Picture yourself in a lab, expecting to start a new kind of clinical treatment for anxiety. You’re nervous, your mind filled with thoughts of syringes and little white pills. Sterile walls line the hallways as you tiptoe into a room marked “Neurology.” But when you enter, all you see is a huge, donut-shaped tube. A discreet, white-coated attendant enters and asks you to lie down on an extended bed or “boor” (as he calls it), telling you that he’s just going to wheel you into a scanner. Try to adopt a state of mind that makes the picture you’ll see get bigger, he says. That’s all.
As you lie quietly inside the machine and start to relax, an image appears on a screen in front of you: a small black circle that gets wider and wider every few seconds. As you continue to unwind, the circle grows a little bit bigger, and bigger again. At the same time, you can feel your anxiety ebbing slightly. You hear a sound from outside your field of vision, perhaps another researcher scuttling into the room; you lose focus for a moment, and notice when your gaze returns to the screen that the circle has diminished to barely a pinprick. You try to relax again, and see that the circle expands more quickly this time. You seem to be getting the hang of it. A smile breaks across your face. This seems pretty easy, you think; with a sigh of relief, the circle grows just a little bit more.
This technique is known as neurofeedback. It’s one of the most promising and rapidly advancing frontiers in mental health. By linking brain activity to an image or sound in real time, we can use simple game-like techniques to get people to train themselves to forge new neural connections and voluntarily adopt (or avoid) certain mental states. Like a thermometer going up and down according to temperature, the fact that people can see and hear what their brain is doing provides a lever that allows them to internally regulate their own mind, without the need to engage in more direct behavioral interventions.