What Is the Difference Between Biofeedback and Neurofeedback?

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A frequently asked question I hear is “What is the difference between neurofeedback and biofeedback?” The term biofeedback is a general term used to describe feedback training for the body. However, most people refer to peripheral biofeedback or EMG biofeedback as simply biofeedback. EMG biofeedback is the process of learning how to control physiological functions with the use of an apparatus called an electromyograph (EMG). Sensors are attached to the body and signals are picked up from muscle activity, body temperature, heart rhythm and sweat glands. When people are tense their muscles have a higher electrical reading than when they are relaxed. During a biofeedback session, a sensor is attached to a tense muscle. A common target is the forehead muscle, or frontalis, since when people focus, worry or stress they have a tendency to tense their forehead by lifting or furrowing their brow. The biofeedback equipment gives the client positive feedback as they consciously relax their muscle. The goal is to teach people how to gain mental control over seemingly involuntary bodily processes. For example, an individual can be trained in self-controlled vasodilation or hand warming, a technique which has been found useful for migraine headaches.

The objective of EEG biofeedback, also known as neurofeedback, is to improve the self-regulation of the brain, an involuntary process. Most people do not make a distinction between the mind and the brain, but neurofeedback does. Neurofeedback training is not concerned with teaching the mind how to improve the functioning of the brain. During a session clients simply relax, focus and remain still while the software teaches their brain, the organ, how to better self-regulate its thoughts, feelings and focus. In the case of tension headaches, both types of biofeedback can be helpful. They both address the issue in a different way, but with both types of feedback the symptoms can be reduced or alleviated altogether.

With brain issues, we can’t sense our brain moving more into or away from the problematic states in real-time. We can only experience and describe symptoms and how it affects our life. During a neurofeedback session sensors are pasted on the scalp and software converts these brain states into visual and audio signals so that the brain can see itself in action. The brain instantaneously gets information on states that are more or less productive. Think of it as an electronic mirror. When the brain sees itself in action, it learns how to better balance its thoughts, feelings and focus.

To give a practical example of the difference between biofeedback and neurofeedback we can use the following two issues: incontinence and bedwetting. A very effective application for biofeedback is to train pelvic muscles to overcome incontinence. Alternatively, bedwetting is easily and quickly overcome with EEG biofeedback since it is more of a brain issue, in this case, sleeping too deeply.