Musings About The Brain

Mental Health , ,

The brain is an interesting organ. Fascinating, in fact. So fascinating that I happened to get a whole (double) degree about it! And all I learned, I tell people, is that we really don’t understand the brain at all. Everything we thought we understood about the brain with science has generally been proven wrong over time. Like, for instance, this initial idea that the brain stops making neural connections when we’re a certain age or makes all the connections until a certain age. Currently, science shows us both are false. We prune a lot of connections throughout our lives and we create a lot of connections throughout our lives – at any age. And, amazingly, we have a lot of control over which go and which stay.

This idea of us making a choice to prune some and reinforce other neural connections is done unconsciously for most of us most of the time. We get into habits about how we think, how we react, and how we move around the world and that, unwittingly, reinforces connections. This is why many CEO’s and people who are massively “successful” are proponents of doing things outside our comfort zone and making changes – big or small – at many points throughout our lives and day-to-day and making conscious choices about which patterns you want to reinforce as well. This is also why most of said people have had at least one experience with psychedelics (*ahem* Steve Jobs) to shift their worldview entirely.

I say all of this because in many mental “illnesses,” its cause is often simply a matter of initial wiring and reinforced wiring. For me, it’s depression, PTSD, and anxiety. I came into this world to a mother who is depressed and anxious, a father who was angry and highly sensitive, and the resulting outcome of that in my life perpetuated itself. But over time, I realized that though I’ve been given both nature and nurture to explain where I am and have been, it is still a *choice* to be the way I am, feel the things I feel, and think the things I think. Even the body is controlled by the brain. And my body has been told that everything is a danger by my brain.

This doesn’t, however, mean that I believe cognitive talking therapy is actually fully effective, however. Especially in PTSD and anxiety. Because it takes a lot of work with the brain directly to even get to a point where talking could help us teach our brains to talk to our bodies differently. And so, this is why I began looking down the path of neurofeedback. This amazing book The Body Keeps the Score discusses how neurofeedback (and yoga, oddly enough) are most effective at treating PTSD – even above CBT, DBT, and EMDR (the gold standard for those with mental illness in this realm). I had participated in biofeedback in college and found it to be very helpful with anxiety during rotations. But neurofeedback? What was that?

It turns out neurofeedback measures our electric brain activity via EEG sensors and through audio or visual feedback, can teach our brains to inhibit or encourage certain waveforms. For instance, when you’re calm and alert, you are experiencing more alpha waves. When you’re calm and sleepy, you are experiencing more theta waves. When you are alert and your mind is “busy,” you’re experiencing more beta waves. Neurofeedback gives us a very clear choice to reinforce calm and alert mindfulness and a “quiet” brain (thus a quiet body) – and gives us an easy path for how to get there. It’s been shown to be effective for all kinds of things: ADD/ADHD, PTSD, anxiety, focus in general, etc. Even just 10 sessions of 1 hour can be as effective as Ritalin for up to 6 months for someone with ADD/ADHD.

What do I do when I hear a possible solution and a tangible path to solving it? Well, of course, I go towards it with curiosity and excitement. 🙂

And this is how I came to own a Muse headband. [Disclaimer: No one has given me money, free products, or other incentives to write this blog post.] It’s a much more advanced technology than when I performed a research study in college with full EEG caps despite the mere 10 sensors on this one. It integrates with a free app for iOS or Android. And it runs through bluetooth. You can see the raw data of your session, get a guided meditation if you’d like, see your overall progress, and choose to get audio feedback for when you are or are not calm and alert (or choose not to get feedback as well). It was the exact headset a “trained neurofeedback coach” put on me when I went for one official session 1.5 hours away. And it is basically the exact same app they used to get feedback as well with the same model: inhibit beta and theta waves, encourage alpha waves. But instead of driving back and forth for three hours every week for one 18 minute session, I can give myself neurofeedback as much as I want to in the comfort of, well..wherever I am. It was my gift to myself this holiday season.

Now, to be fair, it’s only been a week of using it every day. And this may all be placebo talking. And it may be that I have thrown a lot of things on the metaphorical wall recently just to see what sticks and am misattributing improvements to this and not other things. But it does feel that something has changed in my brain a bit. I feel more relaxed, more able to focus on what is in front of me / who is in front of me. It feels a bit easier to check in with myself and see what I’m wanting and needing in any one moment.

But, honestly, even if nothing has changed, at the very very least, it has given me a reason and some excitement to meditate every day – something I’ve been saying I’ve wanted to do for years (because mindfulness is one of the few eastern methods of “therapy” that has been scientifically proven to benefit us in so many ways). I always had an insecurity when I meditated, though, that I was “doing it wrong” – and every meditation type encourages a different method anyway. It was confusing. And I felt some amount of shame that I never felt I could get to a place of “quiet mind.” I didn’t even really know what it felt like. Instead, I would call my meditations “analytical” – where I did what I did best, continue to think, continue to attach to thoughts and package them into a box and ship it off with a bow.

Part of the reason Muse has made it easier for me to practice meditation, I think, is that there is a more concrete way of knowing when I’m straying from the goal. The immediate feedback is a gentle push back to stasis when I’m going in the “wrong” direction mentally. I didn’t realize how often I thought I was calm and in reality, my mind was awake because I was trying to “force” calm (which is the opposite of calm, by the way). When I’m actually in alpha waves, I’ve found, being calm feels easy and light. And as soon as it feels like work, I’m back to the loud sounds of waves hitting against the shore. In the beginning, the sound of the birds chirping indicating alpha waves jarred me and made me more aware of myself again and immediately back to beta waves. Muse says this is normal and part of the practice is to notice the distraction and eventually let it not phase you. I’ve begun integrating the birds chirping into a visualization that I’m walking through a forest up a mountain, breathing the fresh air and hearing the birds chirp. My focus on this both reminds me of my breathing and of noticing beauty around me. It’s so easy to walk by the beauty in life. I’m trying to re-learn what that feels like – if I never knew to begin with.

Maybe you’re asking why I’m writing this. Am I advertising the Muse headband? No, I guess I’m writing this because I realize that I and so many in my life see life as something that happens *to* them. And though I and they may know this isn’t true in our brains, it’s hard to really get one’s behavior, heart, and body to recognize, align, and integrate the concept effectively. Life is a series of choices, and our brain’s processes are no exception. We’re all unique and every one of our brains has made different neural connections in different ways. We can choose to see those connections as static and unchanging, which is essentially like seeing our “selves” as static and unchanging. Or we can choose to see those connections as plastic and ever-changing and choose the ones we *really* want to encourage and foster – and nix the ones that do not serve us any longer. And this might be one of many methods to choose those connections in a tangible way – if that’s the perspective you want to believe. 

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