Ebola and Neurofeedback?

by Siegfried Othmer | November 3rd, 2014

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

I n a recent newsletter, we lamented the fact that the field of education is not much engaged with what the neurosciences could afford us in the realm of attention, learning, and child behavior.
I n a recent newsletter, we lamented the fact that the field of education is not much engaged with what the neurosciences could afford us in the realm of attention, learning, and child behavior. Hence the preconditions are not even in place for the recognition of the role that neurofeedback could play both in remediation and in the enhancement of functional competence.

Matters are worse than that, however. The role of the brain is largely ignored, even in the field of medicine. Consider the matter that is currently gripping our society: Ebola. Imagine, for a moment, being suddenly confronted with that horrific diagnosis. Almost immediately, you have playing before your eyes a number of scenarios in which your life might end in just a matter of days, along with the prospect that these last few days will be spent in an ever-increasing state of misery, dysfunction, and organ collapse. Not only that, but it will be spent in isolation from humane contact.

On the positive side, everything depends on whether your own immune system can rally to the challenge. Medically, everything will be done to support the immune system, but there will be one element missing: There will be no attention to the role of the brain in immune system regulation. And yet we know that the brain is involved, and we also know through many diverse clinical experiences that the immune system responds positively to neurofeedback. We glean from these results that better brain regulation also leads to better immune system regulation, likely in some generality.

The common pattern appears to be that the brain does better when it operates out of calm states, and much of our training serves to enhance the brain’s capacity to reside in calm states. Consider in that regard what happens to the person suddenly confronted with the fearsome diagnosis of Ebola. In its naked essence, this is a profound threat to the continued existence of the self, which is the cardinal constituent of a trauma response. We are dealing here with classic emotional trauma, are we not?

Such a state does us no favors physiologically. It catapults the person into highly activated states, but these are geared to a physical response that is not called for here. The trauma response hinders the brain from playing its supportive role in the mobilization of our immune system to counter the threat.

Just as the system of medical care will strive to maintain electrolyte balance within the body, it should also strive to maintain brain balance, and for that role infra-low frequency neurofeedback is eminently suitable. Whereas we tend to emphasize the long-term outcomes of improved functional competence with neurofeedback, the most prominent and most immediate effect of infra-low frequency training is simple state change, and this is almost invariably in the favorable direction of calm states. We don’t even have to specify this outcome. This is simply the consequence of the brain being exposed to information on its own activity in the infra-low frequency region. The brain does not need direction as much as it needs information.

Now in all of the above, Ebola has simply served as a case in point, a straw man. It may well recede as an issue on the public stage. But the problem being addressed here is much larger than Ebola. We are currently losing nearly 500 people a week to superbugs here in the US. All of them have to be treated in isolation, cared for by people who have to protect themselves. So this problem is already very real, although the public has so far been shielded from the full implications.

The real problem is even larger, of course. We can think of all the people coming into emergency rooms with gunshots, with injury from automobile accidents, or with drug overdoses. Suddenly, their brains are no longer their ally because they are in the throes of a trauma response. We know how to deal with that. In this instance, neurofeedback can serve as an emergency remedy. While meds can serve to sedate, with neurofeedback we allow the brain to find its own optimum operating point, which is not the same thing.

When it comes to state management of this kind, the standard biofeedback modalities that rely on peripheral physiology come to mind as well. None of them appear to us as effective or as quick as infra-low neurofeedback, but they can contribute here as well. Their particular contribution is to make apparent the progress being made in the migration toward calm and controlled states. The EEG does not tell us that nearly as well. But each of these peripheral modalities also has its own unique contribution to make as well in the migration toward calm and controlled states.

Years ago Norman Cousins wrote about his own survival of a severe illness by reliance on humor and laughter. He arranged to watch comedies in his hospital bed. He attributes his recovery to his engagement with his own healing in this manner. The story is recounted in his book, Anatomy of an Illness. What might have been the operative mechanism? A positive attitude was thought to favor a positive outcome. Obviously there is also a connection here with physiological state.

The Dean of the UCLA School of Medicine, Sherman Mellinkoff, was so impressed that he offered Cousins a position at the university. But alas, this was premature. Cousins ended up working largely independently at the university because there was as yet no common ground between his vision and conventional medical practice. His ideas were trivialized by his new colleagues and his thinking was dismissed as shallow.

It was late during his years at UCLA, and toward the end of his life, that I had a chance to meet with Cousins at his office. The topic was his own work, not ours, although I did have a chance to alert him to the emergence of neurofeedback. Cousins’ final book was titled Head First, The Biology of Hope and the Power of the Human Spirit. It was published in 1990. The Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology now continues at UCLA in the tradition of its founder. Presently I am intrigued by the approach of people like Lewis Mehl-Madrona and Deena Metzger, who draw on native healing traditions and the power of narrative.

Here, then, is the third leg of the stool for conditions where we depend entirely on just enhancing the prospects of self-recovery. There is the medical aspect of the promotion of homeostasis; there is the psychophysiological aspect; and then finally there is the realm of the human spirit, all of which can and should contribute to the recovery process.

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

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