BETA BRAIN TECHNOLOGY
(This note supplements the notes on “How it Works”.)
- The recent development in computer technology, plus the dedication of the researchers, has meant that the study of the brain has made significant advances.
- The brain can be slightly changed by various interventions that increase the “efficiency” of certain cell systems.
- But these changes are not permanent they need occasional reinforcement
- For example; the brain of an ADHDer is slightly different from the normal brain. It can be treated by medication and other non-drug interventions.
- These interventions include Behaviour Modification and being given the opportunity to respond to, for example, Neurotherapy training. This works very well for some but can be time-consuming and expensive for others.
- The brain can be assisted to develop new pathways by using so-called Brainwave Training, especially the audio-only type such as Beta Brain Technology. This should be used as an ”and-as-well” intervention.
- Over time, and with perseverance, you can change your brain, slightly. You just have to learn how to do it. Other people can teach you various things but in the end you can only learn yourself.
- Our brains are “sculpted” by our experiences. But such sculpting only occurs when attention is paid to the activity: no attention, no learning.
- Learning to delay pleasure for a worthwhile project (such as a study course) has long lasting benefits. The earlier one learns this behaviour the better. (The Marshmallow Study.)
We are all aware of the fantastic difference that computers have made in all our lives but the difference it has made in the study of the brain is exponential. The imaging equipment used by brain scientists is based almost entirely on the computing capacity to record and then manipulate vast quantities of data and present it in a way that we can see and understand.
Far away from all our computers, in a dense forest some-where, we have the story of perhaps the first recorded squatter. You will recall that Goldilocks came upon the empty house of the Three Bears and tried the chairs around the table set for breakfast, tried the three plates of porridge until she found the one that was not to hot nor not too cold, in other words: “Just Right”. She then found the bed that suited her after trying them all. When the bears returned she fled through the window.
This story, based on an ancient Scottish tale, gives us the core of what is called the “Goldilocks Factor”. This factor seems to apply to most of the observable growth processes in our universe: All the surrounding circumstances have to be “Just Right” for growth to take place. Not too cold, not too hot. Not to dark, not too light. Not 10 mg Methylphenidate, but 5 mg. Considering this factor rather humbles us. It suggests that there are few hard and fast rules in just about anything including ADHD. What triggers an outburst today may not do so tomorrow. It also underlines our remarks about referring your case to a well-qualified and interested paediatrician who will take care to get all the factors “Just Right” and then make sure they monitor progress to keep things on track. We would all like to do the Goldilocks bit and get things Just Right all the time.
But, in the real world, with all its pressures of time and resources, we often “wing it” and hope that all will be well. And very often it is. But in the more important decisions we ought to allow ourselves that extra time and not be too proud to ask for help, and so get it right for THOSE circumstances at THAT time.
BRAIN STATE TERMINOLOGY
Here is a quick summary of the names for the various brain states, (in Greek letters), for those who are not yet familiar with them. The brain is an electro-chemical arrangement. When a set of neurons fire together their combined charge can be measured, on the outside of the scull, by sensitive equipment called an Electroencephalograph (EEG). The brainwaves are measured in Hertz or cycles (ups-and-downs) per second. Also measured is the amplitude of the waves (how high they go up-and-down) in micro volts.
The brain exhibits different frequencies and different amplitudes at different parts at different times depending on the requirements and the blood flow to the various regions. Therefore, to say that the brain is “in the Beta state” is strictly not true; many parts of the brain will be exhibiting the Beta frequencies but many will not have Beta as the dominant frequency. There is also considerable overlap between states.
However, it makes our discussion easier if we use the broad terms to get started.
Name Frequency range in Hertz
High Beta 22.0 - 38.0
Low Beta 12.0 - 20.0
SMR 12.0 - 15.0 (subset of Beta)
Alpha 8.0 - 12.0
Theta 4.0 - 8.0
Delta 0.5 - 4.0
UNDER-AROUSAL & OVER-AROUSAL
We sometimes use these two terms in our everyday language to describe how we feel. We can be over-aroused or overexcited before some event that we have been looking forward to such as a show or a birthday party or a date with someone special. As we grow up we learn to modulate how we express such excitement but children are more open in expressing their feelings. The occasions when we feel under-aroused, or just not interested in what we are being presented with also happens quite often: a plate of food we don’t think we will enjoy, a project we have to do but are not really interested in, listening to an older person going on and on about their life forty years ago.
