scorecardA $15,000 retreat loved by Tony Robbins claims to give you the benefits of 20 years of meditation
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A $15,000 retreat loved by Tony Robbins claims to give you the benefits of 20 years of meditation

A $15,000 retreat loved by Tony Robbins claims to give you the benefits of 20 years of meditation
LifeScience7 min read

tony robbins

Courtesy of Tony Robbins.

  • Neurofeedback is a technique that involves placing electrical brain wave sensors on the scalp and using the sensors' feedback to control a video game or a series of sounds
  • A 7-day retreat uses the technique, claiming it boosts IQ and improves creativity
  • Other neurofeedback providers say their methods can help with everything from mood-boosting to ADHD
  • While science says many of these claims are overstated, but there is one promising area of research

There are three cities around the world where, for $15,000, you can spend a week allegedly exercising your brain.

The cerebral workout plan was created in the 1980s by James Hardt, a physicist and psychologist who claims that a week of his program "expands your awareness more than 20 years of Zen meditation."

Hardt's company, called the Biocybernaut Institute, is centered around neurofeedback, a form of therapy that uses information about the brain's electrical patterns to teach people about how their minds work. The idea is that people can learn to control their brain activity in specific ways - from increasing focus or creativity to decreasing the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or even ADHD.

At its most basic, the treatment involves placing electrical sensors designed to monitor brain waves at various points on the scalp - kind of like you would if you were to get an EEG at the doctor. Those sensors are then connected to a source of feedback, like a video screen, with images that shift based on the type of brain waves a person is emitting.

"We give people real-time data on their own brain waves and then they change them," Alice Miller, a Biocybernaut trainer, told Business Insider.

Our electric brains

Theoretically, if you can control these brain waves, you can control your levels of alertness.

But to understand how that works, you have to know two important things: First, our brains are electric. Second, certain brain wave frequencies have actually been linked with various states of alertness.

Hans Berger EEG wikimedia commons 1924

Wikimedia Commons

Austrian psychiatrist Hans Berger

The first person to measure the brain's electricity was Austrian psychiatrist Hans Berger, who reported a technique for "recording the electrical activity of the human brain from the surface of the head" in 1924. It was the world's first electroencephalogram, or EEG.

Today, we know that most of the electrical activity from the scalp falls in a range of roughly 1 to 20 Hertz (Hz). Neuroscientists typically divide this activity into 4 specific ranges, or bands. Each level corresponds to a specific type of alertness - at the lowest, called delta, you're literally asleep; at the highest, called beta, you're focused and attentive.

It breaks down like this:

  • Delta: 1-4 Hz - activity your brain emits while you're asleep
  • Theta: 4-8 Hz - what your brain waves might look like when you're "zoning off" or not really paying attention
  • Alpha: 8-12 Hz - your relaxed but wakeful state
  • Beta: 12-30 Hz - the the brain waves your noggin tends to emit when you're sharply focused

Neurofeedback operates on the principal that you can become aware of when your brain is in which state - or band of activity - and then consciously shift from one to another. If you can't focus and your brain is showing lots of theta activity, the idea goes, you need to shift up into an alpha state. If you're anxious and angry all the time and your brain is trapped in beta, you want to shift down into alpha.

neurofeedback erin eeg braintrain uk

Erin Brodwin / Business Insider

Me trying out a neurofeedback demo at BrainTrainUK in London.

Miller claims that if you practice this for long enough using neurofeedback technology, your brain will start to automatically do it on its own in real life.

"Say you went and you yelled at the checkout person, maybe three times a week you have this issue. With the training, you come back and realize, 'You know what, I haven't lost my cool at the checkout for three months!' The triggers are gone. You won't even realize it. You're operating completely differently," Miller said.

Boosting your mood and achieving 'peak performance'

The Biocybernaut Institute claims that one week of its training does everything from boosting your IQ (the average increase is 11.7 points, according to their website) and creativity (50% on average, the site says) to reversing aging, improving relationships, and "dissolving fear."

