Advanced Brain Training for Everyone.
Have you experienced times when you have felt “on target”, maybe even invincible, untouchable, where you are mentally in your “A game”? Or where you have felt clear, poised, “in the now”? Or maybe warm, safe, connected and loving. During these moments your brain is organized, your CNS is flexible and resilient to whatever challenges it faces, and you’re reaping the benefits in the moment.
Using NeurOptimal®it’s suddenly easier to get out of your own way and access your “A game”. Roadblocks can fall away and life can just seem easier, more in flow.
No matter where you are starting from, every brain has a potential best, its own level of optimal flow and function. It doesn’t matter if you are a peak performing athlete or performer, or if you are struggling with relationships or your studies in school, or whatever your situation —.
Whether you are looking for personal or spiritual enhancement, that edge to help prepare you for exams or a performance, or whether you just want to “get your ducks in a row”, we believe NeurOptimal® can help you reach that goal.
Be your best you. It’s time.
We are often asked: “Who can benefit from using NeurOptimal®?” Our answer: “Anyone with a Brain.”
This is because there are no criteria to determine whether you can use NeurOptimal® or not. It is used on toddlers to our oldest citizens, by the sick and the well, by those not functioning at their best to those who excel at what they do.
There are no circumstances that preclude its use, and there is nothing to ever change when you do use it. There is no expertise required — just hit Go and you’re off.
Every time you use NeurOptimal® your brain receives information about what it has just done, micro-second by microsecond. It works with you wherever you are in that instant. So there is never any evaluation to do ahead of time, no decisions to make and no settings to change. You don’t have to worry about doing anything wrong, and neither can you over train. If your brain gets tired it just ignores the information, just as you might ignore a television that is on in the background. Safe, and effective.
Anybody. Anywhere. Anytime.
NeurOptimal® offers information to the brain about what it has just done, which the brain can then use to organize itself. But how does it do that?
During a NeurOptimal® session you will wear ear clips and two small sensors on the sides of your head. These pick up the delicate electrical activity of your brain. You relax and close your eyes and listen to music or watch a movie. NeurOptimal® processes your brain signals very rapidly and when it detects them moving into an “instability”, the music or movie pauses very briefly. That’s it. That’s all that happens. This is the “feedback”.
Consciously of course, this has no meaning for us — in fact we may not even notice them. But unconsciously our brain understands the mathematics behind the timing of the pauses, which act a bit like a “rumble strip”. The brain adjusts its activity without any effort from you (you can be completely zoned out if you want), to stay “within” the rumble strip.Imagine you are walking along a path on a cliff side, in the dark. You’d probably be floundering. But then a flashlight is shone showing the cliff edge. The flashlight doesn’t tell you what to do, but now you can use the extra information you have (the location of the cliff edge) to walk more certainly along your path. The brain learns from the information it is given . And this manifests in your life by blocks dropping away and life just seems easier.
NeurOptimal® is simple. But its simplicity belies its power.There is no outside person having to evaluate or diagnose you, and no outside person deciding what training you need. It’s your brain effectively communicating with itself . Period.
Think about that!
Your brain really does know best.
We call NeurOptimal® “neurofeedback”, yet we are careful to distinguish NeurOptimal® from regular neurofeedback. Why is this?
We call NeurOptimal® a form of neurofeedback for two reasons. The first is that during a session information about your brain is collected (that’s the neuro- part) and then is fed back to your brain by brief pauses in sound. That’s the feedback part. Hence the logical name, neurofeeedback.
The second reason is that the co-developers of NeurOptimal® were active contributors within the field of neurofeedback for many years and NeurOptimal® was an evolution of that work. In fact Dr. Valdeane Brown openly shared his thinking for nigh on a decade with his colleagues. His ideas were so revolutionary however, that there was difficulty accepting them within the field. Slowly the Drs. Brown withdrew, devoting their energies to developing a system that could accurately incorporate their thinking. We now know that system as NeurOptimal®.
What was so radically different in the thinking of the Drs. Brown? It was their idea of viewing the brain as an intelligent, self-organizing dynamical system which can actively utilize information to its own benefit. Viewed from this perspective, the most important element in helping the brain to self-organize is simply the provision of accurate information (that is, feedback). In contrast, our esteemed colleagues viewed the brain as a collection of individual parts that required re-directing in some way. Their approaches relied on extensive evaluation and diagnosis (this condition has too much of this and too little of this) followed by decisions taken by the practitioner as to what the brain needed more of and less of. This would result in training of different states of consciousness, some activating the brain and some quieting it. In short, the brain was told what to do to improve itself. The person doing the training was very much an active participant in getting the brain to behave better, often working very hard to gain points and achieve a variety of goals presented by the software, in order to make the brain change. Sensors would sometimes be moved during sessions too, so each part of the brain could be worked with separately. A crucial role of the practitioner was constantly watching for side effects as a consequence of these training of states, both during the sessions and between sessions. Prior to every session time would be spent assessing how the client had fared since the last session and the protocol for that day adapted to correct for noted imbalances in how the client was feeling. In fact, this is the way most neurofeedback systems function to this day.
This brings us to the last part of our question — why are we so careful to distinguish Neuroptimal® from other neurofeedback systems? All Neuroptimal® does is present information to the brain in a way that can be understood by a dynamical system, and the brain does the rest. No evaluation, no diagnosis, no telling the brain what to do, no goals, no training of states (so no side effects) and no conscious participation by the client. Effortless.
Now THAT is elegance! Simple. Not simplistic.
Doing NeurOptimal® sessions is a bit like learning to read — minus the hard work!
Once you know how to read, you can’t not know. So yes, it lasts. But if you don’t read for a very long time, you might get a little rusty. Then once you jump back in, you quickly catch up and you’re off!
NeurOptimal® is very like that. Once you have done say 20 Sessions, we like to say “you have it in your back pocket”. But if you get thrown off by something happening in your life, a session or two or three can get you right back. You can also stop training any time you want, and pick back up again later. It’s really up to you.
