Butterflies helped me to retrain my brain

Originally published in JC Magazine on October 9, 2015

I’m watching a video of butterflies flitting above a field of flowers. I’m staring hard at them, willing them to fly down on to the blooms below. Covering my scalp is a matrix of sensors, which are connected to a computer. Whenever the butterflies settle on the flowers — ping! — my brain is rewarded via the sensors, which create positive new neural pathways. My brain understands this as: “Yes! I got it right!”

At Brainworks, in London’s Clerkenwell, I am undergoing neurofeedback — a non-invasive training technique or “structured exercises for your brain”. My therapist is Brainworks’ co-founder, Christina Lavelle. The therapy, she says, can be used for many reasons: from increasing peak performance or attention and co-ordination, to alleviating emotional problems, from anxiety or depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. Addictions and sleep problems can also be addressed.

While the treatment is still gaining awareness and acceptance here, it is an established practice in America and other parts of Europe, such as Germany and Sweden.

So how does neurofeedback work? “The aim is to identify what is blocking a client’s way,” says Christina. “Then we design a brain-training programme to help them reshape their brain and achieve their goals.” Negative attitudes, emotions and behaviours can be addressed and the results can be lasting if not permanent.

My fears that it might “take over” my mind were allayed by the fact that any changes are gradual and carefully monitored and side-effects are minimal, maybe fatigue in the initial stages (as with any new learning activity).

Before starting, my brain was charted with a QEEG (state of mind) brain map, connected via those sticky pads or sensors, to listen to the brain’s electrical impulses and show up problem areas. An “ideal” diagram would be all white, whereas my brain showed splodges of red and green — indications of inflammation and anxiety (or “neurotic chatter”).

As someone who suffers with stomach problems and who lives in London, with all its stresses, this was no great surprise to me, but I was glad to hear that neurofeedback could help improve that.

Clients have to help themselves too — being aware that good nutrition nourishes the brain, while alcohol, sugar and junk food detract from clear thinking and coordination.

The therapy itself was pleasant and painless: besides the butterflies game, I viewed films on nature, landscapes and cultural sites. These are shown in slow-motion or slightly skewed so the brain adjusts what it sees and is adjusted by the sensors.

Christina commented from time to time on my beta (awake and processing) and alpha (awake and relaxed) brainwaves; thankfully I never slid into a delta (deep sleep) state.

The treatment promised positive, measurable results in most cases, so I was keen to note the changes. After six sessions, Christina showed me a revised snapshot of my brain; the inflammation and neurotic chatter had reduced, to maybe a third of what they’d been at the outset. In fact, my husband and friends had noticed that I seemed calmer and “less flappy”, which in turn had helped my stomach.

Four sessions on, I noticed another interesting change. I had been going to a dance class for years. although our teacher, Alison, is brilliant and patient, I had never picked up the moves easily or quickly. I just was not a natural, I told myself.

Then one day she called across the dance class: “where have you been practising, Beverley?” and at the next class, Alison said to me: “You used to dance as a child, didn’t you?”

I didn’t, but I had become aware my footwork was better, I was more co-ordinated and I was learning the moves faster, and with less effort. My classmates noticed a difference, too. I’d like to take the credit for it, but I suspect it was the neurofeedback that improved my dancing. I may never be Einstein — but there could be hope for me on Strictly yet!

by Beverley D’Silva

You may also be interested in:

What is neuroplasticity?

What is LoRETA neurofeedback?

What is QEEG Brain Mapping?