Over the years I have read many articles that insinuate neurofeedback training is only successful because of the “Placebo Effect.” That is that successful outcomes are produced not by the treatment itself but by the patient’s belief that the treatment will be successful. Fair enough. Being open minded this could be a very real possibility. One for which I was constantly in search of and fully prepared to accept. I have found examples of this in our day to day practice. How many? Out of over 3,000 clients… 2 cases. Two cases where clients reported extraordinary improvements following a single neurofeedback session. While this is possible, based on the initial report of findings from their QEEG (brain map), it was highly unlikely. I simply smiled and said, “And we’re just getting started.” As anticipated those results quickly diminished as we got down to the real work of bringing their brain waves back into regulation. It was at this point that I introduced them to the concept of the placebo effect and we moved forward to a successful conclusion. So, it does happen. However, after having analyzed over 9,000 brain maps and overseen the completion of 50,000 neurofeedback sessions, I will present 4 of 100’s of strong cases that counter the presumption of successful outcomes attributable to the “Placebo Effect.”
Case #1 – One need look no further than the initial development of neurofeedback to counter this claim. In the late 50’s and early 60’s researchers at the University of Chicago and UCLA were conducting experiments whereby cats were given food but weren’t allowed to eat until an audible tone had stopped playing. During these experiments the researchers were monitoring their brain wave activity. They found that while waiting for the tone to end there was a strengthening of the Sensory Motor Rhythm (SMR) brain wave. This produced an intense period of focus that maintained itself long after meal time. Because their research was in search of a solution to seizures associated with epilepsy and the SMR wave was thought to play a major role, they published a paper postulating that SMR training may be a possible answer. This study crossed the desk of an administrator at NASA. He was hopeful that this may solve their dilemma. You see while planning the first manned flight to the moon the optimal fuel for the Lunar Lander contained the convulsant chemical monomethylhydrazine. Every human exposed to this chemical was instantly experiencing seizures. NASA sent the chemical to the researchers with the request to expose the cats and monitor the results. Surprisingly, the cats either experienced seizures hours after exposure or experienced no seizures at all. Based on the results NASA began using neurofeedback SMR training for all astronauts and the rest is history. Now I’m no veterinarian or cat whisperer but I find it highly unlikely that these cats anticipated becoming immune to “rocket fuel” induced seizures while focusing on a tone.
Case #2 – (From our own archive) Female. Seven years of age. Adorable. Mom brought her in out of concern that she was developing nervous “tics.” She would constantly play with and chew her hair among other symptoms. The initial report of findings from her QEEG indicated a high probability of Beta Global Dysregulation which has been associated with anxiety. 18 sessions in to her neurofeedback training Mom came in elated. We commented on her mood and she said she had just returned from a parent teacher conference. She said that usually she leaves those meetings in tears but this one was different. Unbeknownst to us, her daughter was failing in reading. Mom had been warned at the beginning of the school year that her daughter’s reading score was at 21. If it did not improve to a 28 by the end of the school year she would be remanded to a remedial reading class. This was Mom’s worst nightmare. She feared that this parent teacher meeting was about moving her daughter early. However, her daughter’s teacher had noticed something changed and reported it to the vice principal of the school who tested her. The results were staggering. Her daughter’s reading score hadn’t improved to a 28 or a 38 or a 48 or a 58. Her knew reading score was a 67. The equivalent of jumping ahead 2 1/2 years in reading comprehension. Do you really think that a 7 year old who barely understood why she was coming to see us anticipated jumping to a 5th grade reading level?
Case #3 – (From our own archive) Female. Mid 50’s. Depressed and Withdrawn. This wonderful woman came to us immediately following a surprise divorce. She was understandably depressed, angry and withdrawn. The initial report of findings from her QEEG indicated a high probability Global Alpha Dysregulation which has been associated with depression. While I did not meet her until the conclusion of her second treatment to say we got off on the wrong foot would be an understatement. She came straight up to me and yelled, “Does this stuff actually work?” The question so caught me off guard that my genuine response was immediate laughter. Not what she was looking for so we met for about 30 minutes. I explained to her precisely what we intended to achieve and that she would most likely not see any improvement until her 8th or 9th session. Following 10 sessions we conducted a progress QEEG to analyze her progress. Her physical appearance was striking. She looked spectacular. Following my review with her she said that her depression hadn’t lifted but that she got up a few days ago, opened her closet and got excited. You see for the last 20 years she hadn’t concerned herself with her physical appearance. This had begun long before the divorce and long before her depression. On that day when she opened her closet she was frozen because, “the possibilities were endless.” Upon completion of her treatment the depression was gone, she had gone back to school and was killing it academically. She always looked like a million dollars. So, I ask you… what are the odds that this this woman, in the midst of a nasty divorce and depressed with her life crumbling around her would anticipate that neurofeedback would make her a fashion expert?
Case #4 – (from our archives) Female. Mid 30’s. Cognitive impairment and depression due to the loss of a child. When I first met this woman she was emotionally flat. She explained that she had lost a child several years earlier and being in the medical profession had tried everything with no success. She was not one to volunteer information. The initial report of findings from her QEEG were consistent with her condition. Prior to her 4th treatment she mentioned to the technician that she thought this was a joke but… for the first time in years she had reengaged in her crafts. This gave her a great sense of joy but since the passing of her child she had lost all interest. “So,” she said, “Something is going on here.” She has since begun to smile more and is enthusiastic about treatment. Again, did she really “anticipate” rekindling her love of crafting?
It’s experiences like these and hundreds of others that have lead me to the conclusion that the “Placebo Effect” is not responsible for the vast majority, if not all, of the outcomes produced from neurofeedback training. Why? Because it is not the anticipated results that prove otherwise but the unanticipated results.
About the author: Greg Warden is the Executive Director for Neurofeedback Centers of Utah.