The Performance Imperative: The Neuroscience of Productivity

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.

Part Two of a Three-Part Series

Introduction

Neuroscience is a psychophysiological procedure which includes real-time feedback of neural activation provided to a participant to foster self-regulation (Sitaram et al., 2017). Behaviors change by the process of learning control over certain neural strata, leading to better quality of life, higher executive functioning, and decreased impact of PTSD, depression, and/or anxiety. This article includes discussion on the scientific background for neuroscience, the concept of neuroplasticity, and methods by which neuroscience may be administered to clients.


Neuroscience

Neurofeedback is a specific protocol designed to improve brain wave activity. It is especially useful in addressing neurological conditions, such as PTSD, TBI, anxiety, stress, migraines, and sleep disturbances. Neurofeedback differs from biofeedback in that it is not designed to treat directly physiological conditions.


Neuroscience training provides insight into the client’s current neural, psychological, and behavioral processes as self-modulation takes place to achieve specific outcomes (Orndorff-Plunkett, Singh, Aragon, & Pineda, 2017). Neuroscience includes a reward system that teaches the brain to function in an optimal frequency range. Unlike some other regimens, it is entirely subconscious, which is why clients meet with a high level of success (Bolhuis, 2017). For example, for a client who has sleep disturbances or an inability to sleep, proper training with neuroscience technology may result in the individual’s brain operating at the proper frequency range to enable a good night’s sleep. Like biofeedback, the goal of neuroscience is to achieve long-term results.


Neuroscience is a non-pharmaceutical means to achieve optimal brain functioning. This method works by “teaching” the brain through rewarding brain waves to achieving self-regulation into statistically “normal” brain wave patterns. This process of rewarding “normal” brain wave patterns while ignoring patterns outside the “normal” range fosters self-regulation. This is like B.F. Skinner’s principle of Operant Conditioning (Woelke, n.d.).

This self-regulation training process is similar for each client, albeit individualized to each client’s needs. In order to move incrementally from the starting state to the desired state, the difficulty of the task is adjusted to each client to manage the learning process. To illustrate this functioning, a hypothetical scenario will describe the steps.


The difficulty of the task is graded to each client in order to promote an appropriate degree of learning. For example, if a client is at a number 10 and the ultimate goal is a 3, we begin by rewarding them every time they achieve an 8 or 9. This is a realistic and achievable sub-goal. Once they are able to consistently meet that sub-goal, the reward threshold is lowered to 7.5, then 6.5, and so on until they reach the ultimate goal of 3. For this reason, the self-regulation training process can take some time (average 25 – 30 sessions, depending on the number of presenting symptoms). Once the ultimate goal is achieved, sessions are continued for a brief period of time (although at a decreased frequency) in order to consolidate the knowledge. (Woelke, n.d.)


Electroencephalographic neurofeedback (EEG NF) is non-invasive and measures brain wave frequencies over prescribed periods of time. The four brain waves typically measured are alpha, beta, theta, and delta. Each of these brain wave frequency ranges associate to specific brain and psychophysical activities, as indicated in Table 1.

Neurofeedback is an operant conditioning-based technique that enables individuals to sense, interact with, and manage their own physiological and mental states. It has been applied across many psychiatric conditions, treating sub-clinical symptoms, and enabling performance enhancement in healthy—even elite—populations (Orndorff-Plunkett et al., 2017). When the goal is to normalize the system—using neurofeedback, for example—it may be described as self-directed neuroplasticity which outcome is long-term functional, structural, and behavioral changes or normalization.


With the discovery and acceptance of life-long neuroplasticity, combined with a relationship between experience and physiology, new approaches to psychotherapy are redefined. New studies and focus on neurobiology—an intersection of physiology and psychology—provide significant therapeutic implications (Galaska, 2012). That is to say that the interplay between psychology and physiology must be a focus on both mental and whole-body health.


Brain Waves & Balancing

Whenever we think, use our senses, move, experience emotions, or other actions, neurons fire in the brain and send electrical signals between selected synapses. These signals are interpreted as brain waves, with different frequencies associated with different brain functions. In the context of neuroscience, four dominant wave shapes—or frequencies—are important, including:


Alpha: Alertness, peacefulness, readiness, meditation

Beta: Thinking, focus, sustained attention

Theta: Creativity, insight

Delta: Sleep, repair, complex problem-solving (Woelke, n.d.)


The characteristics of brain waves determine how slowly or quickly the brain processes signals. A brain functioning at either end of the spectrum—low or high—can have a negative impact on brain function. A brain functioning at the low end of the spectrum may have challenges such as unclear thinking, depression, or even dementia. A brain functioning at the high end of the spectrum may result in attention deficit, racing thoughts, or anxiety.


