Alpha-Theta training has been a mainstay of neurofeedback treatment since its earliest days. It grew out of a tradition within neurofeedback that investigated meditation and altered states with the objective of monitoring and enhancing those states. One clinical application of it was with Vietnam veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and alcohol addiction. It is considered a deep-state training much like hypnosis in that it can resolve entrenched trauma and dislodge dysfunctional patterns of behaviour. In preparation for the training, basic biofeedback training in diaphragmatic breathing and hand warming as well as stabilizing neurofeedback protocols are used. In addition to its clinical applications, Alpha-Theta protocols are used in peak-performance training.
In Alpha-Theta training the intention is to induce a hypnogogic state, which is a state commonly experienced between waking and sleep. During our waking hours beta (b) brainwaves predominate; they are associated with an external orientation and active thinking as well as hypervigilance and anxiety. When we close our eyes with the intention to go to sleep, alpha (a) brainwaves predominate. We feel calm and relaxed and thoughts and images flow. As we become more relaxed and we increasingly let go of control, we go into a theta (θ) brainwave state. We are more internally oriented, memories and images emerge unbidden, and our mind seems to drift off on its own. Very soon we may be asleep and delta (d) brainwaves predominate.
Alpha-Theta training is much like other neurofeedback protocols. Typically, a single active electrode is placed at the back of the head, and reference and ground electrodes are placed on the ear lobes. During the training, the client’s eyes are closed. The feedback is auditory. Before beginning the training, the therapist identifies the sounds associated with three brainwaves–delta, theta, and alpha– and the crossover in which theta is greater than alpha, which is associated with the hypnogogic state. The sound associated with the delta state is a sign that the client is going to sleep or has moved. Delta is inhibited by a sound such as “uh-oh.” Alpha is indicated by a high melodic tone and theta by a lower melodic tone. The crossover state is indicated by the same lower melodic tone as theta but it becomes louder the more predominate theta is over alpha.
Most people find this training very relaxing and enjoyable. Often they have vivid memories of things long forgotten. An example would be the client recalling the smell of baking bread in their grandmother’s wood stove, perhaps visualizing what the kitchen looked like and the mood they felt. Clients may also see connections between issues in their life that had not occurred to them previously. A client might see that an issue they have in their personal relationships is similar to an issue that they have at work.
However, sometimes the memories that emerge are not so pleasant. For someone who has experienced severe trauma, they may have vivid flashback-type memories. This can result in abreaction, which is a cathartic release of emotion. This can be healing or, without the proper guidance, retraumatizing. This is the main risk of this procedure and why it should only be done with a therapist equipped to deal with it.
Typically, after theta training, the client is debriefed. The therapist might ask about what the experience was like for the client and anything that it might have brought to mind. Clients often report that afterward things look sharper and sounds are clearer. They feel more energetic as if blockages had been removed. Memories seem more accessible and may emerge more easily. Most commonly, clients report more vivid dreaming, even lucid dreaming in which they are aware that they are dreaming and can control what occurs within their dreams. For those who have unpleasant dreams, they feel more detached and less emotionally affected by the dreams than they thought possible. For instance, whereas they might have previously awoken from a nightmare drenched in sweat and in full-flight panic, they may have an unpleasant dream but not awaken or wake up only briefly and without great anxiety and not drenched in sweat.
When Alpha-Theta is used in peak performance training people feel that they have opened up a channel to resources within themselves that had previously been unavailable to them. Musicians and dancers are more creative and perform better as a result of this type of training (see Gruzelier, J., Egner, T., & Vernon, D. (2006). Validating the efficacy of neurofeedback for optimizing performance. Progress in brain research, 159, 421-431.) and athletes more “in the zone.”