As humans with complex, impressionable, reactive minds, we’ve been trying to achieve natural mind-states of inner peace for, well, millennia—long before even the Buddha himself walked the earth. Prayer, mindfulness, visualization techniques, and meditation practices are all ancient, time-tested ways of slowing the mind and improving focus and concentration. In the last half-century, many of these methods—such as yoga and vipassana meditation—have been incorporated into modern psychotherapy, self-care, and stress-relief practices.
By contrast, neurofeedback—a type of biofeedback utilizing electroencephalogram or EEG—is a far more recent development. It focuses on using computers and software to assess brainwave activity. As technology evolves and becomes more affordable, it’s been employed as an adjunct to therapies where clients can benefit from real-time data helping them track how thoughts, emotional states, and brain activity interact and influence one another. Adjusting your focus in response to audio cues generated by a computer program connected to sensors attached to your head, for example, has the potential to help you return to a regulated state more quickly and efficiently than you might if you were left to your own devices.
Jeff Tarrant, a licensed psychologist and author of the book Meditation Interventions to Rewire the Brain, believes the cognitive and interpersonal benefits of different kinds of meditative practices can become more accessible when EEG technology provides immediate, real-time data to help clients calm and focus their minds. It’s not unlike the 1970s Reese’s commercial where two strangers bump into each other on a busy street and their individual snacks comingle to form something better; only here, instead of, “You got peanut butter in my chocolate!” it’s “You got EEG neurofeedback in my meditation!” In 2016, Tarrant established the NeuroMeditation Institute, which has been rapidly expanding its workshop and training opportunities to meet the demand of practitioners looking to incorporate neuro-meditation concepts into therapy techniques, thereby spreading the positive benefits of this new, serendipitous union of two seemingly disparate entities as they evolve together and support more of our clients.
Ryan Howes: How did you become interested in neurofeedback?
Jeff Tarrant: I got into neurofeedback early in my career. I was a counseling psychologist still working on my licensure when I heard about a biofeedback lab at the university where I worked. At that time, neurofeedback was in its infancy, but the basic idea was you could influence your brainwave activity, which would influence symptoms. Without knowing much more than that, I embarked on a week-long training, took out a loan, bought equipment, and never looked back. It’s just one of those weird things where I stumbled into my niche. My focus has shifted throughout my career from working with kids with ADHD to working with adults with traumatic brain injuries.
RH: Does your work require a lot of equipment?
Tarrant: Yes and no. You need an EEG amplifier to amplify brain waves, something attached to the head—wires or an EEG cap—and the right kind of computer software. Initially, it’s a bit expensive because most of the clinical systems aren’t cheap. But many more affordable, user-friendly options are coming onto the market that allow clinicians to work remotely. The field’s changing as technology’s changing. The bigger investment is getting the right training. You don’t want people monkeying around with your brain without really knowing what they’re doing.
RH: How does neurofeedback connect to meditation?
Tarrant: People have been using neurofeedback to influence or facilitate the development of states of consciousness for a long time. Even so, although I’ve always been interested in both neurofeedback and meditation, it never occurred to me to combine the two until 10 years ago, when I dove into the research about what goes on in the brain when we meditate. I came to understand that we can categorize meditations into four different types—focus, mindfulness, open heart, and quiet mind—based on how they influence brainwave activity.
RH: Can neurofeedback help people practice the right type of meditation based on their presenting symptoms?
Tarrant: There are two parts to it. Because different types of meditation influence different parts of the brain and build different types of skills, they can have different effects on mental health concerns. If somebody has concerns about ADHD, for example, we want to exercise the frontal lobes. Which meditation does that? Focus. Research shows that focus meditations improve executive function, memory, and attention span. That’s part one.
Part two is that we then use the EEG to facilitate self-awareness of a particular meditative style. For example, in a focus neurofeedback protocol, the person is doing a focus meditation while we’re monitoring the frontal lobe’s activation, because if you’re sustaining attention on something, your frontal lobes should be engaged. At the same time, we’re measuring the default mode network, which is the part of the brain involved in self-consciousness. In short, we’re making sure the frontal lobes are active and the default mode network is quiet. When both of these things are happening, everything’s in alignment.
RH: How do you tell the person what to correct without disrupting the process?
Tarrant: The person receives a signal letting them know they’ve hit the mark and they’re doing it. We typically use an auditory signal because most people meditate with their eyes closed. During the session, they hear soft background music. When they’re in the meditative zone, the music gets a little louder. If their mind wanders, or they get distracted, the music drops in volume but doesn’t go away—otherwise, it’d be disruptive. A slight volume drop catches their attention, alerting them to their wandering mind. When they get back on track, the volume rises again. It’s like having training wheels for learning a specific meditative state.