In brain research these terms are used more specifically and refer to the frequencies and amplitude of the brain in various areas and whether these frequencies are appropriate for the activity required. For example, are the critical parts of the brain in the Alpha state ready to go through the Theta and Delta states prior to going asleep? Or if there is too much High Beta activity in the pre-frontal cortex (worrying about something) we would say that the person is over-aroused at the time, and the current frequencies are not appropriate for falling asleep. If, however, these high Beta frequencies were present when the person has to do some quick thinking, then they would be appropriate.
Alternatively, when we need a low Beta state in our frontal cortex for concentrating on a problem for our homework and the brain is mainly in the Alpha and Theta state we would say the brain is under-aroused for the purpose. Note how the Goldilocks Factor applies. Is the brain state “Just Right” for the required activity?
Therefore, these two terms, “Under and over-arousal”, are not absolute; they are dependent on what state you require the particular part of the brain to be in at a particular time. Most of us manage these changes of brain state quite naturally and most of the time we take it for granted that it works. But there are others, the true ADHDers for example, whose brain, or the critical parts of it, tend be under-aroused most of the time. In other words, their pre-frontal cortex is floating around in the Theta and Alpha states when it should be whizzing away in Beta.
We’ll learn later what interventions are useful to help this problem.
Dr Ian Robertson is Professor of Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin and is one of the world’s leading researchers on brain rehabilitation. His book “Mind Sculpture - your brain’s untapped potential” has been an inspiration to us as to what can be achieved in this field.
Dr Robertson, who likes to refer to our brain as a Trembling Web, uses the term “Sculpting” to cover what scientists are currently learning about the brain and how it can be changed over time. “Sculpting” reminds one of a skilled artist/sculptor, working on a clay model of, say, a human head. It starts with a big unshaped chunk of clay and then smaller new blobs of clay are added and carefully shaped to be what is required: a nose, lips, eyebrows, etc. If too much clay is stuck on then some clay is scraped off. This procedure is repeated again and again until the piece is completed. And as we know, no artist will ever consider a particular piece as finished and perfect. It seems that our brains automatically follow such a procedure. In addition, we can deliberately influence the building of new brain sequences and pathways.” (2)
One of the basic concepts of Brain Sculpting was formulated by a Canadian psychologist Dr Donald Hebb and has since been called “Hebbian Learning”. This states that: “Cells that fire together wire together”. Simply put, this means that the more one uses certain circuits the more well-organized and interconnected they become. This, in turn, makes them more available and more efficient. The converse also applies: “When cells fire apart, wires depart.” We recall the old adage “Use it or loose it”. This is sometimes referred to as pruning and a substantial amount of this occurs when a child is about two years old and later in the teenage years. Some of the circuits that have not been used are “pruned” away.
Humans have always realised that we can learn to do many things and with a bit more practice can learn to do some things very well. For example, we learn to hunt, cook and rear children. We can also learn facts and stories off-by-heart. Thus we have always known that we are altering and adding to our brain in some way or another but we were not conscious of how it worked. We could see our bicep, the muscle in our arm, increasing in size as we “pumped iron” in the gym each day. But our brain we just took for granted because we could not “see” how it changed.
We had to be taught to read, it just did not happen automatically. Dr Robertson says: “That you can read these strange, arbitrary lines on the page is because people have changed your brain. Just as I am moulding the electricity of your brain connections at the moment you read this, so your parents and teachers physically sculpted your brain by what they taught you. Without this mind sculpture you would be illiterate. You were taught to read because it isn't something your brain does naturally. Had you not been taught to read, you would not be you.” (2)
But we did realise, as soon as we were expected to learn things, especially things we did not find were “fun”, that our brain did not always work in the way we wanted it to. Sometimes it just shut down and, like a tired puppy, refused to learn anything more that day. Why did this happen and how could one fix it?
And then, most worrying of all, the scientists told us that brain cells, once they die, are not replaced. Dr Robertson again: “Until very recently, scientists were pessimistic about the possibility of sculpting the brain through experience. This is understandable because of a stark fact which has been known for over half a century: unlike almost all the other cells in the body, brain and spinal cord cells in the main do not replace themselves. Once dead, most brain cells stay dead, although recent research has found new brain cells being produced in adults, in a part of the brain known as the hippocampus. But assuming that cells mostly can't grow, how can our brains be sculpted and our abilities enhanced by experience?
