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How Healium Works: Improving Focus and Self-Managing Stress Through Neurofeedback

Just getting started? We answer some common questions to help you better understand how to use Healium and the BrainLink EEG headband.

Written by Dr. Jeff Tarrant
July 13th, 2020

When Healium VR is used with the BrainLink Lite EEG headband, you can choose between a Focus or Quiet Mind protocol. In many ways, these protocols are opposites. Let’s take a deeper look at each protocol, choosing the experience, threshold settings, and instructions for users new to virtual reality as a wellness tool.

 

How does Healium measure and use my brainwave data?

When you open the Healium app it asks you if you are using an EEG headband. If you select “yes,” the software will connect to the headband using Bluetooth technology. Visit our FAQs for help connecting the BrainLink to the Oculus Go.

 

For the first 20 seconds, the system will collect EEG data without providing any feedback. It uses that baseline information to create a starting threshold. The exact calculations for each protocol are done in the background of the app.

 

You are then able to see a representation of your EEG data in the form of a small moving ball of light (firefly) at the bottom of the screen. As you relax (Quiet Mind) or become more engaged and alert (Focus), the firefly moves higher on the graph. The height of the firefly indicates success in the protocol. As long as you remain above the threshold (solid line), you are being successful in shifting your baseline brainwave patterns in the desired direction.

 

When this happens, the VR experience progresses without interruption. If you happen to become stressed or unfocused during the experience, the firefly drops below the threshold and triggers a change in the form of a dimming of the environment, a pause of the experience, or a red tint covering the experience. This is the feedback, helping you become more aware of your internal state.

 

red tint 

 

As soon as you return to the desired state of consciousness, the firefly moves above the threshold line, and the experience proceeds without the “negative” feedback.

 

This approach is not usually recommended for acute stress reduction as it typically requires a bit of repetition to learn what internal states influence your brainwaves and the feedback. In addition, this training can take a variety of forms depending on which protocol is used, which experience is selected, how the feedback is displayed, and how the thresholds are set. I will discuss each of these below.

 

How do I choose between Focus or Quiet Mind when using the BrainLink headband?

There are two protocols to choose from, Focus and Quiet Mind. Focus rewards increased activation of the frontal lobes, while Quiet Mind rewards de-activation of the frontal lobes.

 

Quiet Mind Protocol

The Quiet Mind protocol rewards you when there is a decrease of frontal lobe activation which occurs when you become more relaxed, reduce ruminating/worry, or excessive thinking. This protocol can be particularly helpful as an adjunctive tool if you’re managing stress or reducing anxiety.

 

Focus Protocol

The Focus protocol rewards activation of the frontal lobes and is more useful for managing an under aroused frontal lobe, such as what might be seen in individuals with ADHD, depression, or cognitive difficulties. The Focus protocol can be helpful for a midday mental health break before returning to a work task or a project that needs your attention. 

 

If you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, overthinking, rumination, or worry, the Quiet Mind protocol is likely to be more helpful. It is important to remember that in these scenarios you might be engaging in a brainwave pattern that may feel challenging or unknown. With this in mind, the other elements of the experience become important considerations.

 

Relaxing at the beach with the sand at your feet and the sun overhead

Which experience should I start with for VR relaxation or focus?

It is common to begin with experiences that are naturally relaxing and pleasing, such as Relaxing Beach, or Waterfall. These experiences provide relaxing environments, gentle music, and easy guidance into a relaxed and pleasant emotional state.

 

Beginning with one of these experiences increases the likelihood of success when first starting with virtual reality meditation. This can be important as you get used to using VR/AR, learn to recognize your increasingly subtle internal states and develop the ability to connect your internal state to the external feedback. Once you have achieved some basic skill, it may be helpful to switch to experiences that are less directive.

 

Several experiences offer a natural environment without accompanying music or verbal guidance. This requires you to enter the desired mental/emotional state with only minimal support. Once you have achieved success with this level, it can be helpful to introduce experiences that require you to change the environment from “negative” to “positive” through your success with the biofeedback protocols. The Big Tree and Calm the Storm are good examples of this type of experience.

 

How do I know if I’m doing it right?

By default, the firefly is displayed at the bottom of the screen. This is a visual representation of your success in meeting the criterion of the protocol. The higher the firefly is on the graph, the “better” you’re doing at shifting your brainwave pattern.

 

While this is a useful image, it can also add some challenges. At first, you may find the presence of the firefly distracts you from the content of the experience, minimizing the impact. In addition, the presence of the firefly can create feelings of competition or a tendency to use mental effort to move the firefly.

 

In these cases, you will typically be less successful. Particularly for beginners, we recommend toggling the firefly “off” and simply using the dimmer or red tint feedback as an indication of success.

 

Oculus Go controller 

The firefly can be turned off by clicking the trigger on the hand-held control. This brings up a settings menu with the option to turn off the graph. Choosing between the dimmer or red tint feedback options is a personal preference. The dimmer may provide more subtle feedback, but may be frustrating as the screen becomes more difficult to see.

 

 

How can I change the difficulty settings?

 

Healium calculates a starting threshold based on the first 20 seconds of a session. The assumption is that the baseline state represents a state we desire to change to become more focused or relaxed depending on the protocol.

 

While the starting threshold often works just fine, it is sometimes necessary and important to adjust the threshold for personal preference or training needs. When you open the settings menu there is a slider bar allowing you to make the threshold easier or harder.

 

As you move the slider, you will see the threshold move up or down on the firefly graph. When first starting to use virtual reality technology or biofeedback we suggest adjusting the threshold to make it relatively easy until you feel more comfortable. 

 

However, if the threshold is regularly set “too easy” it is not actually providing any useful feedback. If you never see a change in the feedback, there is no way to connect it to your internal state. Once you feel comfortable with Healium, we suggest adjusting the threshold so that it is triggered by the firefly movement between 20 and 50% of the time.

woman sitting cross legged with vr goggles Again, some of this is a personal preference and individual variability. Some people learn better with minimal feedback while others need more. If the threshold is set “too difficult” and you are constantly receiving feedback, this is also not helpful and can create frustration.

 

Tips from our Chief Scientist, Dr. Jeff Tarrant 

Dr. Jeff Tarrant headshot

As soon as you are presented with any kind of information about your

physiology and a goal, the tendency is to “do something” to make it change which results in over efforting.

 

You’ll do best with very gentle shifts in your attention. When using Healium in either Focus or Quiet mind protocols you should aim to be “relaxed, but alert.” It can also be helpful to direct your attention to the content of the experience. For example, keep this in mind when beginning:  “Let the experience guide you. Keep your attention on what you see and hear. Do your best to follow along with any instructions. When you find your attention shifting to other things, see if you can return to the experience.”

 

For the Quiet Mind experience, relax the muscles in your body, slow your breathing, and put a slight grin on your face. All of these instructions shift the nervous system into a more relaxed, parasympathetic state.

 

After your experience, it is helpful to ask yourself, “what did I notice?” Of course, the question is really orienting toward your internal experience. If we can help you increase your awareness of your internal state, this leads to the greatest likelihood of change.

Written by Dr. Jeff Tarrant
July 13th, 2020