I’m writing this for the benefit of those considering undergoing Brain Training, a/k/a Brainwave Optimization, a/k/a neurofeedback, as a treatment for insomnia. Brain Training is an expensive procedure, so it bears careful consideration and research before committing to it…but when I was researching it, I was unable to find any firsthand accounts of the process (other than testimonials on Brain Trainers’ websites). So, here is my own firsthand account.
I have had insomnia for 4 years. It started when I took some illegal party drugs that were likely laced with some kind of speed — I’m really susceptible to that stuff, and it sent me over the edge, giving me permanent sleep issues that were compounded by my hectic, irregular lifestyle. We won’t go into all that, because I’ve already blogged about it ad nauseum…but suffice it to say, I never had sleep issues until I ate those drugs. D’oh!!!
As with most insomniacs, I tried many different pills, herbs, oils and therapies to “cure” my insomnia (again, I’m not gonna bore you with all the details). Then I heard an ad for Brain Training on a local radio station, and it piqued my curiosity. Brain training/brainwave optimization is basically a form of neurofeedback that is supposed to “rebalance” a malfunctioning brain, and put it back in harmony, curing everything from ADHD to depression to drug addiction to insomnia. It sounded too good to be true, but you know how it is…when you can’t sleep, you’re desperate and will try anything.
Then I read about a study out of Wake Forest Baptist University where brain training was shown to be effective at improving insomnia, and that really made me want to try it! Even though it was kind of a half-assed study (not double-blind, no control group)…like I said, I was desperate! The only thing holding me back was the price — it’s around $1800 for a course of sessions.
Fortunately for me, I have a wealthy friend who is also an insomniac, and he tried it out on my recommendation…like a sort of guinea pig. He underwent the treatment at a clinic in Nashville, TN, and after the full course of treatments he claimed it had helped him — somewhat. But he hadn’t followed the program strictly — he drank alcohol and smoked weed during the course of treatments, which is not recommended. So there was still a nagging doubt in my own mind that maybe, if I tried it myself, and followed the recommendations to the letter, it might work for me.
After a particularly miserable bout of sleeplessness earlier this year, I finally took the plunge, if only to assure myself that I’d really tried “everything.” The recommended course is ten 2-hour treatments, 2 per day, for 5 days. Each session is $175, so a total of $1750 for the full course. Ouch!!
The name of the company behind the actual technology (computer program) is Brain State Technologies…which if you go to their website, appears to be a sort of franchise program where interested parties can get licensed, for a fee, to administer brain training. The woman who did mine said she had been really sick herself back in the ’90s, from some undetermined illness, and nothing worked for her until she tried brain training. It changed her life to such an extent that she became a licensed practitioner.
This all sounded very Jim Jones to me, but like I said, I was desperate, so I really went in with an open mind, I swear. They do a preliminary assessment for free, where they attach electrodes to your scalp and have you do math problems and visualizations and shit, in order to draw a “map” of your brain and see where the imbalance lies. Surprise, surprise — it was revealed that I had a major imbalance between my hemispheres — I think it was my frontal lobes that were out of whack or something (I don’t remember exactly; she rattled off a bunch of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo at me). Brain training could definitely help me…so of course I signed up.
Now as mentioned, I was there to follow instructions to a TEE. This meant that for the 5 days of treatment, and for three weeks thereafter, I was to drink no alcohol or smoke any weed (I have a medical marijuana prescription, which is pretty much the only thing that helps me sleep). So I cut all that out beginning the day before my first treatment.
You don’t have to do all 10 treatments in 5 days — it’s very time consuming, if you have a regular job. Since I don’t have a regular job, however, I was able to devote 5 solid days to the procedure — which is supposedly the most effective way to do it, anyway. I went over to the brain trainer’s home office from 10am-noon for my first session, and then again from 1-3pm for my second. For 5 days straight.
Each session basically consisted of me laying in a comfy recliner with electrodes on my scalp, while the brain trainer ran a software program that read my brainwaves and then played them back to me as a series of weird musical tones. Somehow these musical tones were supposed to gently re-align my imbalanced brain.
