Helping your brain do better than it can

written by Joanne Couture (Therapist, Brain Mirroring Tech Coach) on 29/05/19

Coming across some interesting research has me putting pen to paper once again. Reading Datis Kharrazian’s book, “Why isn’t my brain working?” is again affirming the work I offer with the neurotechnology in my office. He invites his readers to center on three things: glucose, oxygen and stimulation.

Figure 1 – A brain with front/back self-referral capacity. Bluhm et al. J of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 2009

No matter who we are, I think that we are all aiming to be the best that we can be. My sense is that the more in tune we are with our gifts and the gifts of others, the better we will be at being our best. For that to happen, I think that we spend a lot of time thinking about what we are doing. Subjective reports, reported in a 2008 study by Ruth Lanius, director, and colleagues from the PTSD research unit at the University of Western Ontario, indicate that mental activity occurring during periods of rest is characterized by self-referential thought. Psychiatric research has actually been able to show what parts of our brain are active when doing some of the self-reflection I think is needed for us to be our best. In the absence of heavy processing demands, in other words, at rest, see Figure 1 showing a so-called “default network” which, for the brain geeks among you, includes the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)/precuneus and lateral parietal cortices.

Figure 2 – A brain with altered capacity. Bluhm et al. J of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 2009

The study that I am referring to here also looked at participants who had experienced some developmental trauma and who were diagnosed with PTSD. People struggling with PTSD often respond to reminders of their trauma with dissociative symptoms, which may include altered self-perception of their bodies or their present perceptual and emotional experiences. The neuroimaging in this study provided evidence of altered function in the aforementioned brain regions implicated in the default network. (See Figure 2) This study may indicate the abnormal functional connectivity within many of the default network regions in sufferers of PTSD. Without activity in the frontal lobe, how can they have self-reflection? How can they be the best that they can be? It is no wonder that many succumb to despair and suicide.

As you well know, in construction, scaffolding is very important in order to get to those out-of-reach places. No matter how much thought and effort we put into something, answers are sometimes out of our reach. As a therapist, I know that counselling/talk-therapy can bring ‘perception’ to our ‘neuroception’ – that part of us that detects danger and life threats without involving the thinking parts of our brain. When we can make meaning of what has happened, we can better learn to self-regulate and communicate our needs. Sometimes, getting to that perceptual clarity can be a long journey. I believe that Brainwave Optimization is a neurotechnology that brings stimulation and modulation to those out-of-reach places in our brain so we can find those answers more easily and faster. Neurotechnology does not magically replace the work needed for the attainment of our goals; it simply provides the neuronetwork ‘scaffolding’ for the work to be possible.

What do I mean? Well, one of the researchers who has inspired me, over these past years as I work as a neuro-technologist, is Stephen Porges. He has helped us understand brain function through the study of the vagus nerve. Very simply, his polyvagal theory speaks to the differences in our brain when we are at rest and enjoying the world as compared to when we are in fight, flight or freeze. When the vagus nerve is working well, it is transmitting information to and from the brain, generating a parasympathetic reflective response which dampens the sympathetic fight-flight response, giving us the capacity to reflect and attend to connecting with self and others. When stress comes our way, adrenalin and cortisol can help us power through those situations that are causing tension in us, narrowing our focus in order to attend to what is causing unease, so that we can get back to relaxation. When we experience overwhelm, however, our body might not get back to that restful, reflective state and it might stay stuck in reactive mode. From that state, the body will do what it has to do to help us survive. Constant, chronic arousal will eventually lead to collapse, to feeling alone and having no energy to do the tasks of daily living – just feeling numb and stuck in freeze mode.

This stuckness was well described in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press in May 2019. A local psychologist, Luke Keilback who has dealt with clients struggling with PTSD, is quoted as saying: “People come into our office scared of their emotions, scared of failing. When that happens we become paralyzed to act. The world becomes scarier and scarier, and our world becomes smaller and smaller.”

As you follow this through, I hope that you can better appreciate what has brought the brain in Figure 2 to a narrowing of brain function, for survival’s sake. The broader the neuronal communicating network, the more function we have. So, how do we broaden those networks if our brain is stuck in fight/flight or freeze? Kharrazian reminds his readers that our brain has the amazing capacity of neuroplasticity. When neurons are stimulated, branches or dendrites grow outward toward the surrounding neurons, just like roots of plants in search of water increasing their capacity for survival. Stimulation for Karyn Freedman, a born-and-raised Winnipegger who struggled for years after a rapist shattered her life, came with lacing up hockey skates. She claims that her one-hour sessions on the ice would prove to be the best therapy imaginable for her diagnosed PTSD. “It’s an hour where ‘players’ are not focused on anything else in their life, because you have to focus on the game. It’s a fast sport.” In other words, they are, ‘on the fly,’ building new neuro-connections, bridging front and back activity in the brain, ‘scaffolding’ what is needed for self-reflection and meaningful connection with others.

I believe that Brainwave Optimization is an amazing complementary way to stimulate neurons differently from any physical (e.g., hockey) or conscious effort. By using sensors to capture the activity of neurons and reflecting that activity back to the brain through sound in real time, neurons are, in a very relaxing way, being stimulated by their own activity and invited to branch out, to “scaffold” in readiness for new pathways, enhancing networking capacity and brain function. Of course, in the same way that I need to water those little baby plants so their root system strengthens; I need to provide the right nutrients (glucose) to those neurons. I need to make sure they get oxygen with at least a little bit of exercise. Nothing that a little tender loving care cannot provide once scaffolding has allowed broader connections in the brain.

Figure 2 gives us a sense of how much PTSD can alter brain function. I end by bringing up the fact that if a person is not experiencing calmness, connectedness, compassion, confidence, curiosity, courage, clarity, and creativity (those 8 Cs of self-leadership that I learned from Richard Schwartz, founder of the IFS)… then their brain is not functioning at its best. Chronic stress and trauma get the better of us sometimes. Anything we do can provide stimulation to our brain. As says Kharrazian: “Just as we can develop plasticity to learn new skills, so can we develop it to ingrain a bad habit or negative condition.” What kind of stimulation will help us be the best that we can be? The kind that keeps us awake at night? The kind that makes us ‘good company’? Changes come with time and with lots of practice. How much time do you have? Would you appreciate some scaffolding so you can get “there” sooner than later? Try Brainwave Optimization today to stimulate those neurons and enhance your capacity to adapt to the stress that comes your way.

Resources:

  • Bluhm, Robyn L., PhD; Williamson, Peter C. MD; Osuch, Elizabeth A., MD; Frewen, Paul A., PhD; Stevens, Todd K., PhD; Boksman, Kristine, PhD; Neufeld, Richard W.J., PhD; Théberge, Jean, PhD; Lanius, Ruth A., MD, PhD; “Alterations in default network connectivity in posttraumatic stress disorder related to early-life trauma” (Journal Psychiatry & Neuroscience; 2009; 34(3):187-94)
  • Freedman, Karyn; Whatever Gets you Through (Greystone Books, 2019)
  • Kharrazian, Datis; Why isn’t my brain working? – A revolutionary understanding of brain decline and effective strategies to recover your brain’s health (Elephant Press, 2013)
  • McIntyre, Mike; “Ice for the Pain” (Winnipeg, Free Press, May 11, 2019)
  • Porges, Stephen; The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions Attachment Communication Self-regulation (W.W. Norton & Co., 2011)
  • Schwartz, R.; Internal Family Systems Therapy (Guilford Publications, 1997)