Some Comments on So-Called “Brain Retraining” Programs


July 4, 2019

By Lisa Petrison, Ph.D. 

In recent months, quite a few people (including a number of physicians) have requested that I respond to their inquiries regarding so-called “brain retraining” programs.

Following are some comments that I recently wrote about the topic in another article on the Paradigm Change Blog.

Because my time is limited and because I am much more interested in focusing my attention on other areas of study on mold-related illness, this is the only statement that I intend to make on this topic.

Thanks to all for your understanding on this matter.


Brain retraining is not an effective substitute for the difficulties of pursuing mold avoidance.

During the past year or so, certain individuals selling so-called “brain retraining” programs have started suggesting to doctors and to others that it is a bad idea for patients to use their own reactions to determine when they are being exposed to problematic mold toxins and then to use that information to make mold avoidance decisions.

According to these individuals, the reactions that people have to small mold exposures are solely a result of the limbic system misidentifying harmless stimuli as major threats, rather than its correctly identifying dangerous substances and sounding a useful warning about them.

What people should do instead of pursuing mold avoidance, these individuals claim, is to hire a mold inspector or make other reasonable efforts to ensure that they are not living in a bad building that would be harmful to anyone and then actively insist to the limbic system that it should just plain shut up with regard to making any additional complaints about mold issues.

The theory being proposed is that the limbic system is reacting so strongly because it has been damaged and/or traumatized by previous toxic exposures, and therefore needs to be dealt with firmly to get it to stop “overreacting.”

Any negative effects that mold avoiders ascribe to small mold exposures are stated by these “brain retrainers” as being due to the the limbic system reactions causing “stress” throughout the system, rather than to any actual toxic damage.

Ill people pursuing these brain retraining programs are instructed to put any doubts they might have about the theory and the program wholly aside, and then to spend large amounts of time each day watching DVD’s that discuss the program philosophy and provide exercises designed to stop limbic system reactions from occurring.

For those who can afford the high costs, in-person seminars are also offered.

Based on my interactions with them, those undergoing these kinds of “retraining” programs appear to be coached to counter all objections by stating that the other person does not understand the concepts involved in brain retraining and that neural plasticity has been proven by science to be an actual phenomenon.

That line of argument seems particularly peculiar when these individuals insist upon it over and over to me since I have a Ph.D. in psychology and quite a bit of prior knowledge about neural plasticity research, and since the “brain retraining” rhetoric seems to have only a glancing relationship to the actual scientific theories and studies that have been published on neural plasticity issues.

(While my doctorate degree was granted by a business school, my area of study was psychology and my dissertation adviser was an extremely well-regarded social psychologist. Insofar as such things matter, the individuals who created and are selling these supposed “brain retraining” programs have no stated background or training in psychology at all, on the other hand.)

The biggest problem that I have with the theories that the “brain retrainers” are proposing is that they insist that if a substance is not harmful to healthy people, it is not going to be harmful to sick people either unless the limbic system is inappropriately reacting to it.

This seems to me to be patently untrue, since people with mold-related illness may have had various protective systems of their body damaged by the mold and therefore be more vulnerable to being injured by new toxic exposures.

For instance, they may have had their blood-brain barrier compromised (meaning that harmful substances can get into the brain and kill the exquisitely sensitive neurons); their microbiome may have been compromised (making it less likely that toxins will be effectively neutralized by it); their methylation system or other detoxification systems may be working ineffectively; their liver or kidneys may be damaged; their liver flow may have been impeded due to low oxygen levels in the system; worms or other microbes may have shifted their immune system functioning (e.g. from a Th1 to a Th2 response); they may be experiencing mast cell reactivity issues; or many other problems may be occurring.

In addition, it is possible that exposure to certain microbial toxins may be acting as a signal – such as through quorum sensing – to colonizing fungal or bacterial infections that they should become more aggressive, thus serving as an impetus for those microbial infections to become more harmful to their hosts’ bodies.

If any of these things are true, then the assertive limbic system response may be a functional warning allowing patients to stay away from toxins that actually are harmful to them, rather than a mistake that should be ignored and silenced.

Thus far, a few individuals following the mold avoidance approach discussed in the Beginner’s Guide have, after a year or more of reporting significant gains from focused avoidance, stated that they have benefited from then trying brain retraining programs.

From what I have seen, most of these reported improvements have been with regard to their experiencing decreased reactivities to such things as chemicals or freshly cut grass or fabrics or down pillows or common ubiquitous mold – with reactivities to the particularly problematic mold toxins (often referred to as “supertoxins”) of interest to me remaining a problem for them.

Again from what I have seen, these mold avoiders tend to blatantly disobey the instructions given in the programs by continuing to scrupulously avoid the toxins that are particularly problematic for them, while simultaneously paying less attention to reactions to substances that are causing less severe problems for them.

This is, of course, the exact same strategy that I suggest with regard to focusing on “master toxins” in #11 above, and so I am supportive of their doing this.

On the other hand, some individuals who have reported benefiting from mold avoidance – including Jennifer Brea (director of the film “Unrest”) and Ana Harris (author of the popular blog “Ana Harris Writes”) – have stated that they have been harmed by brain retraining programs.

So “brain retraining” is definitely not an endeavor to be pursued lightly, with the belief that “It can’t hurt,” in my opinion.

Overall, I am not saying here that these programs have never been useful for anyone with this sort of illness.

It does seem that some people find that the programs can help them to direct their attention away from getting too worked up about exposures to minor irritants, and also that some people benefit from the social support that the community offers them.

I do think that taking the position that brain retraining is the answer and that those who are pursuing skilled mold avoidance are doing something “wrong” is unwarranted and has the potential of being detrimental to patients, however.


A cartoon published in The New Yorker.


Addendum (7/6/2019) – Following is a remark that I made on my personal Facebook page in response to a comment about this article, and that I have been asked to share here.

I did not say anywhere that there is “no hope or chance other than living a life of strict avoidance.”

I myself have had my own reactivities decrease to the point that they are basically not an issue any more, despite never having done any brain retraining at all, for instance.

I never, ever have said that I thought that the goal is that strict avoidance should be permanent. I always have said that my goal was to figure out how to get people to a state of true wellness where they could get ordinary exposures without being harmed by them.

But I do not think that the most likely road to accomplish this is through brain retraining.

Rather, from what I have seen, the most likely road to accomplish this is for people to get as clear as possible on the front end, for an extended period of time, and to use that time to detox as effectively as possible.

Because that appears to be where the main issue here is. Not in brain trauma through previous exposures and “stress,” but rather, through accumulations of toxicity in the system.

And that while a minority of people may be stressed out enough about the whole thing that they benefit from the relaxation and social benefits of the brain retraining community, that is not where the real action here is in getting well from the disease, from what I have seen.


Lisa Petrison is the founder and executive director of Paradigm Change.


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