As we start this New Year I wanted to bring you some cheerful news of how neurofeedback training in the context of Bowen theory was introduced, with positive results, to several people in Pittsburgh. I was able to offer these sessions due to the interest, perseverance and work of Catherine Rakow. She was supported by Jim Smith, the current director of WPFC. People were offered two sessions a day, or even four sessions over two days, so they could experience intensive training. Perhaps it is like increasing the time you spend at the gym or in my case, at hot yoga. One difference, however, is at this gym you simply calm down to become mentally stronger. By calming down one is able to better observe the difference between one’s feelings and one’s thinking.
Bowen wrote in the book Family Evaluation – ” The human is the first form of life that has been able to observe the feeling process with his intellect. Thus far there are definite characteristics of those who can do this readily, and those who are a few years slower. The name of that is differentiation of self. Everyone can do that when they are more motivated to do it for themselves rather than when they are dependent on others. There is some evidence that the human can determine the functioning of his own emotional system through the control of his own emotionality. It goes in the direction of implying that the human can control his own evolution thought the control of his own emotional system.” (Pages 385-386)
The people in the Pittsburgh group are among my earliest colleagues. Back in the eighties I drove Dr. Bowen to conferences sponsored by the WPFC. I’ve constantly found the people there courageous and forward thinking, perhaps influenced by the founder of the Western Pennsylvania Family Center, Paulina G. McCullough. Among other firsts, Paulina was one of the first people to work with Murray Bowen at Georgetown University back in the sixties, and the first to start a network program in Family Systems Theory, despite Bowen himself being dubious about the chances for the network’s success.
The main goal of the neurofeedback sessions was to give people enough of an experience on the equipment to see if neurofeedback was useful to them. There are many ways to manage self and control anxiety. Neurofeedback is one more tool for people who believe in the mind-body connection. The training allows your brain to find more comfortable electrical pathways through a slight interruption in the old patterns. When an interruption occurs, the music stops momentarily, alerting us to a change. The change is noted and we relax, as there is nothing to fear.
Over time the training allows for increasing diversity and coherence to appear in the brain. It’s as though the software is designed to bring an individual “back to the present”, to relax and experience increasing comfort. This neurofeedback system is not diagnostic. Training is the same whether the individual’s focus is on sports performance or just relaxing.
From a family systems perspective, I believe that it is accurate to hypothesize that the brain wave patterns in a family are mutually influencing one another. This keeps the anxiety between family members highly correlated. So when there is a change in one person that can be sustained over time, this change in one individual allows for slight changes in the way several people in the family relate to one another.
The training can produce slow changes, similar to the way one changes by working out at a gym. When one person in the family increases his or her flexibility, others in the family can be impacted. The goal is to alter or slow down participation in the automatic way we relate to one another. Any increase in self-focus can impact the reactivity in one’s important relationships.
After the two days we sent out the following questions to the participants, looking for some feedback about the usefulness of the two days of training. All of the participants in the neurofeedback sessions have been clinicians using Bowen Theory and/or have known about Bowen Theory for years.
QUESTIONS SENT TO PARTICIPANTS
It would be helpful to me as the organizer, and to Andrea as the coach, if you would send along some of your afterthoughts on the experience of this weekend in these areas: 1) the experience of using neurofeedback, 2) the lunch time discussions, 3) any thoughts or interests for the future.
Highlights from various participants:
1) One reported experiencing a shifting perception of time;
2) Another reported reorganizing an office that had been on the “perhaps I will do it later” list;
3) An individual with PTSD reported being able to have a calm couple of days;
4) The swelling in the hand of one individual was reduced;
5) A mother was able to let her son talk about how he would deal with his issues without her getting involved.
6) And Rebecca Blackwood, another participant, wrote up her experience for a blog and offered to make her thoughts available here.
The day after the brainwave training, I did write a post for my private blog (for family/friends). I thought I’d pass along what I wrote. Also, I’m wondering if anyone stepped up to purchase the software/technology for Pittsburgh? I would love to do it again!
Yesterday, I had my first brainwave training session. How many times in our lives do we get to do that on a Sunday afternoon?!?
The sessions took place at the Western Pennsylvania Family Center. Several of the people getting the brainwave training sessions gathered together for lunch yesterday and we were able to discuss questions and get more information.
