Clinical Conference

The Family Brain and Neurofeedback
January 13, 2006

Donna Troisi, LCSW-C

A characteristic of a great teacher is one who is able to identify the organizing principles and assumptions of one’s position and of the content, clearly articulate both, incite thinking, and engage dialogue. This is not an easy task. When you add introducing new ideas and integrating seemingly different models of thinking into the mix, daunting is a word that comes to mind.

Priscilla Friesen, in her clinical conference, The Family Brain and Neurofeedback, modeled the characteristics of a great teacher.  A member of the faculty of The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family since 1987, Friesen’s interest has been in the relationship between a person’s physiology and family emotional process. To assist in her understanding, Friesen has incorporated the biofeedback and EEG neurofeedback technology into her clinical practice. The center’s Clinical Conference series, which began in 1965 and includes videotaped clinical sessions to illustrate the topic, provides an opportunity to present different perspectives on Bowen Theory as it is applied to a broad range of issues.

Clarifying the organizing principles and assumptions in her thinking was the beginning to raising a fundamental question: How does one think about information, its function and its sources?. What we do know is that there is something about information, in and of itself, that is part of the system’s regulation of itself and that information has the potential to expand how a person functions in the world.  How does technology and the information accessible because of that technology impact one’s understanding of the interplay of the multi-layered systems of which we are made and to which we respond. How does each impact and inform the other. Think holographs -- how is cellular functioning a representation of individual brain functioning, is a representation of individual functioning, is a representation of family system functioning, is a representation of social functioning, is a representation of community functioning, is a representation of societal functioning, is a representation of governmental functioning, is a representation of global functioning?

How are the patterns that come into the brain related to patterns in the family?  That is, how is the way that the brain takes in and organizes/incorporates the information (the patterns of organization) related to how a family organizes itself (its patterns).  How does one incorporate a leap in information through technology into the existing structures of thinking about theory? How does current language inhibit or enable that process? 

Fundamentals of the Brain. The purpose of the brain is to acquire, coordinate, and disseminate information about the body and its environment. It has evolved in a way that has optimized its sensitivity to its environment, allowing the organism to adapt and survive. The structure and function of an individual brain reflects this sensitivity. Brain cells have evolved a sophisticated means of generating electrical signals (chemical interactions) that is the basis of information transfer in the nervous system. Therefore, the brain is structured to receive information and that information has an impact on the organism. 

Fundamentals of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Dr. Murray Bowen developed a methodology based on what he could observe—the family is an emotional system. The functioning of the individuals in a system not only reflects the functioning of the unit; but the functioning of the individual is reflective of the functioning of the broader system. He used the family diagram to gather information about the family and its members’ functioning and found that patterns are observable. He observed that there is a level of reactivity (between members) that varies and these sensitivities account for the variation in functioning. His methodology was geared toward gathering information about these automatic patterns and interrupting them so the individual could have more access to a higher range of responses, that is, more flexibility in their thinking and feeling and behavior. How one gets from information to action would be related to the effort one puts into using the information to manage one’s reactivity.

Fundamentals of EEG/Neurofeedback. The electroencephalograph (EEG) equipment “reads” the electrical activity of the brain. Neurofeedback (NFB) is a process by which the individual brain receives information about itself at a pre-aware level. Information (the initial experience) occurs and it is in the process of translating the information that the organism becomes aware. Awareness is a complex and much slower process, so, the brain can respond to information about itself without necessarily being “aware” of it. Think of riding a bicycle—the inner ear is a natural feedback system sending signals to the brain to adjust increments of movement and position in order to maintain balance.

The patterns of reactivity Dr. Bowen observed in family systems have a physiological counterpart in each unit of the system. Technology allows one to see / experience that counterpart at the level of brain function. A systems view of the brain implies there are processes at work; that there are patterns (in which frequencies) and variability (how much the frequencies change). Brain wave patterns vary in their rigidity / flexibility. More rigid brain patterns correspond with higher levels of reactivity; that is, the organism reacts in a more survival-based way. This can be seen by dominant low-frequency brain wave activity. However, higher levels of functioning and flexibility of an individual in relationships are related to integration of brain patterns and that there is more of an integration between an individual’s “feeling system” and “thinking system.” Dr. Bowen talked about levels of differentiation as a way of describing variation in individuals’ functioning. As the individual learned more about the patterns of behavior and addressed the patterns in different ways, an integration of facts and feelings was possible. Functioning in the world could become more flexible.

So, technology is very much an ingredient in the kinds of information one can gather. As the thinking behind technology changes, it affects what is developed in the subsequent  generations of equipment. Currently, there is the capacity to collect data on 16 interacting variable simultaneously. Non-linear or process mathematics is used to configure the output of signal. The implication is that the individual brain can receive information that is more than just the changes in the absolute value (power) of the signal, it can receive information on the variability or degree of change (process).

How then does this translate into shifts in functioning? The two videotaped interviews illustrated this issue. Although there is variation in individual experience with this “process” information, the commonalities are that the individuals experienced less reactivity to their important relationships, that the interruption of patterned or automatic behaviors was almost effortless, and that the experience of the information became clearer in hindsight. 

Friesen in no way infers an either/or, theory vs. technology position. What she does present are information and questions designed to stimulate and broaden thinking as it relates to Bowen theory. How one would use that information would be left to the individual.