It is often argued that the brain is 'hard-wired', meaning that if the wiring is broken, or indeed if a brain never gets wired in the first place, then change is impossible. It is true that the brain is hard-wired to a great extent, but research over the last ten years has proved dramatically that in fact its wiring can be much less 'hard' than was once thought.” (2)
So now we have it.
Over time, and with perseverance, you can change your brain, slightly. You just have to learn how to do it. Other people can teach you various things but in the end you can only learn yourself. The other person can’t, as it were, “inject” what they want you to learn into your head. (We know of teachers who wish they really could do this!)
We now come to one of the important factors: “Attention”. As Dr Robertson says: “Brain sculpture needs your active attention.” Indeed, research with animals shows this clearly. Brain areas that are passively stimulated aren't sculpted by experience. This is one of many discoveries made by a research team led by Professor Michael Merzenich of San Francisco, the world's leading researcher on brain plasticity.
Brain sculpture generally only happens when attention is paid to that stimulation. What's more, the attention circuits of the brain are based largely in the frontal lobes and it is these that are crucial for the remoulding of the trembling web of connections during the learning of new skills, whether they relate to work, sport or home. Learning a golf swing for the first time, for instance, depends heavily on your frontal lobes. Once you have the swing perfected and automatic, how ever, the frontal lobes will be relatively redundant and will retire to leave other parts of the brain sending the ball sailing beautifully down the fairway.” (2)
For the most part, when Dr Robertson discusses Brain Sculpting he means the form of sculpting that we can assume is occurring on our brain but we can’t actually see it happening. We only observe the results as we become more efficient.
BRAIN WAVE TRAINING
We now come to another fairly recent development, and one that has also had to wait for the advent of electronic and computer technology to make it convenient enough, and affordable enough, for common use. We refer to the general term of what is called Brainwave Entrainment (BWE) or sometimes Brainwave Training (BWT). These are techniques specifically designed to change the frequencies of the brain in such a way as to help the brain to the ideal frequencies needed for a particular function. This refers back to the comments on under and over-arousal and not being in the right brain state for concentration, on the one hand, or sleep on the other. Note that these frequencies influence the brain in a general way and not in specific areas, as does Neurotherapy.
Over the centuries, music in all its wonderful variety has been used to bring about changes in brain frequencies. However, the results are mixed when we wish to use music as a specific therapy. There seem to be too many variations and preferences, and one has to find the appropriate music for that particular person at that particular time and a need or purpose. (Hello, Goldilocks.) Although less pleasant to listen to, a slightly more efficient way to influence the brain is by using BWE.
There are two main types of BWE, one using light and sound and the other just sound waves alone. The “light” type device is usually called a Sound Light Machine and consists of electronic equipment connected to earphones and a special pair of goggles. These goggles include light-emitting diodes of various colours, which flash at certain frequencies onto the closed eyelids. The programs allow one to set the brain condition wanted, and the lights flash accordingly. Set them to flash at 20 Hertz and very soon parts of the brain, stimulated by the optic nerves, will start to vibrate at 20 Hertz.
This is a quick and efficient method and Neurologists have sometimes used it to test various conditions. But, we ask ourselves, how can one study with flashing goggles on? (The live and recorded performances of pop groups are another example of the use of light frequencies. Do the lighting and set designers really know what they are doing?)
The audio-only way is obviously more “study friendly” but it is also more complex. Audio frequencies that can be registered by the human ear do not go low enough to influence the brain directly. However, there is an indirect way where use is made of a technique called Binaural Beats or Modulated Offset Harmonic (MOH) frequencies. This uses an amazing capacity of the human brain to hear two different tones sent to each ear separately. The brain then splits these tones and starts sympathy vibrations in the olivary nucleus at the level of the difference between the two tones. (It’s called the Heterodyne Effect.)
Using computer generated pure tones, delivered ideally through standard CD equipment and stereo earphones the brain is assisted through what is called the “Frequency Following Response” to move towards the chosen brain states. We find that with this technique general brain states for concentration, relaxation and sleep can be effectively encouraged. Note that this is “encouragement” it is not a definite response, like an injected drug. The “conscious mind” of the person can reject the “encouragement” in the same way that the person can refuse to be cheered up by a bouncy piece of music.
