Neurofeedback in the New Economy

by Siegfried Othmer | January 26th, 2009

The inauguration of President Barack Obama was another one of those rare events that draws our individual nervous systems into collective patterns of activity all the way across the nation. David Kaiser did his dissertation on this general topic, monitoring a number of EEGs while a movie was being watched to determine the degree to which common and reproducible EEG activity was evoked as emotionally gripping scenes were on-screen. Ever since, I have on occasions like this imagined EEGs moving in a kind of unison across the country as we all watch the same emotionally evocative event at the same time.

A bias intrudes here however, in that good feelings tend not to be transitory or episodic, but rather to persist over time. So they are less likely to be noticeable in the EEG as sudden shifts than when we are dealing with negative or aversive events. Thus, our concern when Chief Justice Roberts flubbed his lines probably registered more strongly in our EEGs than the more persistent good feeling about the transition of power that was symbolized in the giving of the oath.

Then came the sober inaugural address, in which the dire circumstances in which the nation finds itself needed to be couched in palatable terms. How does one maintain optimism at a time like this? No one did this better than Franklin Roosevelt in his day, and no one does it better than Barack Obama now. Neither, however, had a substantive basis for optimistic projections beyond the notion that America usually finds its way out of the muddles it makes. This is not merely our self-delusion. Outsiders have the same impression. Said Bismarck: “God looks after drunks, little children, and the United States of America.” Or Churchill: “America usually solves its problems, after trying everything else first.”

The problem now is that we cannot return to the status we thought we had as a society a year or two ago. We were living an unsustainable fiction, so a rather pervasive reset operation is underway. It is at times of crisis like this, says Alan Greenspan, that one constructs a path forward out of the ideas that are lying around. Neurofeedback is one of the key ideas that just happens to be ready to be picked up.

We can take a simple view of our economy by analogy to the food chain or food web. The source of most of the productivity in our material ecosystem is the bottom layer, just as in our biosphere. Above that layer, there is a progressive hierarchy that culminates in the top predators, of which one should not have too many. In the United States, we had gotten to the point where the financial wizards, our top predators, were garnering forty percent of all corporate profits for their “non-productive” efforts. The bottom layer was unable to bear the load of ever larger exactions from the wealth of their labor. The housing scandal was the last straw. The whole edifice buckled under the strain.

Now when it comes time to rescue the system from implosion, it is the top predators that are getting all the help. After all, one could not imagine the society functioning without them, we are told. They keep the herd healthy, it is said. In the biosphere, the operative mechanism is thinning the herd – which may be an option for caribou, but not for citizens.

Yet the herd is not healthy. We must see to the grass roots of our economy, and the predators will not do that. They are hunters, not gardeners. They are very selective opportunists, and a society run by self-interested opportunists eventually escalates into instability and self-destructs, just as ours is doing. The task is not mere discrimination of economic winners from the losers, it is a matter of developing competence broadly in our citizenry. We must become the caring, communal society that was called into being on the Washington Mall in the summons to responsibility. Our responsibility is toward each other.

The nation is as unanimous as it ever gets in support of a massive effort to repair our national infrastructure, the prominent symbol of decay of the public square. This is where it is easy to fill in the blanks as to what is to be done. Renewable energy; transportation networks; healthcare infrastructure; improved water reliability; flood control; security against terror. The objective here is the tangible end result, not the cash flow that goes back upstairs.

Perhaps even more important than the above is our internal infrastructure, our own brain function. The society is talking around these problems, but it does not yet know what to do. The “No Child Left Behind” law is like the law in Utah that sets legal limits on the level that the Salt Lake may reach. (A few years ago the lake impudently and stealthily broke the law.) The whole field of education remains in a pre-scientific age, relying mainly on educational methods that date back to the nineteenth century. Children’s brains are taken as a given.

Similarly, we talk about “corrections” in the Department of Corrections, but as a society we don’t know what to do. We talk about addictions treatment, but we don’t know what to do. We talk about the looming crisis of the mental decline of the elderly, but we don’t know what to do. We want to rehabilitate our returning veterans, but we don’t know what to do.

With neurofeedback, all that can change. Major reductions in criminal recidivism have already been demonstrated with neurofeedback, through the work of Douglas Quirk, Eugenia Bodenhamer-Davis, Peter Smith and Marvin Sams. Major breakthroughs in addictions treatment have been documented by Peniston, Scott/Kaiser/Othmer, Burkett, Saxby, White, and Allen.

When it comes to education, major increases in measured IQ have been shown by Tansey, Othmer, Fleischman, and others. Major improvements in academic functioning have been demonstrated by Thornton and by Surmeli. Other barriers to educational achievement lie in the domain of emotional regulation, more particularly the stealth condition of early childhood trauma, and now we can address this as well.

With regard to the elderly, we already know that the burden of care needs to be increasingly shifted to a self-care model. The mantra is “diet and exercise.” We now add to that the mental exercise of neurofeedback, and we are in a position to push off the time of terminal decline of mental function, the depredations of Parkinson’s and the dementias, of diabetes and of the sleep disorders.

The above issues are the principal ones in which individual mental failings impinge on the society at large. But we know that the largest adverse impacts of deficiencies in self-control and in mental functioning are upon the individual at issue, and secondarily upon the immediate family. Violence in our society is principally an issue of domestic violence. Emotional trauma is largely incubated in the home. Educational failure is also largely rooted within the family. All this can be helped significantly with brain-based therapies such as neurofeedback.