Alternatively, those of us who own NeurOptimal® frequently consider it part of our own self-care, much like exercise. We are living tissue after all, and daily life stressors and pollution all take their toll. You might want to run yourself weekly or monthly to stay tuned — it’s really up to you. It’s your brain doing the training after all. It will let you know when it wants a session!
At Zengar, we have found ways to easily keep it in our lives. We will often run a session while we are working. As long as we are not moving wildly (such as running on a treadmill) it’s fine because NeurOptimal® automatically ignores the noisy signal that prevents other systems from working. And our children will often do a session while doing their homework or playing a quiet game.
So yes, the benefits of NeurOptimal® remain with you, and when life throws you an unexpected curve a few Sessions can quickly help you find your way home.
There are many reasons why NeurOptimal® is so safe.
When you are listening to NeurOptimal® you will hear brief micro-pauses in the sound. Once you settle in to a session, you might hardly even notice them. If listening to pauses in music were risky, our founder Dr. Val Brown jokes that you would have to hold the record companies liable for damages from old scratchy records! Certainly playing records in their hey-day did not seem to adversely affect millions of music lovers.
There is another reason though, that NeurOptimal® is so safe. Unlike other systems, NeurOptimal® does not train states of consciousness. Indeed, it does not do anything to influence any outcome. Instead it is up to your brain to use the mathematical information it receives, or not — as it will. For this reason NeurOptimal® is an extraordinarily safe tool for self-optimization. In fact, history of its use world-wide as revealed in two extensive surveys of our users indicate that we have now well over three million hours of safe usage under all our belts. And that number is growing exponentially.
Consider joining us. NeurOptimal® can help unleash your personal, social, spiritual, physical performance or academic potential. There’s little to lose and possibly much to gain!
You say one of the reasons NeurOptimal® is so safe is that it doesn’t influence any outcome. What does this mean?
Other neurofeedback systems have goals or outcomes they seek, usually determined in collaboration with the practitioner who is operating the equipment. To meet these goals the software will present you with tasks that you try to accomplish and when you get them right you get “points” in some way. Under the hood, the software is telling your brain to produce more of some frequencies and less of others — these are called augments and suppresses. The idea is that your brain can be pushed into learning to be more like a “normal” (or average) brain. NeurOptimal® does not work in this way at all. NeurOptimal® does not view your brain as sick or well — in fact, that is irrelevant to NeurOptimal® which is a training not a treatment. There are no pre-determined goals (such as getting well), and hence no augments or suppresses. In fact, there is no instruction given to your brain at all. It can do whatever it wants! The idea is to hold up that mirror (NeurOptimal®) and let your brain take it from there.
You say the brain is doing the work, not NeurOptimal®. Could a brain be too disturbed or damaged to benefit from NeurOptimal®?
At this point we have had a lot of experience with all kinds of brains, as you can imagine. We have yet to see a brain that cannot learn from NeurOptimal®. It does seem that every brain has within it an innate capacity to learn and hence potentially to benefit from training with NeurOptimal®. Luckily it wouldn’t take you long to find out. We say within six sessions you should know if it is helping, and often it can be quicker than that.
You say many different types of people can work with NeurOptimal® for many different reasons and purposes. How can one program do that, especially when there are no settings to change? How can “one size fit all”?
An excellent question! It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it! The answer is actually quite simple. Let’s go back to the analogy of the mirror. No matter who looks into it, the mirror can always be exactly the same mirror. But every image is going to be different, and even the image of one person is going to be subtly changing, never the same one minute (or second) to the next. NeurOptimal® is like that mirror, giving information micro-second by micro-second. Not only will two people never have the same session, no person will ever have the same session twice! It’s impossible because as the brain shifts in response to the information it is getting, the image being reflected back also changes. It’s a unique dance between the person and their own brain, or, described another way, of the brain dynamically dancing with itself. So no, NeurOptimal® can never be described as a “one size fits all”.
- No expertise required.
- No diagnosis.
- No check of signal integrity needed because NO recognizes and automatically removes unwanted signal.
- Training, not treatment; no protocols.
- No monitoring needed. AutoNavigation takes care of everything.
- Does not tell the brain what to do.
- Offers feedback on 20 different “targets” at once.
- No states are trained.
- Expertise needed throughout process.
- Diagnosis required.
- Careful hookup needed to minimize impedance, often involving scrubbing site. May use impedance meter to confirm signal integrity.
- Use of treatment protocols.
- Careful monitoring of session while it is occurring; parameters may need to be changed.
- Use of augment frequencies and suppress frequencies, instructing the brain what to do.
- Work with limited frequency bands.
- Training is state based.
- Expertise, if you can find it, can be expensive.
- You shouldn’t need something to be wrong with you to train your brain.
- You do not need to be an expert to get expert training.
- Your diagnoses may require contradictory protocols; your practitioner must get choice right.
- Effortless sessions.
- If practitioner makes wrong decision, effects can be very unpleasant.
- Limited frequency bands can produce side effects. Training with limited bands = limited training NO’s 20 targets naturally balance each other. Positive effects seen in many areas of life.
- Excess training in any state can lead to unwanted side effects.
A personal reflection from Susan Cheshire Brown Ph.D.
I entered the field of neurofeedback in the early 1990s. At that time, the entire field was represented by only two diametrically opposed training methods. One was SMR / beta training which was applied to various forms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the other was alpha-theta training. While this was frequently used to explore human consciousness, it was also utilized as an abreactive approach to personal transformation, particularly for addictions (Penniston and Kulkosky, 1991). Abreactive meant, that while training could indeed be transformative, it often came at the cost of re-experiencing old trauma which then had to be “worked through” therapeutically. The practitioners who offered the one approach to training did not offer the other, so the type of training you would receive depended very much upon whom you consulted. Very striking to me at that time, was the lack of any theoretical model of neurofeedback to explain, let alone integrate, these two disparate approaches. Those contributing to the body of knowledge at the time were very much doing their own thing with little reference to the work of any other.
