Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
Every day humans and animals are responding to feedback. From walking in a straight line to achieving your biggest goals you are getting feedback all the time. There are different forms of feedback of course, but do you know the difference? Specifically what is biofeedback vs neurofeedback?
Biofeedback: A process of electronic monitoring of a normal body function used to train someone so they can acquire voluntary control of that function.
Neurofeedback: A type of feedback where you respond to a display of brainwaves or other electrical activity of your nervous system.
1. What Is Feedback?
Your body regulates almost all functions and systems by using feedback loops. This set of checks and balances helps ensure you don’t get overheated or don’t get too much type of one hormone running wild. What is feedback in terms of your body anyway?
Feedback lets you know how you did towards the achievement of some goal. Did you move in the right direction… or not? Typically feedback offers these characteristics:
- Perceived by one of the senses
- Helps you identify if your moving towards or away from the goal
- Is somewhat frequently provided
- You can control it so you can take action to move towards the goal
Biofeedback uses electrical devices to monitors body systems that can help you achieve your desired goal. When you monitor theses systems you can then gain voluntary control over your mind and body. Ultimately, with the biofeedback you can make changes to help you obtain better health. Biofeedback monitors things such as:
|Breathing rate||Heart rate||Muscle tension|
|Blood pressure||Temperature||Blood flow|
|Sweat perspiration||Muscle contraction||Pain perception|
Neurofeedback on the other hand is a type of biofeedback. However the only way to monitor how the nervous system is acting is to monitor brainwaves. This requires a specialized machine that uses electrodes placed on the scalp. This is called an EEG (electroencephalogram) and it is helpful in monitoring various aspects of health, such as:
The goal of neurofeedback is to train your subconscious mind. That is why research in neurofeedback is so exciting. The subconscious mind has a huge effect on your life and most people never even realize it.
2. Conscious vs Subconscious Mind
The conscious mind is everything you are aware of. This includes sensations, perceptions, memories, feeling and current awareness. These are the things we think about such as what your reading, how hot or cold you are and the thought of what your having for dinner tonight.
On the other hand the subconscious mind is the opposite. It is also known as the automatic mind. It is called this because it is trying to predict what will happen. These predictions lead to responses the subconscious mind recalls from memory of when something similar happened in the past. In this way the brian and subconscious mind are trying to find the easiest way to deal with the problem at hand.
Biofeedback can be thought of as a combination of conscious and subconscious mind responses. For example, pain perception is something you think about. However, changes in your heart rate are not controlled by your thoughts.
Neurofeedback on the other hand is involuntary and therefore solely dealing with the subconscious mind. The vast majority of activity in our brains is subconscious. That is why neurofeedback focusing on the subconscious can be so helpful for many disorders.
3. How Are Biofeedback and Neurofeedback Similar?
The goal of either type of feedback is to resolve symptoms of a disease or disorder. Tapping into the potential to control the mind is a power few people ever really harness.
Both biofeedback and neurofeedback use machines to monitor bodily function. Similarly, they both help people get control over specific bodily functions. This can improve performance or assist with diseases or disorders.
“Ultimately neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback.”
Both types of feedback can be utilized with electronic indicators that allow people to understand when certain patterns or functions are triggered. Conscious learning of when the triggers occur can help you determine what and when is needed to suppress the triggers.
Biofeedback and neurofeedback can be beneficial for many medical problems including:
- Chronic pain
- Reducing stress
- Improving physical performance
- Clearer thinking
4. How are Biofeedback and Neurofeedback Different?
The biggest difference in biofeedback and neurofeedback is that an (EEG) is required for neurofeedback. This means that most people will not be able to “practice” neurofeedback techniques at home.
The subconscious reactions that are measured during nuerofeedback are ultimately mini habits that you don’t even realize you have. Therefore, it will normally take many sessions to ensure the changes become a part of the subconscious. Neuroplacisity is suspected to be responsible for the benefits of neurofeedback.
“Neuroplasiticy is defined as the brains ability to form new and reorganize synaptic connections, which are vital for learning.”
Biofeedback does not take as many sessions. There may also be simple biofeedback devices that you can use outside of office visits with a practitioner. Biofeedback often has much simpler techniques and is easier for the user to understand.
