I was sitting in psychologist Jan Davis’s Northern California office with electrodes stuck to my scalp, looking like the Bride of Frankenstein, when Davis suddenly glanced up from her computer screen, grinned and said, “You just had a hot flash, didn’t you?”
Davis, who has a PhD in psychology and used to treat patients through Jungian analysis, now specializes in a controversial, costly but increasingly popular treatment known as neurofeedback. Practitioners tout it as a noninvasive way to tame the symptoms of conditions as diverse as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), brain injury, autism, migraines and, of particular relevance to me, menopause. Still, none of the testimonials I’d heard had prepared me for having my personal climate change reflected as a burst of activity on a screen.
I hadn’t turned to neurofeedback for help with menopause per se, even though, at 51, I was two years into it. I worried less about hot flashes than about my hotheadedness; I’ve always had a bad temper, but lately I was having near-constant clashes with my spouse, my 12-year-old son and various telemarketers. I was also having trouble sleeping and, on occasion, problems remembering my kids’ names. And I often awoke in the middle of the night feeling as if I’d just trekked through the Amazon. Hmm . . . maybe I was in Davis’s office for help with menopause after all.
Davis said neurofeedback could help me not just with my temper but also with the hot flashes. Her business and life partner, family therapist Penel Thronson (the two share offices in Larkspur and San Jose, California), made an even more compelling promise: “Neurofeedback can help you enjoy your world more.”
What Is Neurofeedback?
This treatment uses technology to map your brain waves, then applies that information to help you change your habitual responses. Here’s how it works.
Electrodes are placed on your scalp to track the constant storm of electrical impulses that help your brain cells communicate with one another; the oscillating patterns are then recorded in an electroencephalogram (EEG). These patterns have different frequencies, or speeds. Theta waves, among the slowest, are dominant when you’re near sleep; alpha waves are strongest when you’re relaxed and relatively unfocused; beta waves, when you’re mentally aroused and engaged. For instance, people with concentration problems, such as those with ADHD, generally have a dominant pattern of too many theta waves in the executive (frontal) section of their brains.
Once your brain waves are mapped, the practitioner compares them with those considered normal. “Practitioners look for brain wave patterns that are different compared with the reference brains of people who are able to more or less accomplish their goals and aspirations and seem to be functioning well,” says Garrett Sullivan, MD, clinical assistant professor in the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City.
Davis and Thronson established that my brain waves displayed a hyperactive beta pattern. They explained that having excessively fast beta waves, especially in the frontal area of the brain (a situation that describes me), is associated with irritability and flying off the handle easily. My neurofeedback goal was to tame my crankiness by slowing those waves; if I was lucky, the treatment might also rid me of hot flashes and other menopause-related symptoms.
My Secret Garden
Neurofeedback works on the principle of operant conditioning, which says that people learn to change behavior when they are rewarded, just as a puppy learns to roll over to get a treat. “Operant conditioning is a simple, basic process that happens in the brain,” says Cynthia Kerson, PhD, of Marin Biofeedback in San Rafael, California. “It’s more about intention than thinking. We just give the patient a challenge, for example, and ask him or her to keep working on it.”