The tones were broken into segments, during some of which I was told to visualize different things (walking on a tightrope, watching a ball bounce back and forth, etc). During others, I was free to doze off…which I did, more than once. Yay, sleep! Was I cured?!!
At the end of each 2-hour session, my trainer showed me a sort of video game-type computer graphic of a horizontal bar, that I was supposed to attempt to control with my brain, forcing it down as far as I could just by thinking about it. I wasn’t all that good at it, but I did improve somewhat over the course of the 5 days.
Now meanwhile, I wasn’t drinking or smoking, so I was really afraid my sleep would be terrible. HOWEVER, since I wasn’t drinking/smoking, I didn’t really go out and socialize much (I live in Vegas, and most social activities revolve around booze). Since I wasn’t going out at all, I was in bed by 11pm every night, watching Mad Men DVDs and falling asleep by midnight. It was a depressing, old-ladyish lifestyle….but the regularity of the routine worked, and I slept well the entire 26 days I was sober.
Additionally, after my second treatment or so, I started dreaming again — this after years of having no dreams at all. It was like I finally entering that stage of sleep where you dream – did the brain training really cure me? Or was it just the fact that I wasn’t drinking??
I posit that it was neither. After the 5 days of brain training and the following three weeks of sobriety, I had to travel out of state for work, and sleep in a room with a bunch of unfamiliar people. Despite the fact that I still wasn’t drinking or drugging, my sleep went right back to the shittiest it had ever been. It was as if I’d never spent $1,750 on brain training at all.
Brain training, shmain training: my feeling is that my temporary “cure” was due to nothing fancier than plain old-fashioned routine. All the insomnia websites tell you that first thing — the most important step in combating insomnia is to wake up at the same time each day, and go to bed around the same time as well. This no-brainer technique is boring and unsexy…but is also FREE and EFFECTIVE.
Because I was going to bed early every day and not having much of a social life, my excitement levels were way down, and my stress as well. My life was BORING AS ALL HELL, but I was sleeping. It appeared that routine was the key to good sleep. But in my opinion, that’s not a realistic cure at all — and here’s why:
At home, I sleep alone, in a dark bedroom outfitted as per Sleep Hygiene 101 — no clock, no light etc. But the minute I had to leave the safety of my cocoon, and travel for work — my insomnia returned in FULL force, worse than ever.
Am I really supposed to stay home and sleep alone in my own bed every day for the rest of my life?! That is completely unrealistic — and devastatingly depressing. Besides, when I returned home from my business trip, even back in the confines of my comfy familiar bed, I was still unable to sleep (unless I used marijuana). I had interesting stuff going on in my life again, which apparently revved my engines too much for me to sleep well.
So I gave up.
I was supposed to go back to the brain trainer for a post-treatment assessment…but I never did. Why bother? I had the feeling she was just gonna tell me I need “just a few more treatments…” and at $175 per session, I simply cannot afford to throw any more good money after bad. $1,750 was ENOUGH cash to piss away on some new-age hocus pocus…which is how I feel about the whole thing, at the end of it all.
The bottom line is, brain training did not work for me. The only REAL difference it made for me was it did cause me to start dreaming again…which is cool, but I’m not sure it was worth $1,750. My sleep is no more restful or any less fragmented than before — I just remember a few dreams here and there. Big deal!
I have the sinking feeling that there IS no easy “cure” for insomnia — I can either lead a quiet life of regularity and routine, or I can live a fabulous life of adventure and awesomeness, and suffer shitty sleep here and there. I sort of split the difference now — I try to keep to a schedule when possible, but I don’t let it dictate my life. I gladly suffer the occasional sleepless night in favor of having an interesting life.
Meanwhile, if I really need a good night’s sleep, I eat a marijuana brownie — eating THC works amazingly well for sleep. If I’m out of brownies, or I’m traveling, I can always get 6 hours sleep from 15mg Ambien if I absolutely have to (I’m pill-averse, so only take them as a last resort).
If you are considering brain training to combat your insomnia, I hope this personal account helps you decide. Of course everyone is different….but I’m just telling you what happened with me. No bullshit, just my honest experience.
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