Archive for 'Neuro-Perspectives'

What Gamma Can Do For You

For a long time neuroscientists have shown work from poor unsuspecting birds and cats that there are specific critical periods in development important for a functional visual system or a species-appropriate bird song. In humans there have been a few unfortunate cases of horrific neglect of children (i.e. Genie) that have likely been responsible for profound intellectual deficits, which have been informative to scientists interested in the consequences of depravation during the early years. But scientists have not been able to conduct a formal and yet ethical scientific experiment to measure the relationship between a critical period and its function in humans until now, thanks to the ability to measure gamma.

On Oct 21st, the Science Daily featured an article on the exploration of the critical period for language development and other skills in toddlers by measuring their gamma waves on the EEG. The time period between 16 to 36 months is a time of tremendous language growth in humans, where their vocabulary typically expands from about 100 to 1000 words. Dr. April Benasich from Rutgers University in Newark, measured gamma activity in the frontal cortex of toddlers (16, 24 and 36 months) while they sat on a parent’s lap and quietly played. Gamma power (which is determined by the amount of synchronous gamma firing) was associated with language development, cognitive skills, behavior and impulse control. The more advanced a child’s language or cognitive skills, the more gamma power that child showed. And as expected, children who’s parents had a history of language impairments showed lower gamma power.

This new finding is consistent with what is already known about gamma in adults and from work in animals. Gamma heightens during the processing of linguistic information, during the formation of ideas and memories and during other abilities. Furthermore, gamma fires between 2 regions of the brain during associative learning, when a new concept is linked to one already known.

Low gamma coherence within different hemispheres is associated with ADD and learning disabilities. In fact Dr. C. Njiokiktjien from the Amsterdam, Netherlands compared intrahemispheric coherences of various frequencies (including gamma) of children with non-verbal vs. verbal learning disabilities(1). Their results suggested that children with non-verbal learning disabilities had less connectivity in the right hemisphere, which is consistent with the idea that it’s the right hemisphere that manages spatial skills, as well as other non-verbal tasks.

Dr. Hermann from Magdeburg University in Germany presents a model of gamma based on its power under various psychiatric conditions(2). Too much gamma firing is associated with ADHD, positive associations in Schizophrenia (i.e. hallucinations) and epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease, negative symptoms of Schizophrenia (i.e. blunt or flat affects) are associated with too little gamma.

So can we benefit from using brainwave entrainment to help us enter gamma states? Or are there risks associated with having more gamma power?

Dr. R. Olmstead, a clinical psychologist from Sunrise, FL, found benefits with gamma training in children with non-verbal learning disabilities, ages 6-16(3). She exposed them to 35 min brainwave entrainment sessions twice a week for 6 weeks. The sessions alternated between excitatory sessions (increasing from 14 (beta) to 40 (gamma) Hz), and inhibitory sessions (decreasing from 40 to 14 Hz). She found that her training enhanced various non-verbal cognitive abilities such as processing speed, freedom from distractibility, arithmetic and coding.

But what about the rest of us?

I think there is good reason to hypothesize that gamma training might also benefit many with other learning disabilities as well. But I am concerned about the fact that ADHD is associated with too much gamma firing. Thus if you have a learning disability and ADHD, or just ADHD alone, or even if you didn’t have any signs of ADHD, would gamma training enhance your distractibility or impulsiveness? 

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough research done to answer these questions at this point. However, there is good news. Brainwave entrainment for most of the population is a very gentle stimulus, and it takes time for cognitive benefits to take effect. Thus training with gamma (or any other stimulus) is done slowly. All such training should be conducted mindfully, and if you start to develop any unwanted symptoms, you can simply stop your training, and the effects will likely to go away. The higher the gamma power, the more severe the symptoms, so ignoring milder unwanted side effects could be dangerous.

The study by Olmstead might also be a good example as to how to safely train gamma. She trained students to progress into gamma with the excitatory protocol, and to leave gamma and return to beta in the inhibitory protocol. I would imagine that such training is good for leading our brains in and out of gamma as needed. And thus it might be teaching our brains to self regulate.

Nevertheless, there is an element of adventure in using gamma to potentially enhance your cognitive skills, and if the idea makes you queasy, I’d stand back and wait for more research to be done.

References:
1 Njiokiktjien C, de Rijke W, Jonkman EJ. Children with non-verbal learning disabilities (NLD): coherence values in the resting state may reflect hypofunctional long distance connections in the right hemisphere. Fiziologiia cheloveka. 2001; 27: 17-22.
2 Herrmann CS, Demiralp T. Human EEG gamma oscillations in neuropsychiatric disorders. Clin Neurophysiol. 2005; 116: 2719-33.
3 Olmstead R. Use of Auditory and Visual Stimulation to Improve Cognitive Abilities in Learning-Disabled Children. Journal of Neurotherapy. 2005; 9: 49-61.

Gamma Synchrony and consciousness

Stuart Hameroff talks about the definition of consciousness, relating to gamma  synchrony, EEG spikes, quantum computing and other hot topics in the study of conscious experience.