The brainwave coach was Andrea Schara. She came up from Washington D.C. for a couple of days. As an aside, she also keeps an informative and inspirational blog called Ideas to Action: How Understanding Your Family System Can Change Your Life. I immediately felt comfortable around Andrea. She said that she is 70 years old, she has a loud, contagious laugh and goodness, she knows a lot. She studied at the Georgetown Bowen Center and also worked there for many years. Bowen family systems theory is what I am studying in my supervision with Wendy, as I work toward getting the clinical license of social work.
So, back to the brainwave training. The equipment that Andrea used is the Zengar Neuroptimal Brain-Training Technology and software. From the Zengar website:
“Through a series of sessions with the NeurOptimal® brain training system, your brain reorganizes itself and functions more effectively. When your brain functions efficiently, you feel more integrated and whole and your body functions better. After training with NeurOptimal® many people experience less stress, greater flow, improved academic, athletic, creative and work performance as well as more confidence and joy. Many bodily complaints drop away.”
A helpful comparison that Andrea made is to picture learning how to ride a bike. Our body has a way of figuring out how to balance and keep moving as we ride a bike. It is not like we have to cognitively tell ourselves, lean right, now left, keep moving. Instead, our body knows how to wire itself to be able to ride the bike. Similarly, when our brain is being monitored and we are able to observe what is happening, our brain can begin to automatically reorganize and balance itself. We don’t have to say, “stop thinking those thoughts, or slow down”. We can instead utilize the technology to let our brains do this on its own. The steps that occurred in my session (again from the Zengar website):
1. Sit in a comfortable chair; 2. Trainer places sensors on me; 3. Trainer records a baseline of my brain “activity”; 4. Training session starts; 5. I totally relax, listen to music or watch a movie; 6. Training ends and Trainer may record a second baseline; 7. Trainer removes sensors; 8. Discussion.
During the session, there was new-agey kind of music playing and I also had the option to watch visual representations of what was happening in my brain during the session. She and I noticed that my left brain (logical side) was way more dominant at the beginning of the training. Eventually, the right brain became a bit more active and the two sides of my brain began to “dance”, as she called it. Absolutely fascinating.
I had a variety of thoughts while in the session:
“Am I doing this right?”
“I wonder how other people’s brainwaves compare to mine”
“Take a deep breath”
“Am I doing this right?”
Andrea kept pointing out that similar to Bowen theory, the goal is to become an observer, to be neutral, to be aware, not to get answers and to judge. This is difficult to do.
Andrea took a baseline screening before and after the session. My pre-screening indicated that I had almost no alpha and was pretty jagged. My post screening had alpha* present and was much calmer and smoother.
Other interesting information that I’m taking away from this experience:
· *What is alpha? From Andrea’s Blog: “Alpha states appear to re-tune the mind by calming the body and allowing the mind to be free.” People with drug addiction often do not have alpha available. This is one reason they are constantly seeking a substance to create a calmer state in their brains.
· Children with Attention Deficit Disorder have slower brainwaves, which is why they often appear hyper. They have to quickly interact with the world, to wake up, because their brains are moving too slowly. This is why they are prescribed stimulants, which strangely slows down their interactions with the world because the “drugs” speed up their brains. I hope I’m describing this correctly…I started taking notes after she had already explained this concept.
· When we spend time with small children, we tend to sync our brainwaves with their slower moving brain waves. This is one reason we often get tired and drained after spending time with small children. We are slowing down towards sleep. Interestingly, television can influence our brainwaves the same way. This may be a reason why when parents stick their kids in front of a television, they slow down. Interesting, but also a bit scary!
· The brainwave training session can be compared to meditation. The difference is that you are able to see a visual representation of how the electrical energy in your brain is relaxing by seeing itself.
· During the session, I asked Andrea how other people’s brainwaves compare to mine and she wondered if I often compare myself to others. She asked if I have an older sister, who I was always competing with and I told her, “No, but I have a twin and he and I used to compete at different things.” Big mental note on something to be aware of: How often do I compare myself to others?
· Deep breathing, closing our eyes, and doing other grounding exercises will immediately calm down our brain.
· I felt warm and relaxed after my hour-long session. Maybe it is my imagination, but my thoughts also seemed to have more clarity. And, I swear I slept better last night.
The brainwave technology is expensive (see Zengar.com). The closest places to get the brainwave training are Cleveland and Carlisle, PA. Currently, the software is not being used in Pittsburgh. Insurance does not covers brainwave training, which is also a downfall. There are neurofeedback TREATMENTS that are covered by some insurance but this was training the brain not treating the brain. But, who knows? Maybe this will become a popular form of training in the future and that would bring the cost down. It seemed pretty effective to me and I was pretty skeptical going in. Rebecca Blackwood