Go ahead, log into Netflix. See there the rows of recommendations? That's not magic: that's an algorithm. Netflix “remembers” what you watched, how you rated past films, then correlates that data against your viewing habits. A blink-of-an-eye search of the media database then produces “recommendations” based on your preferences. That's why documentaries about hermetic hoarders never pop up on your screen – Netflix knows you're not into that (who is?). So the algorithm saves precious hours of your life and spares your eyeballs having to scroll through the 100,000 available titles. Thanks, Netflix!
Now would it be nice if real life were the same way?
We are, most of us, bombarded by noise–someone needs something right now, there's pinging coming from your Twitter feed, your chatbox, your phone, your boss, your kids, your dog, your broken whatever. In the age of “big data”, the sheer volume of information and the choices that result from it can literally overtax the human brain. Modern life needs a Netflix-like algorithm that filters out the noise and breaks the daily barrage on our senses. But that's not easy, particularly because all that environmental stimulation can makes thinking very much like the unsorted Netflix backlist, combined with Amazon's, a gazillion Redboxes, and the tall stack of DVDs you bought in the aughts that you never watch anymore. Then imagine sorting through all that while in a bouncy-ball house with twenty sugared-up six-year-olds. That's the information age. But outside of Netflix, there is a way you can help your brain to focus on the stuff that matters. Shut out the noise. Extensive research over decades suggests neurofeedback training is particularly well suited for this purpose. Effective neurofeedback systems aid with focus, presence and just generally getting a grip on your train of thought. It can help you tone down the static, make thinking an exercise in efficiency. Naturally streamline the thought process and tune out distractions.
So what is neurofeedback training?
Dynamical neurofeedback technology –the kind developed by NeurOptimal Neurofeedback – essentially leverages your brain's preference for efficiency. Their neurofeedback machine uses sensors to track relevant changes in the brain's electrical patterns and then feeds that information back to the brain. Your brain – which naturally wants to be awesome – creates it's own “algorithm” based on the incoming data. It's sort of like when you give that documentary on knuckle ball pitchers a 4 star rating. Netflix responds by showing you similar films. The neurofeedback software “shows” your brain it's own activity. Your brain gives it a thumbs up/thumbs down, then adjusts accordingly. Kind of like an algorithm.
For example, anxiety or obsessive/compulsive thinking is not only unpleasant and stressful; from your brain's perspective, it is inherently inefficient. Why waste time in that type of neurological loop when you could be doing other, more productive tasks instead?
Now this is exactly how the information age should work: leverage that steady stream of incoming information to improve how you act, feel and think instead of being overwhelmed by it. In the case of neurofeedback training, this is accomplished in the blink of an eye as your brain – aided by a neurofeedback machine – adjusts its “algorithm” to basically become better at everything. The result is improved focus and less distraction. More incisive thought process and clearer cognition. Less anxiety/depression and more joy. Anything less is a waste of time – so says your brain.
Go log into Netflix again. Imagine your brain working this efficiently. Now you have a sense of how your brain ‘feels’ on neurofeedback. And it's almost as fun. Without the hoarder documentaries.
Squabbling with your spouse lately? Someday, couples therapy could mean watching your own brain activity to train your compassionate side.
Too many heated arguments rely on the cliché “I'm not a mind reader” to excuse one individual's ignorance of another's mental states. But now scientists based at the D'Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro believe they can amplify affection by letting individuals read their own minds.
The approach relies on neurofeedback, in which people can see and respond to their own real-time brain activity. Although the therapeutic utility and mechanism of neurofeedback are contested, proponents of the process generally suggest that by observing one's brain responses a person can subsequently modify them.
In this case the research group, led by IDOR cognitive neuroscientist Jorge Moll, focused on brain activity associated with affiliative emotions, or the warm and fuzzy–but not romantic–sensation one experiences when seeing a beloved friend or family member. To contrast this feeling with other emotional states, the researchers first asked their 24 volunteers to prepare three personal anecdotes: a proud moment, an episode full of affectionate feelings and a neutral but social scenario such as supermarket shopping. Pride and tenderness are complex social emotions, and so the researchers reasoned that comparing results from these two, along with a neutral control, could help clarify what brain activity was associated with affiliative emotion specifically.
Next, subjects had to recall these occasions while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) chamber and viewing a screen that showed a circle that would ripple and change shape. For half the subjects, the circle reflected ongoing changes in brain activity. The other half saw a randomly morphing ring described as a focal point for their visual attention. During a series of trials the researchers repeatedly cued participants with the words “proud,” “neutral” or “tender” and instructed them to relive the related memory in as much detail and emotional intensity as possible.
