HEG Neurofeedback For Brain Fog, Improved Focus & Concentration
Elsewhere I've explained that biofeedback is a tool for training mind-body regulation skills, and works by measuring and feeding back physiological changes that correlate with our subjective experience, as a basis for learning to influence physiological functioning.
Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback based on a direct measure of brain activity (rather than something downstream of the brain). Neurofeedback aims to improve mental and emotional functioning by directly training the brain's physiological functioning.
What Is HEG Neurofeedback?
Most neurofeedback is based on measuring EEG or brainwaves. In hemoencaphalography (HEG) neurofeedback, we're not looking at the brain's electrical activity - rather HEG detects changes in the brain's energy consumption. The result is a much simpler feedback signal - it goes up when the brain activates (increases its energy comsumption) and down when the brain deactivates (relaxes its energy consumption). None of the complex hard-to-interpret rhythms of EEG, and no difficult decision as to exactly what to train.
How Does HEG Neurofeedback Work?
We usually place the HEG sensor over the forehead. Behind the forehead is the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) which plays a key role in executive function (e.g. focus and concentration). So we're exercising the PFC.
The graphics shown below (courtesy of Dr Jeff Carmen) were taken before (left) and after (right) a single HEG training session. You can see the heating resulting from the brain's increased activity as brighter colours.
HEG neurofeedback is like weight training for the brain (or PFC) - it's thought that over time, with repeated training sessions, lasting structural and functional brain changes occur. Because it's a form of exercise or brain training, HEG neurofeedback is safe and its benefits enduring.
What Does HEG Neurofeedback Benefit?
HEG can potentially benefit any function in which the PFC plays a role. Broadly this means "executive function" and includes:
- attention, focus and concentration
- purposeful behaviour (making plans and sticking to them, and controlling impulses)
- mental flexibility
- emotional regulation (quelling negative emotions like anxiety and anger)
- motivation and energy.
Several disorders have been linked to dysfunction in the PFC, including depression, anxiety and mood disorders, attention disorders such as ADHD, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and even migraine headaches. (Disclaimer: I'm not personally a medical practitioner and do not claim to treat medical disorders.)
How Do You Train HEG?
The trainee tries to make the signal go up (by activating the PFC), essentially by cultivating a vivid, intense awakeness, alertness or focus, but not being overly wilful, and also looking to be emotionally positive and motivated (really wanting to increase the signal, but in a gentle, non-aggressive way). It's important to note that it's the exercise that matters, not how much the signal increases by, and not how long it stays up before falling back down).
How Does The HEG Sensor Work?
There are actually two forms of hemoencephalography:
- Passive form - pIR HEG: this is conceptually simpler, though developed later, by Dr Jeff Carmen. The sensor is simply an infra-red heat detector - it detects changes in heat radiation coming through the forehead, which are assumed to be caused by changes in the brain's metabolic activity (energy consumption).
- Active form - nIR HEG: this form was first developed by Dr Hershel Toomim. The sensor sends a beam of mixed red and infra-red light into the skull, and then detects a component that is scattered back. This scattered fraction changes with blood flow in the local area of the brain. Brain blood flow is intimately linked to the brain's energy usage, so you have a measure which is functionally very similar.
In terms of benefits there appears to be very little difference between the two methods.
HEG Neurofeedback versus EEG Neurofeedback
Though in broad terms both forms of neurofeedback aim to improve mental functioning by optimizing brain physiology, there are differences. HEG is a much simpler measure - in fact EEG is an exceedingly complex phenomenon, carrying a vast wealth of information. This presents challenges for neurofeedback, because you have to decide exactly what aspect of the EEG to train, and where on the head. That's a very difficult decision.
EEG is also more subject to artefact (extraneous signals) than HEG.
This means that HEG neurofeedback is more suitable for home training, without an experienced practitioner present to guide you.
Hershel Toomim, the developer of hemoencephalography, claimed his trainees made progress significantly faster compared to typical EEG neurofeedback (based on an objective functional measure of attention).
HEG Neurofeedback versus Biofeedback
In my practice I tend to use HEG neurofeedback to improve focus and concentration. I think of it as exercise to improve brain fitness, or strengthen the "muscle" of the PFC. For emotional regulation work (e.g. anxiety, anger, low mood, especially when problems are context-sensitive) I prefer to use biofeedback methods such as EMG, capnometry and HRV, which I see as training the mind as much as the brain. These biofeedback tools help my clients gain insight into how the mind works, and they also develop skills in managing the mind.
Evidence for HEG Neurofeedback Efficacy
HEG neurofeedback is still a relatively new technique - research studies have been small scale but encouraging - for example this study of HEG Neurofeedback for Traumatic Brain Injury by Dr Robert Coben is impressive.
Home HEG Neurofeedback Training
I have a number of HEG neurofeedback devices available to clients for home rental. HEG training does require numerous sessions (like other forms of neurofeedback) so home rental is a cost-effective option - though it does require serious commitment to see benefits.
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