Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The Mind Mirror

The Mind Mirror grew out of a tradition within neurofeedback that investigated meditation and altered states with the objective of monitoring and enhancing those states.  It was originally developed in England in 1976 by a physicist and Zen Master, Maxwell Cade,  with the assistance of electronics engineer Geoffrey Blundell.  At the time, it was unique, a frequency analyzer that could monitor both hemispheres of the brain across different brainwave frequencies.  It resembled a modern-day computer tablet but it used analogue electronics and displayed 14 frequency bands using 16 LEDs.  It was enclosed in a wood cabinet with a handle for carrying about.  Its portability allowed those using it to take it directly to people that the developers were most interested in studying– meditators, mystics, psychics and healers.  It provided moment-to-moment pictures of mind states and graphic profiles of these states.  It was also a feedback device that could guide the user to achieve these advanced states.  Anna Wise was a follower of Cade and through books (The High Performance Mind:  Mastering Brainwaves for Insight, Healing, and Creativity, and The Awakened Mind:  A Guide to Harnessing the Power of Your Brainwaves) and workshops popularized this approach as an aid to meditation and the development of an awakened mind.  
As computer technology evolved, the original Mind Mirror morphed into a digital sampling unit that interfaces with a computer and software to do sophisticated analysis of brainwaves and associated states of consciousness.  Versions of the Mind Mirror can be found in all major neurofeedback softwares, but the original concept is most fully developed in the Vilistus System that has a clear lineage back to Cade and Wise.  

Alpha-Theta training

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 image 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 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 an 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 the 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 afterwards things look sharper and sounds clearer.  They feel more energetic and 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 an 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 them 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 optimising performance. Progress in brain research159, 421-431.) and athletes more “in the zone.”

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Are you a neuronaut?

With a non-invasive procedure known as qEEG (quantitative electroencephlagram), your brain can be mapped in terms of the electrical power at numerous sites on your scalp and the connections between them. The results can be compared to norms and, using a symptom questionnaire, it can be determined what needs adjustment. Using computer displays and sound systems, you (more accurately, your brain) can be guided to greater balance and improved functionality.
Check out my new website: neuroshaping.com.
You too can be a neuronaut!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Working on hindrances

There is the traditional Buddhist concept of the five hindrances:  sense desire, anger, restlessness and remorse, sloth and torpor and doubt.  Anyone who has meditated has encountered them at some point or another.  Overcoming them is thought to be essential for progress in meditation.

What implications might this have for using neuroshaping devices for improving meditation?

Let's assume that there are EEG signatures for meditation states and that the EEGs of advanced practitioners exhibit those signatures whereas beginners don't. One approach to technologically boosting meditation that might readily come to mind is that we should try and reproduce in the beginner those states of the advanced practitioner through neurofeedback.  However, this ignores the fact that those advanced practitioners got to those states by overcoming hindrances.  If, as many meditation teachers say, we are already enlightened and we have to remove the "dust" that obscures this, then it makes sense to focus on removing these obstacles rather than trying to "force" a state that is already there but obscured.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

OpenBCI and the UltraCortex

Perhaps the most ambitious and promising approach to assessing and training the brain is by OpenBCI (openbci.com).  They have developed a 3D printed headgear with dry electrodes that they say can be applied in 30 seconds.  You can make your own headgear if you own a 3D printer or order one from them.  They have 4, 8 and 16 channel systems and software that goes with it.  They plan a 61 ultracortex 3D printed headgear.

It is all open source.  I am getting the headgear printed and have ordered the unprintable parts.  I am going to see if it works with the equipment that I have.  Tune in for progress reports.

Scroll down their home page to check out their Kickstarter video that explains their project.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Shinzen Young's take on technological aids to meditation

Shinzen Young has pondered on the usefulness of technological aids to meditation:  https://www.shinzen.org/how-to-enlighten-the-world/

He posits four assumptions to simplify the discussion.  Embedded in these assumptions is the idea that there are switches in the brain that can turn off and on or dim the self makes me uneasy.  This seems to push the concept of neural correlates for states of mind a tad too far.  I would hold, along with many theorists in cognitive science (Clark, O'Reilly, Chalmers, Hutto, Chemero, Varella, Thompson, Noe), that the mind is more than the brain, that it is extended, situated, enacted and embodied and includes language, cultural and social practices, tools and technology.  Why is this relevant and not just a quibble?  Because working on the brain in abstraction without taking all these extensions into consideration will not likely lead to the kind of results that Shinzen Young foresees.  

I appreciate that he sees that the "conceptual content" of practice is one of the necessary components of a technological approach to aiding meditation.  I have noticed in my experiences with clinical neurofeedback that people sometimes just want to fix their brains without altering their approach to life and what perpetuates the dysfunction that led them to seek treatment.  Similarly, with meditation, it is essential to alter perspectives and attitudes.  Traditionally sila (wholesome conduct) is the foundation of the path to liberation.  The "techno-boosts" that he talks about are potentially accelerants rather than replacements of meditation practice.

I am not sure that lesions (even reversible ones) are the path to arhatship, and zapping the brain (as opposed to measuring it and getting feedback) does not appeal to me.  Whatever technologies we use for aiding meditation should be well-understood and safe.  The virtue of biofeedback in general and EEG neurofeedback in particular is that they have been around for a long time, they are non-invasive and, even when unwanted effects occur (and they can), they can be easily reversed or the effects simply fade away with time if they are not reinforced.