“The Next Big Thing”

by Siegfried Othmer | January 7th, 2015

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

Next Big Thing
A common concern among those paid to worry about the society in general, and the economy in particular, is what we may expect to see as the main driving force for change in the near future. The emerging sharing economy may be one of the best candidates for transformative change. And within the sharing economy, the ride-sharing outfit Uber may be the most visible example. Uber has been in the news lately because it received an infusion of investor funds that placed the implicit value of the company at some $40B. This is doubly startling when it is viewed against the company’s sales last year of a mere $1B.

One billion in sales? The case can be made that neurofeedback “sales” last year were bigger than that! With some twenty-thousand practitioners toiling around the world, taking in an average of $50,000 over the year with neurofeedback training, pencils out to $1B. These numbers may well be conservative.

The specifics don’t need to be argued over. The point is that neurofeedback has a direct commercial impact that is comparable to that of Uber, when it is seen in the perspective of an economist. But that is also where the direct comparisons end. If we look at the value of the service delivered, the Uber service is presumably priced close to its actual market value. One cannot say the same for neurofeedback. Here the value typically exceeds the cost by multiples. More than once has a mother said to us something like “I would have given my house for what you have done for my child.” How does one put a price on health and functionality?

The true value of what we do is simply incalculable. We confront an incommensurability of benefits and costs, but however matters are judged, the benefits vastly outweigh the costs. Seen in that light, the candidacy of neurofeedback as the ‘next big thing’ has a lot more going for it than mere ride-sharing. But neurofeedback has this feature of benefits exceeding costs in common with other health care services. So perhaps it would be more meaningful to frame the question slightly differently:

“What is the next big thing in the healthcare field?”

If that question had been asked ten years ago, the answer would likely have been “stem cells.” As it happens, 2004 was the year California passed an initiative to commit $3B to a stem cell research program. We are now ten years into that program, some two-thirds of the moneys have been committed, and according to Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times the director of the program is still looking “for a clear sense of mission.” Still?

Funding has gone largely to basic research, and appropriately so. But that means that there is as yet very little tangible payoff in terms of the promised cures for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, etc. It is therefore not yet possible to render a clear judgment on whether stem cells will fulfill their early promise and on what timescale. Meanwhile, over that same ten-year period we have established and matured infra-low frequency training with Cygnet, and have found a way to help significantly with Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and Parkinson’s. We calculate conservatively that a third of a million people have already benefited from training on Cygnet.

The comparison of stem cell research with neurofeedback is instructive. The former skated entirely on speculation that therapeutic benefit would be available on a short timescale. There was at the time no evidentiary support for such optimism. At the same time, all of the findings in neurofeedback over the years already had good evidentiary support behind them when publications appeared, and yet the funding agencies have lacked enthusiasm, to say the least. Wasn’t their skepticism just slightly misplaced?

As always at the scientific frontier, ‘it is the theory that tells us what we may believe.’ Stem cell research benefited from the fact that the underlying theory was already established within the belief system. The same is not true of neurofeedback, so it has languished with the funding agencies. On the flipside, this also means that stem cell-based therapies are unlikely to surprise us on the upside because we have already been counting our chickens.

By contrast, both the scientific community and the society at large are not even aware that neurofeedback even exists. It is considered a fringe discipline that still has to make its case. The true revolutionary potential therefore lies with neurofeedback. Just as the value of neurofeedback for an individual is an intangible, the value for the society is even more so. Acceptance of neurofeedback with all of its implications must necessarily lead to a conceptual reframing that will cut across many disciplines besides health care—child care, education and criminal justice principally among them. More importantly, a brain-centered perspective will finally allow us to make peace within our warring selves, and in consequence we will relate more compassionately to each other.

Wherever the quality of brain function matters, neurofeedback matters. This is the next big thing not only for health care, but for our whole society.

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

One Response to ““The Next Big Thing””

  1. The above was written as the Consumer Electronics Show was getting underway in Las Vegas. The big story there is self-driving cars. However, before we get to those we will increasingly see the integration of automatic controls with driver-directed control functions. Such integration involves an understanding of control systems at every level, and that includes our own. Automatic controls will have to anticipate human reactions, which then also brings our physiological variables into the sphere of interest.

    Neurofeedback has already brought an engineering consciousness to physiological regulation, and in future there will be other driving forces promoting that interaction. Along with advances in brain-computer interfaces, we will increasingly see neural regulation addressed outside of the medical frame. This will see its true liberation from the stultifying rigidity of mind that has hindered neurofeedback to date.

    Significantly, the integration of human and automatic control functions in driving will rely entirely on real-time data. That is quite sufficient. And it is sufficient for neurofeedback as well. All the information required to do neurofeedback well is available within the real-time EEG.

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