” Birkhimer said.
As a therapeutic option, neurofeedback is becoming increasingly popular for a variety of physical and behavioral conditions. Since it involves no drug use, the therapy bypasses the negative side-effects of pharmaceutical products. That fact makes the treatment particularly appealing to recovering addicts fearing relapse.
I haven’t been diagnosed with any mental or physical disorders. Neither have I ever had a problem with substance abuse. Nevertheless, neurofeedback intrigued me. The brain is the closest thing we can identify as the center of the human personality, and the notion of exploring that territory was exciting.
During the first session, Birkhimer guided me through a series of 90 questions that helped identify potential problems the therapy could address. We determined that the improving focus, particularly in the morning, would be a primary goal. At the same time, we would try to reduce anxiety, especially while driving. Successive sessions included a shorter question and answer period that adjusted my protocol based on my improvement.
Since my complaints were relatively subtle, we anticipated similarly subtle improvements. That certainly wasn’t the case for Vicki Johnson, one of Birkhimer’s more recent patients. After being injured in a car accident, Johnson developed a severe case of fibromyalgia after a car accident in Seattle. For years, she suffered from debilitating pain so severe that most everyday activities were impossible for her. That, however, was before she began her neurofeedback treatments with Birkhimer.
“The difference is like night and day,” she said. “I’m actually on my way to Zumba classes right now.”
To date, Johnson has received 17 sessions from Birkhimer. For her, the improvements were immediate but gradual. And while they started out small, the effect proved cumulative. Today, she is able to live an independent lifestyle where just months ago, she required an assistant for basic household tasks. While Johnson said she can still feel mild symptoms of her condition, the difference in her quality of life cannot be understated.
“I still know it’s there, but I’m just so much better now,” she said.
Every patient receives a different treatment protocol based on their needs. In my case, the process began with just over a half-hour of alpha/theta brainwave training and ended with two five minute sessions of SMR/beta training.
After Birkhimer attached electrodes to my head with a sticky paste, I was ready to begin alpha-theta training, a deeply calming procedure that encouraged me to daydream. By contrast, the SMR/beta training was much more rigorous, although never uncomfortable. Birkhimer instructed me to focus on the screen as my brain wave patterns generated elaborate images through the computer program Brain Paint. Although I couldn’t feel it occurring, the program repressed undesirable brain activity while rewarding positive activity. The goal was to train my neurological activity to lower anxiety in stressful situations while increasing energy output.
According to Brain Paint creator Bill Scott, he designed the program around brain painting to better visualize the patient’s EEG, a recording of brain electrical activity. Previous neurofeedback systems only measured frequency and amplitude.
“That’s like using a cone to illustrate a mountain,” he said.
Instead, Scott chose to represent brain activity with fractal geometry — shapes that occur naturally. The result was a system that visualizes brain activity in all its texture and complexity. And from an aesthetic perspective, some of the generated images were pretty stunning.
After a half-dozen sessions, I felt a definite improvement. As Birkhimer predicted, it wasn’t the life-altering enhancement that some of her patients enjoyed. Instead, it was more like the transition from standard definition to high definition video. I felt sharper, more alert and more stable after undergoing the treatment.
However, Birkhimer said that for patients with diagnosed conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder and many other diseases, the impact can be transformative. Indeed, it’s tough to argue with anecdotal evidence like Johnson’s. She’s retaken her life from a horribly painful disorder, and no matter which way you cut it, that’s pretty wonderful.
As for me, I’m just happy to be a little less stressed out in traffic.
To learn more about neurofeedback, visit Birkhimer’s website at www.changeyourmind.biz or call her at 610-3183.