When Val Brown entered the field also in the early ’90s, he took it upon himself to integrate the two approaches to training into what he called his Five Phase Model (Brown, 1995). No matter the presenting complaints, clients were led methodically through a series of phases of training, moving on to the next once they were considered stable. They would begin with eyes-open SMR training, then beta training and then shift to eyes closed alpha-theta training. Whereas others in the field would train SMR on the right side of the head (C4), beta on the left (C3) and alpha-theta at the low back of the head (O1 and O2), Val found he could use one central location (CZ) for all the training in the first four phases. Phase 5 was Global Synchrony training using a piece of equipment with four channels, if that was available. Otherwise, the Synchrony was allowed to emerge naturalistically, still using the single site, CZ based, training format. The advantage of Val’s Five Phase Model was both its ease of administration (no need to diagnose the client, no need to move the sensor) and its comprehensiveness (it incorporated the essence of both major approaches in the field, it resolved a broad array of issues clients presented with, and in addition was personally transformative). An added benefit was that working at CZ was also remarkably safe, so side effects were relatively few. As if this were not enough, Val also contributed even more significantly to client safety and comfort. In his clinical work with clients, he observed a significant pulsing at 3 Hz in individuals who manifest trauma, and he came to describe 3 Hz as representing emotional reactivity (its sister frequency at 5 Hz he described as cognitive reactivity). He further discovered that this pulsing was also present in many disorders, and he hypothesized that it was a key factor relating to symptom presentation. This observation led to him vitally and routinely suppressing 3 Hz during all training, for all clients. This was a key component of The Five Phase Model, regardless of what other targets might be used as augments or inhibits. In my personal view, the observation of the significance of 3 Hz as an essential attribute in disorder was one of his most important contributions to the field. It permitted trauma victims the possibility of releasing symptoms without having to re-experience the trauma, which was a HUGE step forward in assisting these clients. Surprisingly, this raised, and still raises, a good deal of antipathy among what we call “feel it to heal it” therapists. But worse in my view, was the refusal of others in the field to embrace this information, and many still train today using suppress bandwidths of 4-7 Hz, allowing 3 Hz to freely trigger considerable distress for some clients. At that time, I felt if we were to do nothing else but suppress 3 Hz, we could allay a lot of what was triggering emotional and symptomatic storms for the client. Overall, the Five Phase Model spoke to me, and I quickly adopted it in my clinical practice.
After Val and I became a couple in 1996, I continued to work with the Five Phase Model, but started experimenting with ways I could both enhance and speed up the training. Although I am a very cautious clinician, I felt comfortable doing this because the Five Phase Model was, at its very essence, an extremely safe model to experiment with. However, I also felt some personal concern about this experimentation because I knew that I would ultimately work in the way I found best, even if this were to take me away from Val’s Five Phase Model. Given that Val’s professional life was largely spent teaching and supervising others in the use of his model, that could cause some (rightfully) curious questioning on that fact. This was one of those periods where I personally felt I had to just keep steady and stay the course, and trust in what would arise from the work. It was an intensive couple of years of exploration for me, and clinically resulted in the routine suppression of 23-38 Hz (which I called the “worry frequency”), the use of 40 Hz as an augment, and the rich discovery of the benefits of 21 Hz or the “aura frequency,” as we called it (more on that later).
As creative and as effective this was for my clients, training was still being done using one single channel at a time, so having to move a single sensor from one side of the head to the other during the session. I was speeding up training by lateralizing, training left and right brain at C3 and C4 instead of centrally at CZ, but making the training “stronger” in this way also came at a cost — side effects were also stronger. So much of my clinical hour now was now spent closely monitoring how the client was feeling and adjusting training based on client self-report. This required considerable skill on the part of the trainer, which was further put to the test when the client had some form of immune-suppression. These clients had a very long delay in their response to training (a slow feedback loop). We would not know for hours and sometimes days, what the impact of the training was, so I could not reliably adjust the training I was giving based upon their self-report. If they felt good when they left my office they would often feel depleted and lethargic later, and if they felt not so good after their session they would start to feel good later. How well a therapist could manage these clients clearly distinguished the more experienced from the less so. Considerable effort was thus expended by all therapists to become adept at managing and minimizing side effects, and this was true no matter the approach that was used.
Concurrent with my clinical explorations, Val was busy evolving his theoretical thinking from a linear model of training frequencies up or down, towards a non-linear and more dynamic model of central nervous system functioning. Practically, Val started to include lateralizing away from CZ to enhance SMR or Beta training, but then would return to CZ to establish that the intended training had indeed been accomplished. However, this was only the beginning of his explorations of the dynamical structure of neurofeedback training as a comprehensive and adaptive process. As he further developed and articulated his emerging model, it became clear that how Val was thinking theoretically was articulating what I was doing practically with my clients! While I had moved away from the original linear Five Phase Model during my two years of exploration, Val’s theoretical evolution brought his thinking and my clinical practice neatly back together again. Trusting in the process had definitely born fruit!
Some other specific events also occurred around this time that were to change forever the way we work. While at a FutureHealth conference I was sitting at the Thought Technology booth where their ProComp encoder was being demonstrated. This encoder offered two separate channels, the idea being that you could do one hookup and then train first one side of the brain and then the other, without having to move the sensor. On a whim, I suggested that Val hook me up see if we could train two sides of the brain at once. This was a ridiculous suggestion at the time as we were sequentially training SMR on the right and Beta on the left. These two frequency bandwidths result in two very different states of consciousness. So what would happen if you trained two very different states of awareness at the same time? As we discovered, while sitting at that booth, you could indeed train both SMR and Beta at the same time! Of course, many colleagues would go on to protest that such concurrent training was “too much for the CNS to handle”. In retrospect it seems silly but, at that time, there was a widespread assumption that the CNS could ONLY train one specific “augment” target at a time. We continued to develop our thinking by further exploring the use of multiple concurrent targets. What a change that made! Now we had the ability to train two separate real-time channels of EEG simultaneously, offering double the training and benefit to our clients in their sessions.