[YouTube]aw9Jo5qNCsQ[/YouTube]

Much ado about Free Will – Analyzing choice from a neurological perspective

Some recent events have sparked a flurry of talk on the issue of Free Will. I wrote about it a bit in a previous entry. It is not a spiritual issue, rather than a growing mass of neurological evidence that the subconscious controls a lot more of our behavior than traditionally thought.

And – While looking at choice from a neurological viewpoint, some intriguing concepts regarding the nature of conscious thought start to surface.

 

fascinating article in the New York times brings a lot of these issues into the mainstream. Here are some quotes.

(quoted from the article) A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

Here is one such experiment with an EEG:

In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.

The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.

In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. 

Interesting, eh? The study has been reproduced countless times in various ways, and other research seems to point to the same conclusion: the conscious mind acts more as an observer than an active participant!

 

But what about the Buddhists?

All this recent neuro-analysis of choice makes me wonder how much variance there would be if people outside of the “norms” were analyzed. For example, people who had learned to control their mind to a greater extent – meditators, NLP experts, people who regularly practice neurofeedback, etc.

Would their “will” be stronger, or would their perception of (the lack of) free will be more objective?

There could be significant differences – in the same way there are huge differences in the EEG responses of meditators vs regular people to sensory stimuli. Perhaps taking away certain emotional components of an experience, or having the ability to observe internal urges and thoughts objectively – all of which buddhists and frequent meditators claim to do – would give one more “free will”?

Perhaps one day there will be a standard measure, or scale, based on a psychological or neurological test, meant to quantify exactly how much mental freedom an individual has. Like an IQ test, or the kinesy scale of sexuality. This may even be a good thing, if it were followed up by an effort to give individuals with “low free will scores” more control over their own mind.

Where would you be on Adam’s Free Will scale of 0-100? ;)

 

How about the rest of us?

One thing I’ve noticed that is conspicuously absent from this debate is the origin of a subconscious. We are not born with it. It is programmed into us – by our parents, our world around us, our own internal dialogs, struggles, and so on. To seasoned psychologists and hypnotherapists, all this buzz about the subconscious is hardly news, and neither is the cure for unwanted behavior: RE-programing the subconscious based on what the conscious mind wants.

Optimistically speaking, Free Will can be a feedback mechanism. You perceive an action, a choice you have made – good or bad – and analyze the consequences of those actions. You then interact with your brain and make slight alterations to your brain’s “operating system”. A child whose subconscious mind made him touch a hot stove is not likely to do it again. Of course, whether we repeat the same mistakes over and over is based solely on the control we exhibit over the programming of our own mind.

Another article excerpt:

“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.

“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”

 

Others find the idea of no free will a comforting idea. I admit, it does have its appeal. Here is a great quote from Einstein:

“This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals”.

Thoughts on psychosis, creativity, what is “normal” and random brain stimulation

It is intriguing to think of how much of the brain is a continuum, and how much the definition of “normal” shifts from era to era. Traditionally black and white concepts such as genius, evil and madness, are challenged by new discoveries, and new looks at the way the brain processes impulses and inhibits behaviors. To many of us, this is old news. As any long time owner of a brain will tell you, it is hard to deny occasionally walking the line between normal and madness, or between genius and mediocrity. Recent surveys of the general population add further evidence to this. “Do you ever think people are talking about you?”, “Do you ever hear voices?”, “Do you ever think you might have special powers?”, “Do you ever talk to yourself, out loud?” Many people considered normal answer yes to questions usually reserved for people with some form of psychosis! I admit I have been talking to myself and openly berating malfunctioning electronic equipment since I was old enough to speak. In truth the brain often seems like a gray area in more than just color, and the definition of normal seems to be shifting.

A recent study by Daniel Nettle, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, suggests that one of the only defining differences between creativity and schizophrenia is the motivation to act, and the ability to feel and express emotions. Interestingly, he also analyzed mathematicians for symptoms of schizophrenia, and found just as many as in poets and artists – but in different areas. While mathematicians in general didn’t report near as many unusual experiences as schizophrenics, they did exhibit an “abnormal” lack of emotion and motivation.

Salvador Dali - Perfect example of an insane genius if there ever was oneDespite the evidence to the contrary, most of us feel fairly normal and well adjusted. In fact many people feel they could use an enhancement to their creative side. Creativity is “in”, and any resulting eccentricities are an acceptable side effect. Corporations pay big bucks to have their employees attend creativity-enhancing seminars. From a brainwave perspective, bursts of creativity seem almost inevitable. When I first started using entrainment I was amazed at the myriad of unrelated thoughts that would pass through my head. Memories from years past would surface, and my mind would start connecting ideas I never considered before. Creativity itself seems to be the act of connecting two previously unrelated ideas to form a new one. It is no surprise that ADD is linked to creativity. Having a mind that is naturally “out of the box” and constantly jumping from subject to subject can be an advantage during a brainstorming session.