Biofeedback more closely aligns with talk therapy, counseling or coaching. The conscious act of listening and forming a response is a form of biofeedback you probably didn’t realize you had done before.
|Safe, with low risk of side effects|
|Improves health and performance|
|Takes fewer treatments to see effects|
|Can be done at home|
|Small devices can be used that do not involve EEG.|
|You must focus on the feedback to try and change subconscious thoughts|
|Limited to physical sensations|
|Can still be expensive $40-$80 per session can add up quick|
Biofeedback is used to treat many conditions such as chronic pain, high blood pressure, anxiety, stress. However, before you run out to find a doctor to treat you follow these steps.
- Don’t stop your medications you currently take until advised to do so by your doctor.
- Find a reputable biofeedback doctor near you. Look at the BBB ranking and any reviews they may have on google.
- Ask your doctor if biofeedback has been show to work for your problem. While there are studies around biofeedback for various conditions, the evidence is not always clear.
- Don’t be upset if you don’t see a change after one session, biofeedback can take time.
|Does not require sensors for breathing and heart rate|
|Subconscious training, you don’t have to focus on changing your brain|
|Provides audio visual feedback during the session|
|Takes time to see results|
|Does require electrode placement on the scalp.|
|Expensive, sessions can cost $100 or more, each|
|Not covered by insurance|
|Effects may not last long term|
A tremendous amount of money has been invested into neurofeedback since the 1990’s. That was considered the decade of the brain. Even though EEG has been around since the 1920’s it was much more recently when the idea of neurofeedback was born. It has since been researched for treating various mental health problems such as ADHD, depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, brain injury and learning disabilities.
Similar to biofeedback before starting neurofeedback you should take a few of the following steps.
- Find a qualified doctor. Psychology today offers a free lookup tool.
- You may find neurofeedback sessions a bit confusing. If you did number one correctly the provider should help you understand what is happening in the sessions.
- Be ready for multiple sessions, it will take time to make changes to the subconscious mind.
In most cases some visual or audio feedback is provided to help a person gain control of the body using the mind. This allows you to see how what the mind thinks can affect what the body does. Typically electronic monitors are applied to the area to be tracked. Then a screen or speaker will provide the audio or visual feedback.
The purpose of neurofeedback is to help your brain work better. This is subjective and can’t be measured by a lab value. That said, some people swear by neurofeedback. Others, say it did not help them. The key is giving neurofeedback enough time to have a chance to change subconscious habits.
There have been studies on neurofeedback for anxiety symptoms. A summary of some randomized controlled trials (RCT) on neurofeedback was completed by the National Institutes of Health. In that review neurofeedback did prove superior to no treatment for anxiety. Therefore, it can be used as a tool to treat anxiety.
Many times the standard of care is to use prescription drugs for treating anxeity. However, these drugs also come with a host of side effects. Given the details from RCT’s it may be worth trying neurofeedback first due to a low risk of side effects.
Similar to the way that medications can initially make mental health symptoms worse, the same could be true for neurofeedback. Changes to synapses in the brain take time as new connections are formed and receptors are added or removed. Therefore some patients may perceive a worsening of symptoms initially.
An important way to minimize this risk is to find a skilled neurofeedback doctor. Also, knowing what to watch out for and having a method to deal with any issues is key. Over the course of several treatments any worsening should subside.
5. The Final Verdict
Biofeedback and neurofeedback have made great strides in recent years. The wave of new digital sensors on the market will only continue to move this forward. The great thing about both options is they are normally free of side effects. Prescription drugs can’t make that same claim!
As for which one is best really comes down to the symptoms you are trying to treat. Neurofeedback would be the preferred treatment for mental health issues. Biofeedback is a great option for other problems especially chronic pain. Some practitioners may recommend you combine the two as an alternative treatment as well.
Over time costs will come down and make neurofeedback and biofeedback more affordable and compelling options compared to expensive medications.
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Share Your Story
Have you tried biofeedback or neurofeedback? Also, please share and tips or tricks you have used. Chime in below with your comments and thoughts.
Hengameh, Marzbani et. al, Neurofeedback: A comprehensive review on system design, methodology and clinical applications. 2016 Apr;7(2): 143-158.
Barba, Elizabeth et. al, Randomized, placebo-controlled trial of biofeedback for the treatment of rumination. 2016 July;111(7): 1007-1013.
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