The Parental Challenge
All children present challenges to their parents, not just those who suffer severe deficits. By the nature of our daily work, we have come to see neurofeedback primarily as a “rescue remedy” for a variety of childhood problems. But in fact, neurofeedback is better seen as a training technique that can improve brain function in anyone who pursues it. It is best thought about in the spirit of an optimum functioning model: training for improved function and overall well-being.
In our society we see parents engaged at all levels in order to give their children a better chance of fulfilling their potential. Children are exposed to a variety of activities, and benefit from a variety of professional services. The parents play the critical role of nexus between all of the people involved in their children’s lives. They are the final judge of whether what is happening is in their child’s best interest. In this role, they are also covering a huge gap that prevails in the “system” we have created to take care of the needs of our children.
It is critical to equip parents to fulfill the role that has been left to them by default. What parents need is an inclusive, comprehensive perspective on their children and their needs, based on an understanding of the child. In the absence of a formal model, parents must develop their own sense of what is appropriate for each child.
An essential part of the parent’s perspective is an appraisal of the child’s native abilities. By virtue of a trail of successes and failures, children end up teaching their parents the art of the possible. It is at this juncture that knowledge of neurofeedback can help the parent adopt the appropriate perspective on the child. The child’s apparent limitations may not be that child’s ultimate limitations at all!
The medical, psychological, and remedial educational services (if any) being delivered to your child may in fact be preemptive of the appropriate remedy. Existing service providers all strive to do the best that they can, with the implicit assumption that that is also the best that can be done! Unfortunately, it is in the very nature of the health professions that they develop a narrow perspective on their particular discipline, and they are ethically bound not to trespass onto other professionals’ turf. Consequently, professionals will scrupulously tend to their own wheelhouse. But even if they had the inclination to adopt an integrative perspective, their own professional training would not lend itself to that. This pervasive limitation is the reason we see so many angry parents these days. They are angry when they observe just how much their child benefited from neurofeedback, and then reflect on the wasted years of therapy and medication. For these parents, the late discovery of neurofeedback has come at a high price indeed.
The Developmental Agenda
Consider the developmental agenda for a moment, as we might look at it with a brain-centered perspective. Development is a matter of training neural networks to communicate stably, reliably, and appropriately. Our behavior is grounded in the proper ‘behavior’ of our neuronal assemblies. The claim of neurofeedback is utterly simple: If we give information back to the brain about its behavior, the brain utilizes that information to its benefit, and regulation improves. Once the brain learns to regulate itself more appropriately, it utilizes that skill going forward. This is education at the brain level! Instead of the brain merely learning about the outside world—and about itself through its interaction with the world, we have simply turned the mirror back on the brain itself, to allow it to observe itself in action directly. How marvelously, elegantly straight-forward.
Now consider the developmental trajectory over the life of the child. The newly learned behavior of the neuronal networks builds upon what already exists. The process resembles an interest-bearing savings account. Everything already functioning is capable of further growth and refinement. This places a premium on giving a child a healthy start in life, and on intervening early when there is a problem.
Here is the disconnect: Most of the developmental shortcomings that set children on the wrong track early on have no medical or psychological remedies. There is only the hope that children will grow out of their problems eventually. There is a further disconnect: even when one is dealing with an issue that does have a medical remedy, the problem has to rise to a certain level of severity in order to merit medical attention. The same holds in the educational system: A child has to fall quite short of the established standards in order to merit any special services at all. In the parent’s role as the final arbiter of whether children’s needs are being met, this kind of thresholding is deeply flawed. In fact, it is just plain nuts!
The Promise of Neurofeedback
Early intervention is the key to optimizing functionality. If we don’t like the way the brain is behaving, we train it! Without question, we want to begin as soon as possible after the problems start showing up. This training model aligns the remedy with the way the brain acquires its skills in general. Inevitably in a discussion of this kind one focuses on the problem areas that are identified. But there is also a larger truth here. If the brain’s capacity for self-regulation is regarded as a skill, then the question should be asked, is it worth training even those who are not hindered by troubling deficits? Indeed it is. In fact, we do not really have a good idea of what the intrinsic competences of a particular nervous system are until it is trained. It is the training itself that reveals to us what the potential of a particular child may be. It is in our own and our children’s interest to give them the opportunity to train their brains early in life.
The above has focused on neurofeedback as the key to the fuller exploitation of our brain’s marvelous adaptability and intrinsic plasticity. The marvel is not the method itself but what it enables on the part of the brain. But the adaptability and plasticity of our neuronal system also imply vulnerability. This brings up the issue of insults to the brain, such as physical and emotional trauma, biochemical exposure, food intolerances, gut dysfunction, and environmental toxins. Parents should be aware that the hazards of these to the subsequent well-being of the child have been vastly underestimated. More and more we have come to realize that the quality of our lives and of our health status is highly dependent on the quality of brain function. With neurofeedback, we are now able to improve brain function across a wide range of challenges.
There is an unexpected payoff to this approach. We have all been taught that the pathway to personal success involves both hard work and dedication. But we also know that the brightest kid in the class often does not have to work terribly hard. Things come easily for him. That points to one of the basic realities of brain function: The competent brain does not owe its competence to struggling and straining. On the contrary, the competent brain is a brain at ease. It is the dysfunctional brain that must work hard to get to the same place.
The promise of neurofeedback is not merely a more functional existence, but a more enjoyable one as well. Brain training does not just lead to better function in the operational sense of cognitive skills, executive function, and memory, but rather comprehensively with respect to interpersonal relations as well as the maturing sense of self. If the person is happy, the brain is also—and vice versa.
The frontier of understanding brain function is rapidly evolving. The practical implications of that, however, are lagging because the practicing disciplines are slow to change. This is the reason that the burden necessarily falls on the parent to chart a path forward for the child. All we can do is to illuminate part of the multifaceted journey that the parent must take—the part that involves neurofeedback.
A good place to start that journey is with our new book, Brian’s Legacy