Michael Hutchison wrote of a creativity-enhancing technique involving random stimulation at varying frequencies. David Siever writes of a similar method using music to control the entrainment rates, noting that “music modulation far outperforms theta sessions for creativity enhancement”. Our “brainstorming” session in NP2 follows these concepts by delivering erratic, semi-random stimulation that follows no particular pattern or predefined purpose. The idea is to stimulate the brain such that it is bombarded with as many ideas, memories and states as possible, until NEW ideas begin to take shape, and new mental connections are formed. There is a similar concept implemented in the “pRoshi” device by Roshi Corporation, which delivers semi-random stimulation from 1-45 hz, changed every few seconds. There is growing evidence that “random” protocols do stimulate neuronal growth. What is even more fascinating, in light of recent research on psychosis, is the evidence that random protocols may even be useful in TREATING schizophrenia. Common sense would say the last thing someone with psychosis needs is more randomness in their life, but again – analysis of the brain and how it processes information is dramatically changing how we look at everything.

The famous musician Sergei Rachmaninov composed his greatest work using a form of hypnosis. The “Rach 3″ is so complex that people have been driven near insane just trying to play it :)

Click here to hear an excerpt of audio insanity… er, I mean normality.

What we’ve been up to:

One of my favorite parts of this job is testing new equipment, and I just got done spending several weeks with a new pair of light glasses from AVStim. I must say, I’m impressed. The main feature I like is the positioning of the lights. No matter where my eyes drift to during a session, they still seem equally illuminated by the light. Additionally, the fact that these glasses can easily convert into an “open-eye” design is a fantastic feature (though one I don’t personally use often). According to the manufacturer, they spent a lot of time and money researching this new set, and so far I think it has lived up to the hype. I’ve taken quite a liking to them.

Here are some home made pictures I made of the new glasses:

  

Till next time, take care!

Adam

Some thoughts on the neural mechanisms of voting, auditory illusions and paranoia

With elections only a few days away here in the States, I find myself wondering – as I always do every 2 years – what is behind the vote I’m casting, and the votes of others. Although most of us probably think we vote on issues alone, research on the brain suggests that many people vote with their identity instead. If you tend to relate to a certain party’s identifying characteristics, or perhaps if your family has voted with a particular party for generations, your subconscious will tend to shift your thinking in favor of that party. There is a neurological basis for this. In 2004 Drs. Freedman and Iocaboni, at UCLA, used MRI to analyze which areas of the brain “light up” when subjects are shown political content associated with a particular candidate. If the candidate was already preferred by the subject, neural areas associated with empathy became highly active, while areas of negative emotion lit up when presented with information associated with opposing candidates. The content of the message itself is less important than the context in many cases. Subconsciously, the mind finds a reason to dislike messages seen to be outside of our own identity. It is interesting to observe this happening in my own brain as I view the hundreds of campaign ads bombarding the airwaves, some of which are hard to affiliate with a particular party until well into the commercial.

As always, the political process is fascinating to me, and I’m enjoying watching it all unfold. Ohio just implemented touch screen voting, so I’m looking froward to using that for the first time, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed hoping the technology behind it is well made. The techie in me wants to see elections move into the modern age. But with the modern age comes modern paranoias. I remember when we first started the company an individual in a discussion group warned others not to use our software because the government embeds “microchips” in all white noise to control the populace. Another customer contacted us a year ago, convinced that she heard “buy this software” subliminally while playing our sessions. It turned out she wasn’t even using our software at all, having confused us with another company – but even so I would be willing to bet it was just an auditory illusion.

More than a few people hear words and other auditory illusions in some of the background sound files we have used over the years, to the point where sometimes I have to manually edit the sound file and take out the “human-sounding” portions. When a sound file is used repeatedly the mind can start to identify patterns where none exist, and I sometimes wonder if what people hear in these sound files is a kind of representation of the subconscious mind, sort of like the famous inkblot test.

Well on to what we’ve been up to here at Transparent:

Mind Stereo has been a great success. I didn’t know what to expect in releasing it – nothing like it has really been done before. While making it I often sat back and wondered to myself if I was being arrogant in assuming people would want yet another media player on their computer, even one as unique as this. But, just the other day a few customers indicated they are actually using it as their default, so I’m real proud of that.

There has been some discussion lately of moving to other platforms, like OSX, PocketPC, Linux, etc. I want everyone to know that we hear you, and I’m really hoping to look more into this next year. I just heard that our software has some troubles on Windows Vista, so I’m going to be working on making that work before Vista is officially released to the public. So much to do!

Meanwhile, we’re all hard at work here on a big new project. This one has me really excited. I’m hoping to start beta testing on it in a month or 2, but the more we develop and the more we research, the more ideas pop up! We’ll often be in the middle of a project and then add a dozen new features that, while exciting, add a lot of time to the whole process.

I’m hoping to release more details about our new developments soon, maybe even along with some pre-release screenshots. :)

Wishing everyone all the best. To those readers in the U.S., happy voting on tuesday!

Adam