Another event occurred at the same meeting and it too, was to have a profound effect on our development. Val was presenting on thresholding and discussed some ideas for a live demonstration of these new ideas with Tom Allen, one of the developers of the Biograph® system. For the demonstration I was hooked up facing towards the audience and away from a large screen. This ensured I had no visual information about what either my brain was doing or what the operator was doing as he changed the thresholds. I was just hearing tones (auditory feedback). The purpose of the presentation was to demonstrate an idea of Val’s, that manually “bracketing” a target by moving rapidly and alternately above and below it for a few iterations (about six) would induce a positive effect in that target. If the target involved was an augment frequency (one that you would like to increase) such as SMR or Beta, it would try to seek a new threshold level by briefly decreasing in amplitude then shooting upwards to settle at a new (desired) higher level. However, if the target involved an inhibit frequency, like our 2-6 Hz, then the signal would try to seek a new threshold limit by briefly increasing in amplitude, then suddenly dropping and settling at a new (desired) lower level. Although Tom explained this phenomenon in terms of learning theory, Val described it in non-linear terms as “dynamical thresholding”. Coupling that with our simultaneous bilateral training, now including our newly explored 21 Hz and 40 Hz and adding in alpha-theta, the Period Three Approach was born.
Period Three was a three-tiered training with a much more complex organization and implementation than the earlier Five Phase Model. That model had required a systematic progression through stages over many sessions, moving on to the next stage only when the client had become stable in the earlier stage. In contrast, in the Period Three Approach, all three of the stages of training were used within one session. Val by this time was designing our own interface to the neurofeedback software we were using, and each of the three periods were represented by their own set of display screens. Clients would do what they needed to allow the screens to move through a series of simple movements. The clinician in their turn had chosen a visual interface to both observe brain activity and to operate the thresholds. Creating these screens had pushed the particular software we were using to its limits however, and we were recognizing the need to write our own if we were to have a safe, responsive platform upon which to explore our non-linear thinking. So when we were able, we embraced the opportunity and NeuroCare® Pro, the forerunner to NeurOptimal®, was born.
NeuroCare® Pro was designed from the ground up to be a training for the brain, not a treatment for disorders. We already had a solid, effective approach (Period Three) for working with any client who came in the door, which was free of the need for diagnosis or special evaluation. Consequently a medical model, which applies a defined treatment to a specific set of symptoms, just did not make sense for us. We tried to make this distinction clear by referring to our users as trainers, not clinicians, and by creating a clearly non-medical language for the interface, which collectively were called portals, and the sessions which were called journeys. We also simplified the trainer’s view of brain activity from observing a difficult to interpret raw brain wave, to a display of colored one-hertz bins which we called the Matrix Mirror. Our dynamical thresholds were managed through a second display of overlapping boxes that could be sized by the trainer on the fly. Each phase of Period Three was represented by portals with a different set of threshold boxes, which the trainer would drag to a size that allowed a “reasonable” amount of feedback. And for feedback we chose a method of interrupting ongoing music or sound to provide the information to the brain, rather than providing blips, squeaks, buzzes or changing notes as information about what the brain was doing.
One of the major consequences of these easy to use portals was that the trainer could observe shifts in brain activity long before the client would experience unwanted side effects. This meant the trainer could adjust the training before the client had had “too much” and was exhibiting side effects. This was huge for trainers, because now instead of asking a client how they were feeling to know when and what to adjust, they could simply observe the effects in the Matrix Mirror and make adjustments as they were needed. The learning challenge for trainers became recognizing patterns in the Matrix Mirror that would suggest the brain had had enough feedback in a particular frequency group, and adjusting training to avoid the pitfalls that could come from over-training. A skilled trainer could then largely avoid unwanted side effects while still providing an integrated training process which offered the client the benefit of training many frequencies across a full range, rather than using a very limited subset aimed at a particular diagnosis, which was (and still is) the approach used by our colleagues.
At this point we were using different portals for each of the Three Periods, and you would stop training to shift to a new set of portals. When using the alpha-theta based Period Two, we would have clients close their eyes and cuddle up with a mask and a blankie. Having to stop and pull up different portals started to feel clumsy to me, so we designed a truly “comprehensive” portal which contained all the frequency bandwidths we worked with. To work with a set of boxes (which were our dynamical thresholds), a trainer would pull them into a smaller size so they started to provide feedback, and you would leave the others larger so they were not in play and would not trigger feedback. I was excited by this because I was curious to know whether I could shift from one Period to another without the client consciously being aware that the contingencies (the thresholds) had changed. Our colleagues very much view neurofeedback as invoking a conscious process (as in the client trying to make something happen) and I suspected that this was not the case at all.
So how would the brain respond to a change of requirements that the client was not consciously aware of? We also thought that changing the demand “behind the scenes” would require some increased flexibility on the part of the client to negotiate training. And indeed, changing Periods behind the scenes worked well. But then I reasoned, if our brains can learn to shift flexibly from one state to another without conscious awareness, could… the brain possibly… cope with information coming from ALL the frequency bandwidths for all the Three Periods, at once? Could we collapse the Period Three Approach essentially into one all-encompassing Period? Would it be way too confusing for the brain? Remember, we were simply pausing music or a movie when the brain was out of range; we did not produce a different sound for each different frequency. It was the same brief pause for all the frequencies. How would the brain interpret all this very similar information offered in very quick succession? Of course, maybe I should add that all the work I did was always tested on my own brain first, and then was extended to family members and then people I knew very well before applying it more generally. I also had the added safety of being able to see moment by moment what the brain was doing, and I could quickly shift what I was doing if I needed to, because I had a very safe system after all, to work with! So, you’ve guessed it, we discovered that yes, you could train all the frequencies “at once” (meaning in very quick succession). How had we ever thought you couldn’t? And very importantly, there was an incredible benefit to training all the frequencies at once. This method assured that any unwanted effects triggered by one frequency would immediately be counteracted by its partner frequency, before side-effects had even occurred. The bandwidths we worked with all balanced each other out perfectly! We were moving yet further towards our earlier goal of side-effect free neurofeedback for any brain, within one integrated, easy to use, training environment.
