A Fringe brainwave 

Philly Fringe 2019: Gary Ames presents Biofeed­back: Brain­wave Relaxation’

3 minute read
Getting a new view of the brain. (Image courtesy of Jenny Kessler.)
Getting a new view of the brain. (Image courtesy of Jenny Kessler.)

I’ve always dealt with stress the old-school way: deep breaths, meditation, and self-care. I was intrigued by the idea of brainwave biofeedback delivering the same results. Biofeedback: Brainwave Relaxation, a Fringe Festival experience from Bala Cynwyd psychologist Gary Ames, let me try for myself.

Biofeedback is described as self-healing under guidance. In brain-based biofeedback, or “neurofeedback,” people are hooked up to a computer that measures brain activity, allowing them to monitor their own brain patterns and self-regulate brain activity.

Riding the waves

Ames, a licensed psychologist, attached sensors to my right earlobe and scalp. He covered my eyes with a rag to help me relax with my eyes closed. Audio began to play, instructing me to think about something I would like to work on, and then redirected me to think about something positive, and let my thoughts flow in any direction from there. For the next 25 minutes, I heard soothing musical tones. My thoughts ping-ponged from one thing to another. I thought about random memories, things that happened in the past week, and things I had on my to-do list for the upcoming week. Incoming office phone calls sometimes interrupted my concentration. For the most part, I felt drowsy but conscious.

Ames removed the sensors and we chatted for a bit about the research on brain biofeedback and its intended results as a tool of “self-awareness and self-control for self-regulation and self-empowerment.” Sophisticated software reads your brain waves and provides sounds that guide your brain toward relaxation. Each person hears different music because the sounds are programmed to respond to your brainwaves.

Observing yourself

Biofeedback training claims that when you see and hear your own body’s output, you can learn to adjust what your body is doing and discover new ways to relax deeply. There may be evidence that biofeedback is helpful for people with addictions or psychological trauma, as it teaches self-control of brain functions. Regular sessions are marketed as a way to decrease stress and improve attention.

I was more than a little skeptical about biofeedback after my first session. I didn’t need a monitor to show me when I was thinking of something negative or unable to calm the flurry of thoughts in my head. I didn’t see how a display of my brain activity would decrease my anxiety. Sure, the music was soothing, but I found it to be more distracting than when I practice silent mediation.

By the end of the session, I still felt holes in my understanding of biofeedback. Ames assured me that it is not really a verbal concept, but a therapeutic practice. He showed me how there is an eyes-open version of biofeedback where I would be able to see my varying brain waves in real time and engage in self-soothing.

$500 to wellness

Ames advertises 30-minute sessions of biofeedback as a “solo journey deep within your mind, opening a bridge between conscious and subconscious realms.” Although I had only one session, it was not an experience I would want to repeat.

As a person who meditates daily, I’m still unclear on how biofeedback results would differ greatly from meditation. When I asked pointed questions for more information, I received condescending and vague answers. I couldn’t shake the feeling that people who seek treatment here were being bamboozled. The “scientific evidence” is too vague and not compelling enough to shell out $25 per session. Maybe after the recommended 20 sessions I would see the benefits of neurofeedback, but I doubt I will ever find out.

What, When, Where

Biofeedback: Brainwave Relaxation. By Gary Ames. Through September 22, 2019, at the office of Gary Ames, 28 Rock Hill Road, Bala Cynwyd, PA. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.

The office is not wheelchair-accessible.

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