Neurofeedback May Improve Self-Regulation of Emotion


A small pilot study of neurofeedback as a tool for self-regulation of emotion networks in the brain found that eight patients with depression learned to upregulate brain areas involved in the generation of positive emotions. A control group employing similar cognitive strategies but without neurofeedback did not improve clinically. Results of the study by researchers from Cardiff, Bangor, Maastricht, Brunel and Betsi Cadwaladr Universities and King’s College in the U.K were published in PloS One.

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Linden, D. Habes, I. et el; “Real-Time Self-Regulation of Emotion Networks in Patients with Depression.” PloS One, 7(6): e38115

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Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected].


  1. “Embodiment” is a personal-evolutionary solution to the tyranny of the yapping “monkey mind.” It paradoxically allows instinct and reason to be held together, fused in joyful participation and flow. Embodiment is about gaining, through the vehicle of sensate awareness, the capacity to feel the ambient physical sensations of unfettered energy and aliveness as they pulse through our bodies. It is here that mind and body, thought and feeling, psyche and spirit, are held together, welded in an undifferentiated unity of experience. (p, 279)

    Through embodiment we gain a unique way to touch into our darkest primitive instincts and to experience them as they play into the daylight dance of consciousness; and in so doing to know ourselves as though for the first time – in a way that imparts vitality, flow, color, hue and creativity to our lives.

    As a society, we have largely abandoned our living, sensing, knowing bodies in the search for rationality and stories about ourselves. Much of what we do in our lives is based on this preoccupation. Like Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, we have become enamored by our own thoughts, self-importance and idealized self-images. ( p, 285)

    Have we fallen in love with a pale reflection of ourselves? In gazing at his own reflection, Narcissus lost his place in nature. Without access to the sentient body, nature becomes something “out there” to be controlled and dominated. Disembodied, we are not part of nature, graciously finding our humble place within its embrace. (p, 286)

    The bases of conflict are oppositional or incomplete motor patterns. The significance of this for therapy (and life) is monumental. (p, 298)

    In particular, you will begin to notice what various sensations (i.e., tensions, contractions, aches, pains, etc,) tend to emerge in sequences or in groups. For example, you may notice that a “knot” in the belly or tightening of the anus is associated with a suppression or holding of breath. (p, 300)

    It is the ability to hold back, restrain and contain a powerful emotion that allows a person to creatively channel that energy. Containment (a somatic rooting of Freud’s “sublimation”) buys us time and, with self-awareness, enables us to separate out what we are imagining and thinking from our physical sensations. The uncoupling of sensation from image and thought is what diffuses the highly charged emotions and allows them to transform fluidly into sensation based gradations of feelings.

    This is not the same as suppressing or repressing them. For all of us, and particularly for the traumatized individual, the capacity to transform the “negative” emotions of fear and rage is the difference between heaven and hell. The power and tenacity of emotional compulsions (the acting out of rage, fear, shame and sorrow) are not to be underestimated. Fortunately, there are practical antidotes to this cascade of misery. With body awareness, it is possible to “deconstruct” these emotional fixations. (p, 322)

    From a functional point of view, bodily/sensate feelings are the compass that we use to navigate through life. They permit us to estimate the value of the things to which we must incorporate or adapt. Our attraction to that which sustains us and our avoidance of that which is harmful, are the essence of the feeling function. All feelings derive from the ancient precursors of approach and avoidance, they are in differing degrees positive or negative.

    Sensation-based feelings guide the adaptive response to (e)valuations. Emotions on the other hand, occur precisely when behavioral adaptations (based on these e-valuations) have failed? Contrary to to what both Darwin and James thought, fear is not what directs escape; nor do we feel fear because we are running from a source of threat. The person who can run freely away from threat does not feel fear. He only feels danger (avoidance) and then experiences the action of running. It is solely when escape is prevented that we experience fear. Likewise, we experience anger when we are unable to strike our enemy or otherwise resolve a conflict. (p, 327)

    Working at Columbia University in the 1940s and 50s, Nina Bull conducted remarkable research in the experiential tradition of William James. In her studies subjects were induced into a light hypnotic trance, and various emotions were suggested in this state. These included disgust, fear, anger, depression, joy and triumph. Bull discovered that the emotion of anger involves a fundamental split. There was, on the one hand, a primary compulsion to attack, as observed in tensing of the back, arms and fists (as if preparing to hit). However, there was also a strong secondary component of tensing the jaw, forearm and hand. This was self-reported by the subjects, and observed by the experimenters, as a way of controlling and inhibiting the primary impulse to strike. (p, 332)

    In addition, these experimenters explored the bodily aspects of sadness and depression. Depression was characterized, in the subjects consciousness, as a chronically interrupted drive. It was as though there was something they wanted but were unable to attain. These states of depression were frequently associated with a sense of “tired heaviness,” dizziness, headache and an inability to think clearly. The researchers observed a weakened impulse to cry (as though it were stifled), along with a collapsed posture, conveying defeat and apparent lethargy.

    When Bull studied the patterns of elation, triumph and joy, she observed that these positive affects, did not have an inhibitory component; they were experienced as pure action. Subjects feeling joy reported an expanded sensation in their chests, which they experienced as buoyant, and which was associated with free deep breathing. The observation of postural changes included a lifting of the head and an extension of the spine. These closely meshed behaviors and sensations facilitated the freer breathing.”

    Exerts from, you guessed it? “In an Unspoken Voice” by Peter Levine PhD.

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