The researchers contrasted the data from tender, neutral and proud responses across trials to identify brain activity most related to affiliative feelings for each subject. They then assessed how much the brain response in each trial resembled this typical affiliative activity. The group given random visual feedback showed no significant difference in affiliative activity over trials. By contrast, subjects who received neurofeedback showed significantly stronger affiliative brain activity in their last trials compared with their first ones. In other words, something about seeing their brain's changes intensified that response over subsequent trials.
To better contextualize their results, Moll and colleagues also analyzed the relevant brain regions for tender feelings across subjects. As they report in PLoS ONE on May 21, the brain regions involved included the frontopolar and septohypothalamic areas, both linked previously to affectionate feelings in earlier research.
The findings, suggests University of California, San Diego, cognitive scientist Jaime Pineda, are fairly convincing. The study is “very interesting and consistent with other fMRI neurofeedback results,” he says. Pineda does caution that the researchers could have improved their experiment by providing a comparison group that received false feedback, which would act as a control for differences in the experience of subjects expecting real as opposed to random visual information.
Moll believes there are multiple clinical implications. Affiliative emotion is a component of fondness, empathy and compassion. Training tenderness could benefit feuding couples and groups, boost empathy and compassion or even assist individuals with more severe antisocial personalities.
But much needs to be clarified first. It is still unknown how long the training effects last and whether they will work in other settings. Ranganatha Sitaram, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida (also unconnected to the study) has conducted similar neurofeedback studies and is cautiously optimistic about their practical promise. “Certainly this could be useful clinically,” Sitaram says. “But outside of the lab the effects of these types of techniques are hoped for but still not established.”
The only constant in life is change. Nothing remains the same, everything is in constant motion and change of state. We, humans, are equipped with the qualities of resilience and flexibility which help us, respectively, to maintain ourselves within and to adapt to this moving stream. Resilience and flexibility serve our evolutionary processes. Not surprisingly, these qualities are an important part of our central nervous system. The avant garde neuroscientist Karl Pribram tells us that the central nervous system is an energy conserving system which is focused on energy-effectiveness and energy-efficiency. The avant garde neurofeedback expert Val Brown teaches us that when the central nervous system simply Returns to the Present it operates in its most energy-effective and energy-efficient manner. For centuries Buddhism has been pointing us to the importance of being fully aware and present. A beautiful book on zen-buddishm is called "Whereever you go, there you are". When you do the dishes, you just do the dishes. When you eat, you just eat. When you garden, you just garden: nothing more and nothing less. This sounds easier than it is for most of us, much of the time. Usually, many other irrelevant, energy consuming processes - mentally and emotionally - are taking place while you are doing the dishes, the eating and the gardening. To truly coincide with these activities one generally needs to practice mindfulness for years. On a somewhat less demanding level, we all know the importance of being able to ‘switch in the right moment’. A meeting calls for something quite different in you than playing with your child. To effectively execute necessary processes requires flexibility in your overall system, but especially and more precisely in your central nervous system. Being able to remain in a certain state - reading a book - and being able to return, after being perturbed, asks for resilience. A central nervous system that is capable of returning to the ‘here and now’ has access to optimal flexibility and resilience. This means it has access to and is able to remain in useful and effective states of consciousness, as the situation requires. When resilience and flexibility fall short, problems may arise. A head that keeps on grinding when you would like to fall asleep. Or a head that dozes and dreams when you would like to pay attention in class. States of consciousness like focusing, sleeping, relaxing, thinking actively are related to constellations of brainwave frequencies. The just mentioned states are well known, but there are many other more nuanced and or less defined states. Optimal functioning means: moving fluently between - as well as being able to remain in - these more or less well known states. On a personal level this is being experienced as being in flow. Optimal flow and functioning in and of the central nervous system is what NeurOptimalR Neurofeedback training intends to do. NeurOptimalR training sessions do not augment or diminish activity of certain brainwave frequencies, unlike the customary view in the field of Neurofeedback; rather, NeurOptimalR provides information to the central nervous system that allows it to decrease turbulence in the ongoing flow of brain activity (of 0 to 64 hertz). Turbulence precedes state shifting and is related to instabilities - moments in which brain functioning is prone to derail and you are more likely to fall into familiar symptoms. During a training turbulence is not only decreased in the frequency bands themselves, but also when one shifts from one band and state to another. During a training the software ‘dances’ with the brain activity and carries it along, through and across several frequency bands which correlate with several consciousness states. The training does increase your ability to focus or relax, among other things, but more precisely it is your ability to switch states smoothly and effectively, so that you can have access to the desired state in the desired moment. Like Val Brown, co-developer of NeurOptimalR says, "We are not interested in how many flutes or oboes the orchestra has or how much sound they produce, but in the interaction between the instruments and the symphony that the orchestra is playing."Christina Rompa