Brain Mapping. Brain mapping uses caps or headsets with specially placed sensors. The sensors monitor electrical signals in the brain, and then transmits them to specialized software, where they are recorded and processed. The data are then compared to a database of “normal” brain signatures, statistically considered as “average” brain function.

If measured brain electrical activity is outside the limits of “average” brain signature, examination of that specific area as a potential problem is indicated. Outlying data points are compared to the client’s balancing process, obtained through standardized assessments used for client data and neuroscience used in balancing.


In addition to using neuroscience for client sessions, research includes forming conclusions about neural activity as it pertains to perception, thought, and social behavior—or social impact. In addition to neuroscience as a way to focus on balancing brain and total care of body, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may also achieve similar results (Sitaram et al., 2017).


Impact

Behaviors may be changed by learning control over certain neural strata, leading to better quality of life, higher executive functioning, and decreased impact of PTSD, depression, and/or anxiety. Signals are interpreted brain waves, with different frequencies associated with different brain functions. These brain waves are measured in frequency (Hertz) and strength (amplitude), with each band enabling social impact as indicated in Table 1. This phenomenon of remodeling the brain is referred to as neuroplasticity, which changes can be either adaptive or maladaptive (Kays, Hurley, & Taber, 2012).


Current knowledge suggests that the adult brain is dynamic, changing based on both internal and external influences. Stress is an adaptive response to environmental stimuli. stress-induced activation of pathways results in neuroplastic changes, which may include long-term memories of stressful experiences (Deppermann, Storchak, Fallgatter, & Ehlis, 2014). By undergoing neuroscience sessions, veterans with PTSD can gain an understanding of their individual condition and learn skills to effectively manipulate their psychophysiology, while decreasing maladaptive PTSD symptoms and lowering the risk of experiencing comorbid conditions. Including neuroscience in overall protocols currently designed for military and veterans may reduce or eliminate the neurological responses, reverse physiological arousal, and improve emotional reactions experienced during training and operations on the battlefield (Fragedakis & Toriello, 2014).


Summary

Understanding the principle of neuroplasticity and the dynamic nature of the brain, engaging with neuroscience is an effective regimen for clients suffering from PTSD and related disorders such as depression and anxiety. It is also effective for addiction therapy and other conditions historically only addressed by various forms of psychotherapy and pharmaceutical regimens. Using non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical means, relief from some mental challenges and a resultant optimization of performance may occur. In the third and final part of this series, a case study highlights the effectiveness of the scientific principles and processes introduced in this article.



References

Bolhuis, N. (2017, December 14, 2017). What's the difference between biofeedback and neurofeedback? Retrieved from https://www.neurocorecenters.com/blog/difference-between-biofeedback-and-neurofeedback

Deppermann, S., Storchak, H., Fallgatter, A., & Ehlis, A. (2014). Stress-induced neuroplasticity: (Mal)adaptation to adverse life events in partients with PTSD--A critical overview. Neuroscience, 283(December 2014), 166-177. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2014.08.037

Fragedakis, T., & Toriello, P. (2014). The development and experience of combat-related PTSD: A demand for neurofeedback as an effective form of treatment. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92, 481-488. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.2014.00174.x

Galaska, J. (2012). Neurofeedback: At the juncture of psychology and physiology. (Doctor of Psychology Doctoral Project), California Southers University,

Kays, J., Hurley, R., & Taber, K. (2012). The dynamic brain: Neuroplasticity and mental health. Psychiatry Online. doi:10.1176/appi.neuropsych.12050109

Orndorff-Plunkett, F., Singh, F., Aragon, O., & Pineda, J. (2017). Assessing the effectiveness of neurofeedback training in the context of clinical and social neuroscience. Brain Science, 7(8), 95-117. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5575615/ doi:10.3390/brainsci7080095

Sitaram, R., Ros, T., Stoekel, L., Haller, S., Scharnowski, F., Lewis-Peacock, J., . . . Sulzer, J. (2017). Closed-loop brain training: The science of neurofeedback. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18, 86-100. doi:10.1038/nrn.2016.164

Woelke. (n.d.). How do brain mapping (qEEG) and neurofeedback (EEG Biofeedback) work? Retrieved from http://www.woelkeot.com/neurofeedback-description/


Dr. Forkner is a research psychologist with Vitanya Brain Performance. His current research focuses on psychological studies, including comparative analyses of personality assessments, relationship between assessment instruments and behaviors, neuroscience, and mental health and wellness.

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