There was, however, a fly in the ointment. There was one frequency culprit I wanted to deal with, and that was low beta 15-18 Hz. Beta is trained on the left to improve focus and concentration. Yet oddly, the SMR / beta boxes were the only frequency set that were not balanced left to right, as the brain seemed to prefer a slightly lower frequency on the right (SMR). I had known for years that low beta was invariably the culprit when unwanted side effects occurred. The reason is that beta trains the narrow focus of attention that accompanies the stress response! Indeed, most systems are training our children to focus by inducing the stress response. As a result of our work with Period Three, I could see we were getting terrific focus and attention by training frequencies much higher in the frequency range and which do not induce unpleasant side effects. So we decided to complete the Period Three model by balancing out the bandwidths left and right, and in so doing, eliminated training low beta. An interesting note however, is that even though we were not training low beta directly we could still track what was happening to it. And we found that as the brain normalizes through the use of both our dynamical thresholding as well as feedback on frequencies that have a re-balancing effect all the way up and down the frequency range, beta normalizes perfectly well on its own! So now we had effectively eliminated the trigger of most side effects. All I had to do now was add a “softening” band to what was an energizing Comprehensive mix, and finally we had our one-size adapts-to-all, Comprehensive Portal.
At this point, we were still training states, meaning different states of consciousness. These states were induced by suppressing “unwanted” frequencies, in particular 3 Hz (the emotional reactivity frequency identified by Val as a major problem in all disorder) and 5 Hz (which we identified as cognitive reactivity), and the higher frequencies 23-38 colloquially labelled by me as the “worry frequencies”. Our colleagues were still telling us we couldn’t work that high up due to interference from 50 Hz and 60 Hz from our electrical grids, but actually we can, due to the unique In-Line Adaptive De-noising algorithm developed by Val. This automatically removes signal identified as “non-human” and allows us to train under electrically noisy conditions that would overwhelm other systems. We were also augmenting other frequencies that were “desirable” (it is the augment frequencies that determine the state of consciousness). By this time the only augment frequency we were sharing with the rest of the field was SMR. We had eliminated beta as previously described, and were augmenting our unique 21 Hz and 40 Hz, the latter recognized in the field but not generally used, maybe due to the electrical noise issues other systems experience high up in the frequency range. At that time we were using what we thought was a logical algorithm with our unique box thresholds (or targets as well call them), where a suppress frequency was accepted as “in” (the music would continue to play) if it was inside the box or below it. And similarly, an augment was accepted if it was in the box or above it (higher). And we were getting good results. But it was starting to “niggle” at me, that if we were espousing a true dynamical model, we would have to accept the frequencies only when inside of the box. Outside the box was “out” and the music would stop. Even if, for an augment, it was above the box or for a suppress, it was below. This sounded counter-intuitive to us from a practical viewpoint, yet technically it was correct. So Val wrote me a personal version of the software using this stricter interpretation and I practiced on myself and others I knew to made sure it “would do no harm” and then embarked on my first week of training with clients I knew well (with their consent, of course). I remember that week clearly. It felt terrifying. I knew I could not hurt my clients, but— was it helping? I had gotten very skilled at guiding my clients through a “great ride” utilizing the different states, going into deep relaxation through high energy and landing in an alert yet relaxed state to go out into their lives. Now I had to let all of that go, because now— as far as the information the brain was receiving— there was no difference between an augment target and a suppress target! No more training “states of consciousness”. What would the brain do in response to such information? It took all my courage to continue through that week, wondering if everything we had worked for had been left behind, that our thinking on the non-linear dynamical model had to be re-visited. But again, it was a question of staying the course, or as I have called it over the years, keeping on keeping on. And all turned out to be well. In fact, we were indeed quickly getting results and, wonderfully, with even fewer side effects. This was a consequence of no longer giving the brain any suggestion of whether the frequency should go up or down, so no “pushing” of the brain, with the inadvertent yet often inevitable over-training of a state.
By this time, the only remaining task the trainer had to do during sessions was set the difficulty level, which determined how much feedback was heard. None-the-less, simple as it was, it required the trainer to sit with the client through the session, as the difficulty level needed to be periodically adjusted. So while I was sitting there during sessions, and always curious and sometimes inspired by changes I had seen Val making when he would occasionally run someone, I started playing with some of the mathematics available to me in the software. Over the years I had developed the ability to energetically track the changes a client was making in their CNS, and I used this ability to develop the frequency bandwidths by noting the different effects upon the client. At this time I found I could alter the level of challenge to the client by changing how precise or how “fuzzy” I made the feedback, in a mathematical sense. I developed a way to move through the sessions by changing these parameters, starting gently, increasing the difficulty and moving into a period of greater challenge and then softening as they came to the end of the session. So instead of using states to give the client a wonderful experience through the session, I was now using the degree of feedback precision to offer different levels of challenge. I wrote down what I found worked with my clients and Val incorporated these into the software. These settings became known as the Zen modes (Zen as a play on our company name Zengar®, not “zen”).
If we were to have a fully automated software, the last major piece of the puzzle (there are other pieces I have not even touched upon in this discourse) required the difficulty level to be navigated automatically by the program. Val and I were playing around with targeting one day in one of the test versions, and we saw an odd behavior in the way the targeting was working. Given how it was behaving, it struck me that we were seeing the essence of “auto-nav” (auto-navigation)! Of course, it took Val considerable development work from that birthing point, to the full Auto-Nav we enjoy today. The beauty is that the software interacts moment by moment with the brain with a degree of fluidity and efficiency that was never possible setting the difficulty levels manually. It is truly an ever-changing fluid dance between the feedback generated by the software and the brain. And a very positive practical affect of auto-nav, is that the trainer is relieved of having to sit through the session of a single client and is able instead to run multiple client sessions simultaneously, from outside the training room.
