A History of NeurOptimal®: A personal reflection
By 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 training 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 make 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 training 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 system “for the rest of us”. The very history and evolutionary process of the development of NeurOptimal® itself, mirrors the very powerful 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.