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Football Player Enhances Performance with Neurofeedback
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
September 27, 2015
Photo Credit: Getty Images


Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has revitalized his career through not only hard work and a change in outlook but also through the use of neurofeeback training. Cousins first utilized neurofeedback  during his senior year at Michigan state and again this February as he revamped his approach to his craft. Cousins new approach and experience with neurofeedback was recently discussed in an article in the Washington Post: 


From the moment the Washington Redskins drafted him three rounds behindRobert Griffin III in 2012, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins was reduced to a fallback plan. He was the football equivalent of a college applicant’s “safety school” or the friend who fills in as a prom date after true love fails.  


Handed the chance to prove he could be more, Cousins stumbled last season, undercutting his 10 touchdowns passes with nine grievously timed interceptions while filling in for the injured Griffin. Even Cousins’s body language conceded defeat as he trudged off the field in Week 7, head bowed, following that ninth errant throw. He was replaced by Colt McCoy and relegated to scout-team duty the rest of the year.


Less than 11 months later, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden stepped to a microphone at Redskins Park and uttered the improbable.


“It’s Kirk’s team,” Gruden said, announcing Aug. 31 that Cousins would be the team’s starting quarterback in 2015.


Cousins hadn’t played a down in a regular season game since his benching last fall. But after a solid showing in training camp, followed by a productive preseason performance, he convinced Gruden that he represents the best hope of turning around a team with back-to-back losing seasons.


But is Cousins simply the Redskins’ best available fallback plan? Or has Cousins, at 27, learned to leverage his strengths and minimize his shortcomings after a three-year NFL apprenticeship of waiting, watching and too often short-circuiting in the limited opportunities he has had?


At first glance, little has changed about the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Cousins entering Year 4, apart from a beard that hints at a new steeliness.


Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins practiced at Estero High School near Fort Myers this winter with members of the school's varsity football team. 


The overhaul of consequence, Gruden believes, is Cousins’s mental game.


His offseason work included copious film study and tutoring from a private throwing coach, as is common among NFL quarterbacks. But it included unlikely assists from a few dozen high school receivers who ran pass patterns and caught balls during Cousins’s winter vacations in Georgia and Florida and a Michigan-based company called Neurocore that Cousins said “retrained” his brain to operate in a “sweet spot” best suited to peak athletic performance.


“It’s kind of an abstract thing, but I call it brain performance,” Cousins said of his training with Neurocore Brain Performance Center, which he intensified after getting benched last fall. “I see it as the next frontier because you look at weightlifting in the 1950s and ’60s, not every football player was lifting weights; they weren’t sure about the benefit it would give you. Now everybody has a strength coach; everybody lifts weights. And I see brain training kind of being that next thing. I just want to maximize what I’ve got.”


The son of a minister and a man of deep faith, Cousins conceded that dark times followed his benching in October. The NFL career he had labored for seemed at hand after he took over for Griffin and led five touchdown drives in a 41-10 rout of Jacksonville in Week 2.


The next week, he threw for 427 yards at Philadelphia. The Redskins lost, and Cousins’s play deteriorated from there. After a 45-14 loss to the New York Giants in which he threw four second-half interceptions, Giants defenders said Cousins was telegraphing his throws.


“Anytime you have a job to do and you feel like you didn’t get the job done, it’s going to eat at you if you care about it,” Cousins said this week when asked about his mind-set after his Oct. 19 benching. “For me, I deeply care about it, and so it was eating at me.”


The turning point came, Cousins said, when he quit berating himself.


“What do I do now?” he asked himself. “What can I do to get better and deliberately practice, whatever that is.”


Once Griffin was back in the starting job and McCoy named the No. 2 quarterback, Cousins was ruled inactive. With no need to prepare for the upcoming opponent, he devoted his film-study to poring over footage of the NFL’s better quarterbacks and taking a hard look at his own footage.


When February came, Cousins and his wife, Julie, traveled to Florida’s Gulf Coast for vacation. But he wanted to keep working on his game, so he phoned a local high school near Fort Myers. He introduced himself, explained that he had his cleats and a couple footballs with him and asked whether the football coach could round up some receivers to throw to and let them use the Estero High field for a workout.


Cousins’s throwing coach, former NFL quarterback Jeff Christensen, flew in from Chicago to supervise. And for three days, Cousins threw to teenagers.