At this point, NeurOptimal® (yes, along the way it had a name change, reflecting the totally different product it had become) runs automatically through its sessions, eliminating irrelevant signal so you can run under a wide variety of less than ideal conditions. NeurOptimal® dances with the brain using its powerfully releasing dynamical thresholds and moving through the Zen modes in a manner that provides powerful and safe transformation for any client, free of the need to diagnose or extensively evaluate. A true training as opposed to a treatment, and so easy to run that kids can run themselves. Truly a neurofeedback system “for the rest of us”. The very history and evolutionary process of the development of NeurOptimal® itself, mirrors the very powerful transformational possibilities it offers to all who are willing to explore.
Brown, V. (1995). Neurofeedback and Lyme’s Disease: A clinical application of the Five Phase Model of CNS functional transformation and integration. Journal of Neurotherapy, 1(2), 60-73.
Peniston, E. G., & Kulkosky, P. J. (1991). Alcoholic personality and alpha-theta brainwave training. Medical Psychotherapy, 2, 37-55.
The Evolution of NeurOptimal® from a Linear Training Approach to a Non-linear Dynamical Model of Neurofeedback By Susan Cheshire Brown, Ph.D.
Those of you familiar with NeurOptimal® have heard it described as a non-linear dynamical system. But what on earth does that mean? Why would it matter? Why would you care? While you may be forgiven for yawning this early in the article, the distinction is a crucial one. It directly affects the safety of the system, the far-reaching and all-encompassing nature of the effects you can expect, and how easily and cheaply you can access training. Individually, these are not minor considerations. Together, they are remarkable.
At the time Val and I began seriously thinking about producing our own software, I had a busy full time practice as a Clinical Psychologist in New York. As a Clinical Psychologist I was very much part of the medical model of practice. Indeed, I was on the medical staff of not only my local hospital but also the academic medical center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook Health Sciences Center. I also lectured regularly at various institutions, including medical institutions. Yet when Val and I began thinking about creating a new neurofeedback software, our vision was far from one based on a medical model. Why was this? It is because the medical model is fundamentally based on the diagnosis and treatment of disorders. While this model has been extraordinarily successful in so many ways, we believed strongly it was not the most functional approach for training the brain. So what was the alternative? By definition, the brain fulfills criteria for definition as a non-linear dynamical system and there is a whole area of research that deals with how you can control such systems. While use of the word “control” is discomfiting to us as psychologists, it is actually describing the means by which you can impact such systems. If we were then to apply these means to impacting the brain, we reasoned, one of the big advantages would be that diagnosis (and the related testing and evaluation) becomes irrelevant. This factor alone immediately reduces the level of expertise required in the user, considerably improving the economics of care.
Our view was relatively simple and straightforward — we thought. (It turned out to be a much tougher journey than we anticipated due to unexpected and vehement opposition and antipathy it triggered among many of our colleagues, a very real phenomenon that Val in particular, weathered for years). We knew we wanted to base the technology on the brain being a non-linear dynamical system. We wanted it to be safe, effective, and as mentioned above, not require diagnosis. Val had already made important in-roads in all these respects with his Five Phase Model *(more on that later). But we also wanted it to be easy to use, requiring neither special education nor particular expertise. We both fundamentally feel that you, as an individual, have the right to information about your own brain and ideally would not have to go through an expert to access brain training. Astonishingly, our desire to make it simple was probably the biggest factor contributing to our unpopularity in the field, its simplicity placing it well outside the medical model embraced by our colleagues. It challenged the dominant paradigm. In the early days we were working with a software designed by a prominent manufacturer and had been invited to spend a weekend with the owner and the head software engineer to offer our input. At one point I offered a suggestion that I believed “…would make it simpler”. The designer’s response amazed me: “I don’t want to make it simpler. It should be hard. People who use our software should be highly trained”. He thought harder was better! I realized then this was a world view diametrically opposed to how both Val and I thought. Although I was highly trained (actually more so than some of our critics), I fundamentally believed that one of my roles was to make it as easy as I could for others. These philosophies informed our design in a way that determined the evolution of NeurOptimal® in fundamental ways we could not have foreseen back then. In fact, its evolution ran so contrary to our everyday view of reality, that had you described to me back then what we were going to do today, I would not have believed it could have worked. So let us begin at the beginning, with where the field was, back then.
As I have written elsewhere (Brown, 2011, 2016), when I entered the field of Neurofeedback, practitioners were doing one of two things, with no interchange between the two. Some were doing SMR-beta training for Attention Deficit and related Disorders. Others were exploring consciousness with alpha-theta training, which later was applied with some success to the treatment of Alcoholism (Peniston & Kulkosky, 1991). Both approaches involved training with very limited frequency ranges, augmenting either SMR (13-15 Hz or 12-15 Hz) and beta (15-18 Hz) or alpha (usually 8-13 Hz) and suppressing theta, considered to be 4-7 Hz. Neurofeedback was used for treating medical disorders and the impetus of the field as a whole was (and still is) to gain acceptance within the medical community.
