Beware of “Brain Rewiring” Programs

We’ve been receiving a lot of questions lately about programs that claim to help people regain their lost self-esteem or overcome anxiety by “rewiring” the brain based on principles of neuroplasticity. The problem is that most of the programs that tout this ability of the brain are being promoted by untrained people who are misapplying the brain’s ability to rewire itself in ways that are not substantiated by science.

A good example of this problem is the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) developed by Annie Hopper, a core belief counselor, newspaper columnist and self-proclaimed expert in Emotional Wellness. She does not have a medical degree. Her only qualification for developing the DNRS is based on her personal experience concerning recovery from what she believed was a toxic brain trauma. She claims to have been healed when she discovered how to “creatively rewire” the neural circuits in her brain that had been altered by this trauma.

The system she developed claims to be able to reverse limbic system impairment. The limbic system is located in the midbrain and is associated with emotion, learning, memory, and the body’s stress response. Hopper’s website claims that various forms of trauma ranging from infection to extreme emotional stress and exposure to toxins can cause the limbic system to get stuck in a “fight, flight or freeze response” and become impaired.

“With the DNRS program, participants learn proven and powerful neuroplasticity tools to rewire limbic system function, by building healthier neural pathways that support optimal function in all systems of the body. Rewiring the brain shifts the brain and body from a chronic state of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ into a state of growth and repair, where healing can take place.”

She incorporates a variety of tools such as behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based cognitive restructuring, neurolinguistic programming, focused attention and emotional distancing to bring about this rewiring.

It all sounds great until you consider the fact that Ms. Hopper is not a medical doctor, nor is she a trained mental health professional. This dearth of credentials can explain why there is such a large gap between what “brain rewiring” programs like the DNRS are teaching and what neuroscience has actually discovered about the brain’s ability to rewire itself.

According to Yale neurologist Steven Novella, MD, this rewiring is based upon the principle of neuroplasticity which is the capacity of the brain to acquire new abilities or compensate for damage. As Dr. Novella explains, this is not a new discovery by any means. In fact, it’s actually no more than “a technical description of a very common phenomenon – learning.”

The example Dr. Novella gives is that of a person who wants to get better at basketball. If the person shoots 1000 baskets, chances are they’re going to get better at shooting baskets. “Some of this is physical, such as developing the necessary strength in the involved muscles, but mostly this is the brain learning how to shoot baskets through plasticity,” he writes.

So we know the brain can rewire itself, but what remains scientifically unsettled is how transferable this training is to other areas of life. Will learning how to shoot better baskets make a person better at some other sport? Can doing one type of mental task make you smarter in general or give you cognitive skills outside the task at hand?

“This question has not been fully resolved,” Dr. Novella says, which is why he doesn’t like the term “brain training” because “it suggests it is something other than simply learning.”

In other words, claims that neuroplasticity can cure everything from heart arrythmias, PTSD and anxiety to bacterial overgrowths and chronic pain are nothing more than pseudoscientific hype.

In fact, studies have concluded that “Sparse evidence coupled with lack of scientific rigor…leaves claims concerning the impact and duration of such brain training largely unsubstantiated.”

But that isn’t stopping people from making all kinds of fantastic claims that are supported by nothing more than user testimonials. In Hopper’s case, her website cites a single study to support her claims but the study does no such thing!

As David Tuller, Senior Fellow in Public Health and Journalism, Center for Global Public Health, UC Berkeley, concludes: “…[T]he findings in this study have so many limitations and caveats that they provide little insight about the intervention’s overall impacts–including whether it ‘worked’ as touted.”

As enticing as these programs sound, we would be wise to heed the warning given by Dr. Mirko Farino in this article for The British Academy, “…[T]he study of neural plasticity has…inspired a plethora of popular science books…that have transformed the notion of neural plasticity into a panacea to solve all sort of difficulties and problems that humans can encounter throughout their lives. These books hype plasticity, and claim to teach their readers methods to rewire the brain to change attitudes, improve health and fitness, reach personal goals, overcome negativity, increase mental sharpness and clarity, and have even promised to super-charge thinking through a set of strategies that help harness mental powers…

“…[I]t is paramount, when looking at this phenomenon, to pay attention to the actual details of the research and not just extrapolate vaguely about ‘rewiring’ and its potential amazing applications. It is also important to learn the specific conditions that bolster neuroplastic changes in our brains, and so it is crucial not to inflate its potential significance into excessive realms of nonsense. Neural plasticity is certainly a ubiquitous phenomenon but is no panacea to all our problems. Don’t fall for the neural plasticity hype!”

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