The Trainable Brain

Demonstrating the Trainable Brain

Studying the brain’s ability to adapt itself

While QEEG research has focused on defining the energy brain, a parallel branch of study has provided increasingly “real-time” feedback to demonstrate that brains are capable of changing their own patterns. This field, often called neurofeedback or EEG-biofeedback, we will call brain training.

Today’s hardware and software for assessment and training of brain activation patterns are smaller and less costly at the same time they are more powerful and precise. Thousands of educators, therapists and coaches throughout the developed world use brain training. The clinical literature focuses on measuring the effectiveness of the intervention for a variety of human issues.

Feedback Mirrors for the Brain

The brain may be the vainest organ in our body. It spends its life doing things in the world outside and watching to see what comes back. But most experience doesn’t provide a very clear mirror. I say something now to my wife, and she laughs. I say the same thing two hours later, and she gets angry. The mirror is not objective; it is in fact confusing.

Digital feedback of brain activation patterns has the potential to be a perfect mirror. When my brain produces lots of excessive fast activity, the feedback shows me the same thing every time. You can learn to wiggle your ears by looking in a mirror and trying various things until you get a result. Without the mirror, it takes forever.

But there are potential blocks to the effectiveness of this mirror. One critical one comes from within. The other comes from without.

Blocking the Mirror

We’ll talk more as we go on about the difference between brain and conscious mind. Meditators often speak of the “monkey mind”; psychologists may use the term “ego”. It is that chattering “me” inside my head—sometimes very useful; sometimes a real block to experience and performance. I define “mind” as my personal experience of my “brain”. The conscious mind rides on the brain like the cortex does, and in fact the cortex produces the conscious mind.

When you were first learning to ride a bicycle, you got on and pedaled and fell over. That’s feedback: “Nope, that’s not how you do it.” You got up, tried again, fell over again. More feedback. Eventually you stayed up and rode.

No-one can measure what changed, but your brain “learned”—it established a new pattern combining balance, pedaling, steering, looking, etc. Perhaps you had someone who helped you stay up with fewer falls until your brain got the feeling. That would be “guiding feedback”, still leaving the learning up to your brain.

Perhaps you had someone who “coached” you, critiqued you, as you tried to learn.

Joe Kamiya, one of the pioneers of brain training, first showed that giving the brain feedback about its levels of alpha helped it change those levels. Kamiya asked several of the best subjects from his first group to develop a “manual” for later subjects in how to increase alpha. Being a researcher, he only shared it with half the new subjects. The result? The people who did not have the manual learned faster.

In brain training, one of the greatest difficulties is that the conscious mind keeps jumping between the brain and the mirror, telling the brain what the feedback means, telling it what to try next, getting frustrated. It’s important that you just pay attention to the feedback in a training session. The mantra I use is, “don’t think, don’t try, don’t judge.”

The Changing Mirror

One of the things I most often remind new trainers is, “your boredom is not an excuse for messing with someone else’s brain.” Recently a person interested in training himself told me his trainer had warned it was not possible to do self-training. It was crucial, according to her, that someone be adjusting the targets constantly for the feedback to be useful.

I asked him to imagine that he was training to run a race with hurdles. The height of the hurdle would be crucial. If they were 1 foot high would be so easy they wouldn’t be challenging. If they were four feet high, they would just be frustrating.

But one way to make the training useless would be to have the coach change the height of each hurdle as you got to it. How would you ever learn from that? It might be more fun for the coach, but it would destroy the training. We are training the brain to follow the feedback—not training the feedback to follow the brain.

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