In contrast, Val had published his Five Phase Model (Brown, 1995) which took all clients, regardless of diagnosis, through a structured series of training steps featuring all the frequencies then currently available (SMR, beta, alpha). In addition to this universally applicable form of training, he identified 3 Hz as fundamental to disorder. He described its behavior as much like a hurricane, co-opting the energy of the central nervous system and leaving little for anything else. As 3 Hz quiets during training, the brain is able to apply that energy towards the many other frequencies that allow healing to occur. In fact, 3 Hz is so fundamental that if I could do only one thing, I would down-train 3 Hz over and above everything else. In his Five Phase Model Val was suppressing 3 Hz with a 2-6 Hz suppress, allowing 7 Hz to roam freely. He did not up-train 7 Hz, but described it being a little like a breeze. You can’t make it happen, but you can open the window to let it come in. He identified 7 Hz as a crucial component of realization, or what we came later to call the “Aha! Response”. This difference from the rest of the field (suppressing specifically 3 Hz and leaving 7 Hz alone) does not sound like much, but the clinical ramifications are huge. Pulsing 3 Hz carries trauma and is a major contributor to side effects during training, so down-training 3 Hz made training for clients significantly more pleasant, proceeding without elicitation of old traumas and other unwanted side effects. This was a monumental contribution to the field in my view, but despite Val’s many presentations on the topic, our colleagues disappointingly demonstrated little interest.
After Val and I got together as a couple in 1996 but before we had worked on our own software, we had another of the prominent manufacturers at that time make us a suppress filter that met our criteria. That same year I went to a workshop hosted by a colleague, which used the same major neurofeedback system I just referenced, but with their standard suppress filters. I had taken the week off and looked forward to personally exploring alpha-theta training more deeply. Instead I found myself supporting my fellow participants as they sank into tears and despair while I myself fought a continual migraine — all the results of not suppressing 3 Hz. One of the helpers at that workshop (who later went on to create his own neurofeedback system), knew that we were using a different set of suppresses to the standard, and at one point he asked me why. I told him it prevented the release of overwhelming emotions and other side effects, during training. He responded with a question that blew my mind — “What emotions”? I replied hesitatingly — “What we’ve been seeing all this week”. He was so used to seeing these side effects everyday in his own work that he did not view them as a problem! My point to him was, you can have transformative neurofeedback without all these unwanted sequelae, but to my knowledge he, and our other colleagues, are still using a 4-7 Hz suppress. If they are not, Val has never been credited for the change!
Our desire to have safe neurofeedback accessible for everybody to use, not just experts, caused us (or mostly Val really, as he was the “front”), to become increasingly unpopular in the field. We were saying we have a safe and effective method of working that anybody can use, with diagnosis not only not necessary, but totally immaterial. This effectively made irrelevant the extensive training and diagnostic procedures of our colleagues, and understandably they fought hard against that. Despite our unpopularity though, when I would have a booth at a conference I had a steady stream of colleagues (including those with competing systems) wanting me to run them in sessions to assist them with jet lag and the myriad of issues that inflict those that travel. And two of them, still prominent in the field, would show up for “their session” every day!
It is difficult for current users of NeurOptimal® to imagine what running neurofeedback sessions would have been like back then. All the early systems offered just one channel of training, so if you wanted to train both sides of the brain it had to be done sequentially by moving the sensor during training. You had to choose exactly what you wanted to do ahead of time, meaning which frequency bandwidth to augment and what you wanted to suppress. If you wanted to make an adjustment, you had to stop the training, exit the software, go somewhere else in the program to reassign values and begin again. It is important to note the ‘toolbox’ was extremely limited. The highest frequency bandwidth anybody worked with was 15-18 Hz. Above that was suppressed to avoid “muscle artifact”; then there was one low frequency suppress (4-7 Hz), and you could choose one of two augments — SMR or Beta, and one system also offered the possibility of augmenting alpha in a separate additional program. That was it. You would manually set a threshold (level of difficulty) that the trainee would work to reach to receive feedback, which was, if successful, a beep, a buzz or if really sophisticated — a continuous buzzing tone that would go up and down with the amount (amplitude) produced. Alpha-theta would have the additional sophistication of the sound of running water or the ocean in the background. The person doing the training had to put in considerable effort, and the clinician also by monitoring the client closely to watch for side-effects and other evidence of over-training. And of course, for those clinicians who were not using Val’s Five Phase Model, they also had to correctly diagnose the client and decide what frequencies they needed to be trained with based on that diagnosis. Which, to say the least was complicated, especially when the presenting picture was not especially clear, or, as often happened, the client had symptoms of several disorders, all of which required different and sometimes opposing protocols! So you make one thing better by allowing something else to get worse. And the only way you know when to change training is by monitoring the client’s side effects! This is called protocol-based training, and is the predominant model (outside of NeurOptimal®) in use today.
In summary, neurofeedback training at that time was what we at Zengar today call “traditional neurofeedback”. It involved a sequence of training shifting from the left side of the brain to the right, using a limited set of frequency bandwidths which result in “states”. Examples of these would be relaxed awareness versus sharp focus. These frequency bandwidths lay at the heart of the “toolbox” and if you have only one suppress and two augments to work with there is not going to be a whole lot you can do. Furthermore, there were some inherent problems with the choice of bandwidths, such as 4-7 Hz (theta) suppress and 15-18 Hz (beta) augment, both of which could trigger significant side effects. Setting thresholds was done manually, often having to stop the training to make the change, and the thresholds themselves offered no additional benefit to training. Sometimes the threshold was called a dynamic threshold because every few minutes it would adjust its level based on the average of the last little while of training. (This bears no resemblance to our dynamical thresholding). Efficacy of training relied on the conscious effort of the client (“try to make the balloon go up”), and session parameters, decided by the clinician, relied on diagnosis, evaluation of how the client had been during the week, and the side-effects the client experienced during the session.
So fast forward to where Val and I were before we had truly implemented non-linear dynamical methods. Why had we not fully implemented them? One of the main challenges for us was technology. There is a movie with Kevin Costner, in which a picture of the “person of interest” (which turned out to be the Costner character) was slowly “coming down the wire” using one of the dynamical mathematics we use. The process was so memory intensive that the picture came in line by line painfully slowly through a considerable portion of the movie while the Costner character tried to evade detection. We demonstrated this technique as a means of looking at data, at a presentation we did in Europe one year. It took the whole presentation for the image to slowly fill in. Today, we routinely use the same mathematics to show data for pre- and post-session recordings, and they take only seconds to show — because the technology is now powerful enough to do the transformations. So for years we were trying to implement the ideas on a technology that underperformed, nudging at the borders of what the technology would allow. So what were we doing at this time? And how did it differ from the linear models used by our colleagues?
