A Symphony in the Brain
The Evolution of the New Brain Wave Biofeedback
by Jim Robbins

Review by
Sarah Emily Jordan

Atlantic Monthly Press: New York, 2000
260 pages

revised edition —
Grove Press: New York, 2008

272 pages

May 2012

Tuning the complex orchestra

I have been a counselor for several years now. I love my work. But there were times that I felt stunted in my ability to help my clients. Talking and having someone listen and help process and resolve emotions can be very helpful. But sometimes that is just not enough. A few years into my counseling work I was able to obtain training in biofeedback, which is the process of making individuals aware of their internal biological processes and then teaching skills to change them, and started employing it in my work. It has made a world of difference. When we are able to internally make changes we are better able to gain and maintain healthier patterns.

One of the specific types of biofeedback I use is Neurofeedback, which is biofeedback for brain wave activity. As I began my understanding of Neurofeedback one of the first books I read was A Symphony in the Brain: The Evolution of the New Brain Wave Biofeedback by Jim Robbins. I've read it several times, the first when I was being treated with Neurofeedback myself and again when I began my training to use it in my own practice. In the first case it helped me understand the process my own brain was going through. In the second case I gained a better ability to explain the process to others. It is a book that I recommend to clients who, as I did, want to understand what Neurofeedback is and how and why it is effective.

Science is still only scratching at the surface in trying to understand the brain. There are so many different methods to understanding. Neurofeedback looks specifically to the electric activity. The title A Symphony in the Brain is a very appropriate description of the brain wave activity. Robbins quotes scientist W. Grey Walter on this symphony:

We are dealing essentially with a symphonic orchestral composition, but one in which the performers may move about a little, and may follow the conductor or indulge in improvisation-more like a jazz combination than a solemn philharmonic assembly.

Robbins further explains, "This intricate symphony of consciousness is at play constantly when we are awake and engaged with the world around us" (p. 31).

I'm often asked "Where did Neurofeedback come from?" My answer comes from reading this book: "cats!" Science is methodical in research and discovery. But it is amazing how often it seems that discovery happens when research is focused in an entirely different area. That is what happened with Neurofeedback. Robbins does a great job going through the history of brain research and discovery. Chapter 2 is specifically devoted to Neurofeedback. Dr. Barry Sterman, an expert in electrical signals of the brain and mind, in the 1960s was doing sleep research on cats and monkeys. In the course of this Sterman would take readings of the cats' brain wave activity. He discovered a unique brain wave pattern was produced as the cats were conditioned using behavior modification techniques. Sterman decided to investigate if the cats' brains could be conditioned to generate the pattern that would place these cats in a calm yet alert state. He was able to do so. The results were published in 1967 in the journal Brain Research. The specific brain wave was found in the 12-15 hz range and is called sensory-motor rhythm or SMR. The findings were interesting in and of themselves. But it got even more interesting.

A fellow researcher, Dave Fairchild, was investigating the toxic effects of rocket fuel, and asked Sterman for some help. Sterman brought in 50 cats for the study. Robbins describes what happened next:

They [the cats] were injected with rocket fuel, ten milligrams for every kilogram of body weight. Again, their brains were wired to an EEG to measure their reaction. A few minutes after the injection, all of the cats did the same thing they vomited, made noises, salivated, and panted. Most of them went into grand mal epileptic seizures after one hour. Most of them, but not all. While a small part of the research population — ten cats — displayed all of the symptoms the other cats did, the onset of seizures was substantially delayed in seven of the population and never happened at all in the other three. (p.41-42)

What set these ten cats apart? They'd all been a part of the SMR training. Their brains were more resilient against the toxins.

So it began. Cats could be trained to produce healthier brain wave patterns. Could humans? Yep! Sterman began working with epilepsy first. He and a partner developed a system whereby the electrical activity was read and then the trainee was rewarded by seeing the light go green. From there Neurofeedback treatment has progressed. Nowadays the reward feedback can take the form of a movie; in fact, that is the primary mode of feedback I use.

Robbins then goes on to present early case studies from Neurofeedback. It has been effective in treating epilepsy, diabetes, head injury, depression, and anxiety — to name only a few. In these case studies Robbins does a good job outlining some of the amazing results of treatment.

Reading this book as a therapist I can relate to some of the experiences presented. I've been able to see some head-injury clients, for instance, almost come back to life in a way. The effects of that type of an injury can be longer lasting than the initial physical recovery. The brain can get stuck in a recovery pattern rather than a healing one. Neurofeedback can help assist the brain to go into healing.

Depression and anxiety have both been very common to come across in my work. Again the brain can get stuck in a pattern. What I've found with Neurofeedback is that not only is the brain taught to change the pattern but it also eases my clients into shifting and recognizing that the shift is healthy and calm. Sometimes individuals who've grown so used to anxiety, for instance, can become anxious about not feeling anxious. Neurofeedback assists the brain to go into healthy and natural patterns which tends to calm that discomfort associated with change.

Neurofeedback has come a long way since Barry Sterman and even since A Symphony in the Brain came out. But, if you want to understand Neurofeedback and the brain's electrical activity, Jim Robbins' book is an excellent place to start to learn the history and early successes of this treatment.


© 2012 Sarah Emily Jordan

If you would like to learn more about the specific work I do
and some of the successes, please visit
Neurotherapy Northwest
— Sarah Emily Jordan

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