The word “placebo” is Latin, meaning “to please.” In medicine, a placebo is something that in reality has no medicine, but if the patient believes it does, there is a high likelihood that he/she will feel better anyway. This is called the “placebo effect.” In short, it is a great illustration of the power of suggestion. This is what the patent remedy and snake oil peddlers from the past relied upon. If the person believed the elixer could cure them, it often did!
So, a frequent criticism of neurofeedback is that it is just a placebo effect. These critics would tell you that there is no real “medicine” involved. They would argue that people get better but only because they believe the procedure will help them. It is the person’s expectation of healing that heals, but the neurofeedback itself does nothing.
This has been proven false again and again. In the first place, when neurofeedback is perfomed on animals, they get better. The initial use of neurofeedback was eliminating seizures, and this work was done using cats. It was highly successful on the cats, and today it is used very successfully on humans to help control seizures. But cats have no expectation of anything in these experiments, yet they became seizure-free. So their cure could not be due to the placebo effect, which means the neurofeedback must have been the active ingredient.
Another indication of the placebo effect is that once the person stops the treatment, any positive effects will fade. Again, it is the expectation that is at work here. If a person stops taking the pill or stops the treatment, his/her expectation is that things will get worse, and they will if it is a placebo effect. If there was some real internal change that the pill or treatment caused, then the benefits will persist. Many studies have shown that the effects of neurofeedback persist once it it stopped.
A very famous study done by Peniston back in the late 80’s showed this nicely. Peniston treated 20 chronic alcoholics with a neurofeedback protocol. He gave them each 15 sessions over the course of a few months. Better than 80% attained sobriety. When Peniston followed up one year later, all remained sober. There was no neurofeedback done after the first 15 sessions. This clearly indicates that the effects were not due to the placebo effect.
The advent of brain scanning technology clearly supported the fact that neurofeedback is not just a placebo effect. Studies were conducted looking at a person’s brain before and after neurofeedback. The fMRI scans clearly show real functional change in the brain. This cannot be from the placebo effect.
In summary, the effects of neurofeedback are not the result of a placebo effect. The effects are real and are the result of real changes to the way the brain operates. This has been substantiated by a rich research literature as well as 30 years of clinical success.