Making connections: Neurofeedback maps brain activity to guide people in regulating their own brain activity. Boosting blood flow to damaged neural connections and creating new brain cell connections can lead to healing. Picture: 123RF/VASILLY YAKOBCHUK
Making connections: Neurofeedback maps brain activity to guide people in regulating their own brain activity. Boosting blood flow to damaged neural connections and creating new brain cell connections can lead to healing. Picture: 123RF/VASILLY YAKOBCHUK

Imagine having the power to restructure the thoughts that make up your reality and having the capacity to create a solid framework for success and happiness. The idea may sound mystical or alternative but it is backed up with hard science.

It’s all well and good learning something, but applying that knowledge with a blueprint for action is how people reap the benefits of learning.

Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and reorganise itself to create new connections between brain cells, is definitely worth learning about for its practical applications.

Children growing up in multilingual environments easily become fluent in more than one language, but adults struggle to learn even one other language.

The capacity to absorb and consolidate huge stores of information is due to the enormous neuroplasticity of developing minds that allows for cognitive leaps in learning.

Neuroscientists realised a few decades ago that the brain is always capable of developing, no matter what age. Like muscles, the brain can cross previous thresholds of development when exercised.

When a brain is injured, for example, one hemisphere compensates for the lack of functioning in the other by boosting neural activity and forming new brain cell connections. It is capable of healing and optimising under extreme stress.

With the West increasingly incorporating eastern philosophies and lifestyle practices into daily life, body-mind exercises such as yoga and martial arts are becoming more popular. Meditation is surfacing as a key factor in promoting success in careers and health.

Social success often means competition — and enhanced cognitive faculties is a sure-fire way to climb a ladder.

The brain’s synapses have the potential for immense neuroplasticity in forming new brain cell connections. Changing habits by creating new patterns is about creating greater pliability of brain cells. Exercising positive thought, ingrained as deliberately cultivated patterns, becomes a deeper groove than subconscious habits.

"Think positive" has, however, become a cliché, used when it’s no longer easy to do that. The trick is to prime the mind so that this becomes the default thought pattern.

People take their own time to form a new habit, but there is a consistent average. In the 1950s plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz noted that it took 21 days for his patients to get used to their new faces or for amputees to adjust to the loss of a limb.

"These and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell," he wrote.

Neurofeedback clinician Elaine Verster says that gamma waves, which have the highest frequency of all brain waves, are associated with connections to a higher energy source, as has been reported by experienced meditation practitioners.

These brain waves are also associated with peak performance and extremely high levels of cognitive functioning.

"The gamma brain wave’s function is one of binding, allowing an individual to see the bigger picture by binding or putting pieces of the puzzle together in a coherent and concise manner. This is done by linking information from all parts of the brain. It is a brainwave worth strengthening," she says.

The gamma brain wave’s function is one of binding, allowing an individual to see the bigger picture by binding or putting pieces of the puzzle together in a coherent and concise manner. This is done by linking information from all parts of the brain. It is a brainwave worth strengthening
Elaine Verster
Neurofeedback clinician

Thought patterns in a person wallowing in self-doubt will result in an undesired reality that the person is mostly responsible for creating, or at least reinforcing. But someone brimming with confidence can create a different reality. Changing the brain is possible.

Martial artists say they flow like water. Buddhist monks urge people not to become attached to any thought or feeling, to allow "their cups to fill with sweet waters and be emptied".

"Meditation makes neural activity more pliable," Verster says. Meditation practitioners can observe the binding of thought patterns, or neural pathways, and see how their thoughts create reality, she says.

Talented musicians who can’t achieve their full potential for fear of ridicule stemming from an unconscious childhood experience might, for example, be able to observe this problem from a state of nonattachment in meditation, which provides an opportunity to assess brain activity during a relaxed state of awareness. It is possible for people to change internal decision making processes, so that they do not succumb to unconscious pitfalls, or drive the same neural highways recreating the same results.

Maltz observed that a habit was formed in a minimum of three weeks, but Verster says that when neural pathways are injured by trauma, it takes a minimum of four months for brain cell connections to heal.

Neurofeedback essentially maps brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) to guide people in the self-regulation of brain activity. This is done by boosting blood flow to damaged neural connections and creating new brain cell connections that lead to healing, fulfillment and desired results. All of this work can be monitored with EEGs.

It has been proved to work for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, who have redeveloped their ability to perform lost functions such as recognising forgotten relatives.

Endorphin rushes following exercise create action-and-reward feedback loops that strengthen the habit of regular exercise — which naturally boosts self-esteem, and enhances daily functioning and positivity — and create neural pathways geared towards healthy living and self-esteem.

Because forming the habit of self-care is often challenging, action-and-reward feedback is greater and comes with the comfort of healthy living becoming less challenging and more routine but just as rewarding. Luckily, new habits are easier to create than old habits are to break.

Physical exercise has to be supplemented by brain nutrition. Neurofeedback experts recommend omega oils and folic acid, found in avocado.

"Sugar can have a profound negative effect on mood and can hold back progress," neurofeedback expert Catherine Boyer says. "Too much caffeine can keep the most diligently practised relaxation techniques from being successful."

Boyer also encourages a reduction in the intake of alcohol, "which is a depressant".

Gamma waves, which were virtually unknown before the advent of EEGs, are present in human brains at about 40Hz.

Monks and Celestine nuns famously produce these brain waves at will, and it is believed that meditating on the feeling of love and compassion is the primary reason for their skill.

This is a drum that spiritual leaders and healers have been beating for millennia and now science is backing it too.

Verster mentions a "higher energy source" when discussing the efficacy of gamma waves in neurofeedback treatment and peak performance. She uses "God" and "higher energy source" interchangeably.

Deliberation and intention is key. People stuck in the same habits of thought will produce the same results.

The convergence of science and spirituality offers an opportunity to achieve greater success than internal, preconceived notions of limitation allow. All that is needed is that people get out their own way.

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