During the mid-nineties, there was still a debate in this country about why the huge expenditures on computer technology weren’t paying off in terms of overall productivity. With the rise of the Internet, that debate became irrelevant. The isolated desktop computer had become part of a communications network, and that made all the difference.

Attention must now turn to our own internal internet, because its performance need no longer be regarded as a given. We now know how to bring about better performance. We are in a position to have an even greater impact on our individual and societal well-being by attending to our internal network than we are likely to have with the Internet.

How is such a future to come about? Under ordinary circumstances, the time constant of societal change is large. Neurofeedback has already been around for forty years. Its acceptance won’t come as smoothly as the arrival of a new vaccine. Neurofeedback impinges on the sensitive issue of who we are and how we relate to our own brains. That’s new terrain for the whole society. A crisis such as we now face with our returning veterans may provide the focus that allows our technique to be finally recognized for its astounding potential. Even here, the biggest barrier is the veteran’s propensity to regard deficits in mental functioning as problems of the self rather than of the machinery.

The technique is still relatively unknown, so the resources won’t be there for us at the outset. (They will have been expended on the predators.) Progress will have to continue with the same boot-strapping model by which we got to where we are. But it is important to recognize that the value the individual and the society should place on this technique is very different from the value that an investor might place on it, or even the medical community.

The neurofeedback brain trust has been bending itself into a pretzel trying to make neurofeedback sound credible to the mainstream medical community. This is a lost cause because we ultimately represent not only competition, but very unfair competition. We are a threat, let’s face it. We actually solve the problems of mental health. We do so without side effects. We do so rather quickly, and we do so relatively inexpensively. We simply coax the system into working the way it is supposed to be working, to the degree that nature allows.

Our field looks to the potential investor much like St. John’s Wort looks to the pharmaceutical industry, or like L-tryptophan looks to the makers of Prozac. The problem from the investor standpoint is that the technique can no longer be patented. Further, there are too many ways to do the work for any one entity to anticipate that it can dominate the field. The objective here is the well-being of the individual and of the society directly, endogenously, intrinsically – unmediated by the exchange of goods. This sets up an imbalance between the benefits to the society and the value returned to a potential investor. Neurofeedback delivers more value than we get paid for. Hence, neurofeedback cannot thrive in a skewed economy whose bloom is continuously skimmed off by the predators. It can only thrive in a caring economy, a bottom-up economy, where the concern is more about the foundation of people’s wellbeing and happiness than the degree to which the grunts furnish an income to the rentier class.

This was the underlying message of my last newsletter, on Jack Dreyfus’ lost cause of promoting Dilantin. Here’s part of a response I received privately from a neurofeedback practitioner (I recount it here with permission):

In September 1967 after Dreyfus had prevailed upon Henry Luce to publish the story of PHT in a big article in LIFE Magazine, I got a doctor to prescribe it for me. I found that it helped me focus to the point where I could stop my ADD procrastination and get my PhD dissertation done. After I “officially” was diagnosed with ADHD about 12 years ago, I continued using low dosages (100 mg AM) to help me focus. If my mind was “flying” at night I would take a 100 mg and have a restful sleep.

After seeing his book “An Important Medicine Has been Overlooked” in our medical library, I contacted him, and we talked on the phone for about an hour. He recounted his frustration and bitterness that the FDA was so beholden to the pharmaceutical industry. Not being able to make money on a drug on which the patent had run out appeared to be the primary reason why the industry was actively lobbying the FDA to dismiss all the scientific studies. Indeed all the subsequent anti-epileptic drugs were invented to take the place of Dilantin, so that each manufacturer could have a slice of that pie (Tegretol, Neurontin, Topamax, Gabitril, Trileptal, and Lamictal). A year later Jack Dreyfus sent me a copy of the new 1997 edition of his book with a personal inscription.

My recommendation to use much lower than “normal” dosages for both the AEDs and the anti-psychotics for Bipolar Disorder, or even anger control disorders, has also met with resistance and even ridicule. However, it is quite clear that the action of AEDs as a neuro-electrical stabilizer is beneficial even at low dosages. The same is true for the atypical as well as the older anti-psychotics. Even in small doses they act to inhibit the delusional tendencies of the Bipolar mind. The combination of low dosage of an AED and low dosage of anti-psychotic has worked miracles with some of the kids for whom I was able to get that combination. I have found that if adults or kids on high combinations of these drugs come to me for Neurofeedback, we usually have to cut back on the doses. Otherwise they tend to fall asleep in the middle of the day.

We have a health care system that is organized to serve the interests of the predators, and the prey are simply advised that this is all in their interest. That may sound jarring to those who came to political consciousness in the Reagan era. However, American history is cyclical, and we are now finally coming down to the other half of the cycle. This is our time. This is our opportunity.

We have a value proposition for our society that is unmatched; we have an opportunity to reduce suffering that is unequalled; we have an opportunity to enhance brain function that is unparalleled. But we would do well to borrow the sentiment of a Jonas Salk who, when asked about patenting his vaccine, responded that that would be like patenting sunshine.

We will do well by doing good. We can even help the predators…

Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D.

One Response to “Neurofeedback in the New Economy”

  1. jlartin says:

    Dear Dr. Othmer:

    Thanks for putting your thoughts into words, speaking so clearly and directly. Whenever I begin to worry about how my practice will do over the next year or so, I settle down, go back to work, honored and joyful with my efforts to be part of the solution.

    EB White said it well-” I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve (or save) the world and the desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it difficult to plan the day.” Sometimes, you get to do both.
    Joan Lartin-Drake

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