Note, also, that there is no feedback as to how the brain is responding. The only feedback you get is whether, in fact, you discover that you are concentrating on the material in front of you, when a few minutes earlier you were all tired and disinterested. Or that you have had a relaxing 30 minutes and the program and when the program wakes you up you feel recharged and refreshed.
Because the computer generated pure tones are so boring to listen to they are usually “quilted” with other sounds such as the sound of the surf or mist and sometimes with appropriate music. This has led to some therapists, such as John Demos, in his book: Getting Started in Neurofeedback to call it “subliminal therapy”. (1)
This however, should not be confused with the so-called “Subliminal Tapes” on which one finds similar sounds of surf etc. but underneath these sounds are words at a “subliminal” level (you can’t hear them no matter how loud you play the tape/CD). The key words (such as “You are not going to smoke any more.”) are designed to change behaviour at a subconscious level. On the tapes and CDs produced by reputable companies for auditory environments, such as Creative Processes (Pty) Ltd, there are no subliminal words. The objective is to change the basic brain state for the person to study or relax in their own way and not prescribe the content of what they will use that brain state for.
BRAIN STATE FLEXIBILITY
One of the ways we can help our children develop into worthy and resourceful adults is to help them learn to change their brain modality to the appropriate state needed at different times of the day. It’s an aspect of Brain Sculpting. We all tend to take our brain’s capacity for granted when it is flexible and changes according to what we need it to do. There are, however, times when we are not in the ideal state. For example, being in a dreamy Alpha brain state when we need to be in a Beta brain state for concentrating on study material in front of us. A similar problem arises when we want to fall asleep and go to the Delta brain state and there are thousands thoughts just buzzing around in our head and keeping us in the Beta brain state.
Humans have probably always realised that you had to be physically fit and skilled to do what you want to do. We also knew that our “heart, mind and body” had to be similarly focused and goal directed. But it is only in recent times, with the advent of brain imaging technology that we have come to realise, in more specific terms, that our brain has different states at different times and also needs to be trained and tuned to be in the appropriate state.
Some people are able to change their brain states “on command”, as it were, while others can do with a little help now and then. But no matter how we describe it, it seems that the better we are able to align our emotions, physical fitness and brain state for what we want to do the more effective we are both in our inner and outer worlds.
Jim Robbins, in his book, The Symphony of the Brain, comments on this: “[Dr] Lubar's focus for the last three decades, in a nutshell, has been the study of how the physiology of the brain “the cells and blood supply and physical characteristics of the brain” affects how people think and feel, essentially how brain creates mind. Intelligence, for example, is governed in part by the density of the neuropile, the collection of cells in the brain, He says. Another key factor in intelligence is how quickly the brain can allocate and reallocate blood supply, which activates parts of the brain needed for a specific task. People who are more intelligent can get blood quickly to the part of the brain where it is needed and, just as important, stop the flow quickly and shuttle blood elsewhere.” (3)
We know that there are many, many ways to assist the brain to move to the appropriate state. For example:
- Linking place and activity such the bed for sleep, the desk for study and the shower for creativity
- Listening appropriate music and linking certain pieces to certain states
- Smelling certain aromas such as fresh bread for family affection, incense for worship, and lavender for dreaming
- Watching how your brain is functioning on a computer screen and “training” it to reach certain states. (Neurofeedback.)
- Creating an “auditory environment” specifically designed to assist the brain to the appropriate state.
LEARNING FROM STATIC MATERIAL
Over the years, a South African company, Creative Processes (Pty) Ltd has developed a range of auditory programs mainly for students struggling to reach the ideal state for concentrating on “Static Study Material”, which could be a textbook or written notes. Such static material is not flashing and moving like a TV screen or computer game. One of the reasons why today’s students struggle to concentrate on “Static Study Material” is that they are part of the “Visual Generation” brought up with TV and computer games, and static material is strange and not “cool”.
Audio study kits include the “Beta Study System”, “AHATA Tactics”, and the “Sound Study System”. These are effectively used by so-called “normal” students and adults. Creative Processes then developed a set specifically for the family where there are one or more people having difficulty learning whether medication is prescribed or not. This is the Settle and Grow set of seven CDs.