"After they do this training people just want more," Miller said. "They start businesses, they get promotions, they change."

Scientific research on neurofeedback doesn't support the vast majority of these claims.

In a 2005 review on the use of neurofeedback in athletes, David Vernon, a professor of psychology at Canterbury Christ Church in the UK, concluded that "the plethora of claims regarding the use of neurofeedback training to enhance performance is matched only by the paucity of research showing a clear effect." In another review that Vernon and his team published 4 years later, they looked at the studies of neurofeedback's mood-enhancing capabilities. They concluded that "the notion that alpha neurofeedback can enhance the mood of healthy individuals has yet to be firmly established."

Still, there is one application of neurofeedback that is both promising and well-researched - but only appeals to a very specific population: People with ADHD.

Neurofeedback and ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) centers around difficulty focusing on one task. It may affect as many as 11% of American children ages 4-17 and about 4% of adults, according to the CDC and ADAA. And while many of these people use medications like Adderall to help reduce their symptoms, the side effects can be severe. For some people, the medications don't work in the first place.

That's where neurofeedback comes in.

Research suggests that many people with ADHD display more theta ("zoning off") activity and less alpha and beta (wakeful or focused) activity when at rest. This finding has bolstered theoretical support for using neurofeedback, and there's also some practical support behind the method as well. Today, ADHD is one of the strongest and most well-researched applications of neurofeedback. As to whether the technique actually helps people with ADHD, however, the scientific evidence remains somewhat inconclusive, though recent results are promising.

A 2012 review, for example, looked at more than a dozen studies of neurofeedback's effect on children with ADHD. The authors concluded that the treatment "can be considered 'probably efficacious,'" a term that corresponds with Level 3 out of 5 on The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback's ranking of whether treatments work.

David Rabiner, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, told Business Insider that over the past decade he's seen "a number of additional studies of neurofeedback treatment for ADHD that have been published and many have yielded supportive results."

Interestingly, Biocybernaut's website does list attention deficit disorder as one of the clinical applications of its technology. Miller told me that most of Biocybernaut's clients are CEOs, professionals, and "young 20-somethings who want to expand their lives."

'20 years of meditation in 7 days'

Biocybernaut holds regular retreats in Sedona, Arizona; Bavaria, Germany; and Victoria, British Columbia. There, customers spend a week doing various forms of the treatment.

In darkened rooms, or "chambers," as Miller calls them, participants do rotations of auditory and visual feedback. For two minutes, they close their eyes and listen to various tones that are paired with specific brain wave frequencies. (The louder the tone, the higher the brain wave frequency. The softer the tone, the lower the brain wave frequency.) Then for 8 seconds, they see colored numbers on a screen indicating "which direction" their brain waves appear to be moving - either up into beta, or high frequency, or down into alpha, or lower frequency.

Although it's only seven days, Miller said people make intense progress.

"The people who come in on day one are not the same people who leave on day seven," she said.

Tony Robbins

Taylor Hill/Getty

According to Tony Robbins, whose testimonial is featured prominently on Biocybernaut's site, the training "enhanced my ability to multitask, and as a creative professional, I now have the ability to visualize two separate tasks simultaneously. Example being, I can now type an email to one person while having an conversation with another person and the email will be flawless."

Stuart Black, the founder of a British neurofeedback provider called BrainTrainUK, told Business Insider that he was inspired to start his practice after one of Hardt's retreats.

"I'd kind of been interested in this for a while and in the end I thought, I'm going to do it. I called him up and booked a session on the next available slot," Black said.

After he returned, Black says he felt focused and relaxed.

"I came out of there, I didn't hit nirvana; there were some interesting experiences, but I came out with a very, very quiet mind."

The training seemed to give him the clarity he needed to finally leave a job that was making him unhappy and start a new career as a consultant. Eventually, that new career led him to found BrainTrainUK, which provides neurofeedback to hundreds of clients, including artists, athletes, and people with clinical conditions. Black says the majority fall into the latter bracket.

"I never looked back," Black said.