NeurOptimal® (or NeuroCARE Pro® as it was called back then), had evolved conventional linear training. While we had started with one channel at CZ (in the middle of the top of the head), now we had two channels, we were lateralizing training, left and right. What we were doing differently from our colleagues was that we were training both sides of the brain at the same time, as opposed to their sequential training of first one side, then the other. One reason we could do this was our training completely bypassed the client’s conscious effort. If a client is consciously trying to invoke a state, it would be challenging to evoke two very different states at the same time! Not using the client’s conscious mind made our training effortless for the client, who did not have to try to make anything happen. Instead, the brain responds to the information it is provided as part of an unconscious process that is way faster and more effective and efficient than is conscious effort. Another big difference between our colleagues and ourselves was the number of frequency bandwidths we used over a very wide range, including many that are unique to Zengar®, and all were balanced left to right. Furthermore, we were targeting all of them at the same time, not in succession. Targeting, which is our non-linear way of managing threshold setting, was dynamical, which is neither dynamic nor static. What does this mean? A static threshold is when you set a challenge, such as a bar height at a particular level and the person works to reach that challenge. However, if you then periodically change that bar height based on how effective the person is at meeting the goal, you now have a dynamic threshold —it changes periodically to stay “in range” for the individual. These methods contribute nothing beyond simply presenting a goal to work towards. In contrast, NeurOptimal®‘s dynamical thresholds adjust themselves microsecond by microsecond, interacting seamlessly with the brain in response to its own efforts. A dance then starts, by the brain with itself, and that very process has an astounding effect — the dynamical thresholding process actually allows the brain to release its “points of stuckness”. This represents changes in two things. One is the dropping away of the “same old same old” patterns of feelings and behavior that we all have and which are so very difficult to change through conscious effort. This shift manifests through the use of the suppress frequencies. The second change is an increased flexibility of enjoying a myriad of new ways of being in the world, realized through the augment frequencies. This powerful dance occurs all by itself, without any effort from the person being trained, who doesn’t even have to know what was happening. Now that is miraculous!
At this time, we were still using frequency bandwidths (what we call targets) as either augments or suppresses. Meaning we were still using them to “tell the brain what to do”. This is easy to understand if you are using the simple line (bar) thresholds of other systems. Above the line for an augment (what you want more of) is “in” or good, and below is “out”; for suppresses (what you want less of), below the line is good or “in” and above is “out”. However, we were using box thresholds instead of lines, so for us the definition was a little more complex and yet logical. With an augment you were “in” or good if you were in the box or above it, for a suppress you were good if you were in the box or below it. The level of difficulty could be adjusted by changing the size of the box — a bigger box is easier to stay in than a smaller one. We used to do that manually by dragging the boxes in and out during a training session without the client even being aware, but later it was semi-automated by selecting a difficulty level (which was a number) and the software did the rest for you. You could then change that number “on the fly” if you felt you needed to. We also developed another means of affecting the difficulty or challenge to the brain. This was our “Zen modes”, which ran behind the scenes. The Zen modes use different mathematical rubrics that alter whether the two sides of the brain can do their own thing (Zen 1) or whether they have to work together (Zen 2-4). They also control the precision of training as the more precise it is, the harder the challenge. The easiest is Zen 1 (warmup) and the hardest (most precise) is Zen 3.
Ultimately, once the technology could support it, we moved more fully to our non-linear model not only through the math we were using for the filtering and targeting, but also by looking at how we were defining our targets as “in or “out”. This is where linear logic starts to fall away. Now any target was “in” only if it was literally inside the box threshold, not above or below it. For an “augment”, if it was above, which we used to think was desirable, it was now considered “out”. And with the suppress frequencies, only in the box was “in” and below wasn’t, even though logically we thought that too was desirable. The astute reader will now realize that—amazingly — the definition for both the augments and suppresses is now the same! You are either in the box or you are out — there is no difference between them! So there are no longer any augment or suppress frequencies and with that, our “telling the brain what to do” had totally shifted to a purely non-directive, information-based model. We give the brain information about itself (hold up that mirror) and the brain will self-organize. Without any assistance from any outside agent, or indeed, even from the person’s own consciousness!
This move had several other important consequences. One of them was that we were no longer training states of consciousness, which occur as a consequence (or by-product) of using augment frequencies. Secondly, and related to the first, is that we now got even fewer side-effects as we were no longer giving guidance to the brain as to what we wanted it to do. We now were just holding up that mirror to the brain. The third effect was that now the dynamical quality of the targeting that had proven so useful in freeing up unwanted “stuckness” could now be tuned more precisely. This made it even more powerful. And this effect was further magnified by our implementation of AutoNav, which adjusted the difficulty level automatically. NeurOptimal® taking over this task not only released the trainer from having to be in the room with the client, it also adjusted the difficulty so much more efficiently than any human operator could that its potency was increased even further. Another way NeurOptimal® dances with the brain.
Today, many years down the road, we have confirmed NeurOptimal®‘s training effects over several million client hours. Together, NeurOptimal®‘s non-linear dynamical thresholding, in-line de-noising routines, AutoNavigation and adjustment of challenge via the ZenModes, offer powerful and safe training that, we believe, is unsurpassed in the field.
Brown, S. (2011, 2016). An Overview of the History of NeurOptimal®: A personal reflection. Zengar Institute Inc. website: https://neuroptimal.com/blog/history-of-neuroptimal/
Brown, V. (1995). Neurofeedback and Lyme’s Disease: A clinical application of the Five Phase Model of CNS functional transformation and integration. Journal of Neurotherapy, 1(2), 60-73.
Peniston, E. G., & Kulkosky, P. J. (1991). Alcoholic personality and alpha-theta brainwave training. Medical Psychotherapy, 2, 37-55.