These notes have not dwelt on the concepts of “Behaviour Modification” as taught by parents, psychologists and occupational therapists. But this process is extremely important as part of the whole development of the young person and should be included as part of any therapy for ADHDers. For those considered “normal”, the modification of behaviour is just part of the whole process of becoming civilised and being part of a family and a group. We note that behaviour modification is, in fact, Hebbian Learning. You do it over and over until you get it right.
We all know that as you grow up you just cannot do exactly what you feel like doing, you have to delay certain pleasures and you have to conform to certain rules even if you do not feel like it. But, as we have seen, some people have a reduced capacity to develop those neuronal chains in the prefrontal cortex, which makes possible the learning of such behaviours. And these people need special attention.
One such behaviour is reading. This is not a normal process and most young people have to be taught how to do it and be shown where they have made mistakes and how they can correct it. It requires patience and direction. In his book on Brain Sculpting, Dr Robertson shows how learning to read is a perfect example of Hebbian Learning. You do it over and over until the neural chains strengthen and it becomes easier and easier to read. But you have to focus on the process and be guided.
The overall importance of Brain Sculpting in each person’s development is illustrated in this experiment “The Marshmallow Study” reported by Dr Robertson:
“One study of young children shows vividly how important it is to embroider connections in the trembling web to hold back the impulses of the emotional brain. Pre-school children seated at a desk were presented with a choice between having one or two things that they liked, for instance, marshmallows.
Now clearly, any self-respecting child would go for two marshmallows rather than one, but things were not that simple. They were told that the psychologist had to leave the room for a while. While he was gone they could ring a bell that sat on the desk beside the tempting marshmallows. Ringing it would bring the adult back immediately, but would mean they could have only one marshmallow, not two. If, on the other hand, they didn't ring the bell but held out for the full time of 5 minutes (to a four-year-old an interminable 5 minutes), then they could have the two marshmallows.
Some children cracked more or less immediately, rang the bell and wolfed down the single marshmallow. Others sat in varying degrees of mental torment; some covering their eyes while others distracted themselves with songs or rhymes. For those who managed to avoid ringing the bell, holding out for the full 5 minutes, their torture was ended with the reward of an extra marshmallow, to the mouth-watering chagrin of their low-self-control classmates.
These young children were followed up ten years later when they were adolescents. The differences between those who could resist the temptation to go for the single marshmallow sitting in front of them and those who could not were dramatic. The longer children had been able to control themselves and prevent themselves going for the easy gratification of the single marshmallow, the better adjusted they were as adolescents. Those who had poor self-control in the marshmallow experiment were, ten years later, poor at coping with stress, were less self-confident and showed less initiative. These children also showed more social difficulties in getting on with classmates, tending to be bad tempered, and were poor at coping with frustration. Generally, they were rather emotionally vulnerable and immature. What's more, the children who had poor self-control as four-year-olds performed much worse in academic standard assessment tests (SATs) when they were in their teens.
On reflection, perhaps these results are not so surprising. It's hard to get anywhere in life if you can't stave off immediate reward in favour of more distant, future prizes. Education is one big exercise in not taking the marshmallow in front of you, so that you can get two marshmallows some time later. Hardly anyone enjoys studying for exams, but they do so partly because they want to build their skills and knowledge so that they can find personally and financially rewarding jobs later on. Some adolescents (even though they may have the intellectual potential to continue their education) leave school at sixteen because they want money and the freedom that goes with it like the children with the marshmallows, they can't, or won't, postpone immediate pleasure and replace it with short-term pain. Genes and temperament play a part here, but learning is also critical. (2)
This Marshmallow Experiment is surely a wake-up call.
It urges parents not leave the behaviour modification of their children too late.
Inappropriate behaviours become very difficult to modify later on.
1. Demos, John N., Getting Started with Neurofeedback.
W.W. Norton, New York 2004.
(John Demos is Clinical Director of Neurofeedback of Southern Vermont, a complimentary therapies clinic.)
2. Robertson, Ian H. MIND SCULPTURE Your Brain’s Untapped Potential.
Bantam Press, 1999.
(Ian Robertson is Professor of Psychology at Dublin University. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on brain rehabilitation.)
3. Robbins, Jim, A SYMPHONY in the BRAIN. The Evolution of the New Brainwave Biofeedback.
Grove Press, New York 2000
(Jim Robbins is a free-lance journalist who, sceptically, experienced a neurotherapy treatment which helped his chronic fatigue syndrome. He then spent several years meeting all the main developers of Neurotherapy and writing up this history.)