Not all our work is based on the use of EEGs and high-tech equipment. It still involves science, but because the equipment can be expensive and hard to navigate, it’s not for everyone. In fact, the majority of what we teach related to meditation doesn’t use the technology. We look at the EEG as a power tool. If clinicians have access to it, great, but other techniques and approaches can be used to create an individualized and developmentally appropriate approach for people who want to meditate.
RH: How do you teach neuromeditation without technology?
Tarrant: Let’s say somebody has ADHD, and they’re interested in using meditation to help them focus. I could give them a standard focus meditation and ask them to sit and watch their breathing, but that’s not likely to work since part of their presenting issue is an inability to focus. The likelihood that they’re going to stick with the meditation is slim. So how can I help this person focus if the meditation’s too hard? I might introduce movement or standing as part of the meditation. Like a qigong exercise where you inhale while bringing the arms up around the body, and exhale while bringing hands down the center line. It coordinates a movement with standing, with the eyes open, with the breath, which is more engaging. It’s easier for somebody with ADHD to do this because you’re layering a variety of engaging interventions: standing, movement, breath, and coordination.
RH: That sounds like it would help with stress, too.
Tarrant: It’s common knowledge that mindfulness approaches help with anxiety and stress. But in our trainings, we have to define what we mean by mindfulness because that term is being used to mean different things. Some people say they meditate every day when what they’re doing is sitting still and daydreaming. Daydreaming is great for certain things, but it’s not meditation.
Other people think they’re only meditating when it’s completely quiet and silent in their mind. But human minds are hardly ever free of thinking, visualizing, imagining, or daydreaming. Part of our work is dispelling myths. We talk about a quieter mind because our minds are never devoid of cognitive activity. We help people understand what meditation is, clearly define their goals, and understand which style might be a good match for them. I want to help people achieve the meditative state they’re seeking. For most people, a completely silent mind feels impossible. So the questions is, how can we take baby steps to reduce the self-talk, the chatter, the judging, the social comparison, all the things that fuel anxiety and depression?
RH: Other than focus, what issues can neuromeditation help resolve?
Tarrant: Open-heart meditation is helpful for emotional issues: mood concerns, resentment, grief, and anger. And all the meditation styles are potentially helpful with trauma or addictions, but which you choose depends on the person and where they are in their healing or recovery process. That’s why people need to be individually assessed and it’s essential to use trauma-informed practices.
Most of the people we work with have some level of trauma, and different kinds of meditations, instructions, or environments can trigger people with a trauma history. Take the body scan. It’s a minefield for trauma survivors. Imagine you’re lying down in a room with a bunch of people. The lights go dark and you’re asked to go through every part of your body and connect with whatever feelings and thoughts come up. If you’re not ready for this exercise, and you’ve got a lot of unresolved trauma, it can be extremely triggering. You may dissociate or get anxious. We think it’s why many people drop out of meditation programs. So it’s best to present choices, to prioritize informed consent, to normalize and give people permission to move in and out of meditative states so they don’t feel trapped.
RH: You’ve incorporated virtual reality into this process. How does that work?
Tarrant: A lot of people don’t equate VR with meditation because their eyes are open. They think they’re entertaining themselves if they’re looking at something. But we think about meditation as a state of consciousness, so in our view, it doesn’t matter if you’re sitting or standing, or you’ve got goggles on your head. If you’re in the desired state of consciousness, it’s meditation.
We’re using the VR process in a couple of ways. One is to downregulate the nervous system. It’s effective for this because the brain believes what it sees. If we stick somebody in a beautiful environment with soft music playing and a guided audio coming through the headphones inviting them to notice what’s happening, the nervous system will shift in a few minutes.
It also works to support mindfulness because we can put somebody in a nature-based scene and invite them to use their senses. Even though they’re in a virtual world, the process is highly engaging. Eventually, with practice, you’ll develop more of the cognitive capacities you need to meditate in a boring work cubicle or messy bedroom. We might use it as a starting point and then graduate to something that’s not quite as engaging but still requires the same kind of attention.
RH: What’s next for you?
Tarrant: Recently I’ve been paying attention to stim tech: technologies that stimulate the brain, as opposed to neurofeedback where you’re on the receiving end of information. There are several tools out there for this, including audiovisual entrainment, transcranial direct current, and pulse electromagnetic frequencies. The technology is advancing quickly, making them affordable and accessible. I’ve been looking at how we might use these cutting-edge tools for therapeutic purposes, such as increasing the brain’s flexibility or supporting meditative states.
American mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young has been using transcranial direct current stimulation in some of his retreats with participants. They put two electrodes on the frontal lobes—one on the left and one on the right—and there’s a low current running between them. One side of the brain becomes less active, and the other side becomes more active. By setting those up in a particular way, you can nudge the brain to focus and relax. It’s not just hooking yourself up and assuming this technology is going to put you in a meditative state, though. You’re learning to meditate and then using technology as a way to enhance and deepen the experience.