“He was dead on every time,” Estero Coach Jeff Hanlon recalled in a phone interview. “There was never a bad throw. Sometimes there was something he wasn’t happy with — maybe the height on the ball — and he wanted to adjust it. . . .


“And with every throw, he said something encouraging to the kids. Even if it was a dropped pass, he’d say, ‘Hey, great route!’ Whatever it was, he found something positive in every single rep that gave that motivation and encouragement to the kids.”


While in Florida, Cousins, joined by Redskins running back Alfred Morris, also worked with Gruden’s brother, Super Bowl champion coach turned ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who mentors young quarterbacks in the offseason.


And while in Atlanta visiting his wife’s family, he also tracked down high school receivers to throw to.


Also in February, he ramped up his training with Neurocore, which he had begun his senior season at Michigan State.


Neurocore was founded roughly 10 years ago to help children with attention-deficit disorders through “neurofeedback” rather than medication and expanded to applications for people with sleep and anxiety disorders as well as elite athletes. Its brain-training system starts with electroencephalograms to measure the electrical activity in the brain. If the data suggests the brain is running faster or slower than is ideal, conditioning exercises are developed to help train the brain to run at what Tim Royer, the company’s founder, describes as “a sweet spot.”


According to Royer, Cousins’s data revealed that his brain was running faster than it should, relying on adrenaline much of the time. Readings of his cardiovascular system and respiratory system suggested a similar, over-stimulated condition that Royer likened to “somebody running from a lion.”


“When you try to play sports at an elite level and the body and brain are doing that, it makes it difficult over time,” Royer said in a telephone interview.


So he devised a training system to help Cousins regulate that speed and outfitted the quarterback with home-based gear to practice the exercises on his own.


In one such exercise, Cousins attaches the EEG leads to his scalp and connects it to a computer that displays the speed of his brain, heart and breathing as if it’s the dashboard of a car. Then comes the “reward system” that affirms when he has relaxed or conditioned his brain to operate in the sweet spot.


As Royer explains it, Cousins puts a movie in the computer, and a program driven by the electrical activity in the brain will play the movie only when the reading confirms that his brain is running in the optimum range.


In the early going, Royer said, Cousins might have been able to watch “Iron Man” for 20 seconds of a one-minute exercise. With practice, that period of time — time in which the brain is operated at an optimal speed — increased to 30 seconds, then 40.


On Sunday against Miami, Cousins will find himself staring at Iron Men of a different sort — lined up across from a Dolphins defensive line that Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts believes is the best in the NFL.


“It’s a great opportunity for Cousins and an unbelievable challenge with that Dolphins front four,” said Fouts, who will provide commentary for the CBS broadcast. “He has to start fast and have success right away.”


Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams will protect Cousins’s blind side. But rookie Brandon Scherff and second-year player Morgan Moses must fend off the heart of Miami’s pass rush, sack-specialists Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake.


Cousins has the quickest release of the Redskins’ trio of quarterbacks, which should help. He also understands protections, Dolphins Coach Joe Philbin noted, able to bark out last-second adjustments. And he knows there’s no need for high-risk heroics after he makes a mistake, whether interception, fumble or sack.


Noting the gifted receiving and running back corps around him, Cousins said this week: “It’s my job to get them the football, then let them go do the jaw-dropping stuff.”


If boos rain down from a restive fan base, Cousins has heard them before. If he falls short of his own expectation, he has been there.


This year, if the offseason lessons stick, Cousins will take a deep breath. He will acknowledge to himself that, yes, it is a huge game, but he won’t let the magnitude paralyze him or send him into panic mode.


He will breathe deeply, settle his mind and call the next play.


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fMRI and EEG Study of Decision-Making Processes in Brain
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
September 19, 2015
Photo Credit: Getty Images


Researchers at the Institute for Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow investigated the processes in the brain related to learning to avoid making mistakes and learning to make god decisions. The study simultaneously utilized EEG and fMRI allowing researchers to study decision-making in the brain with both the high temporal precision offered by EEG and the ability to detect precisely where these process are taking place in the brain offered by fMRI. The study was discussed in Neuroscience News: 


Imagine picking wild berries in a forest when suddenly a swarm of bees flies out from behind a bush. In a split second, your motor system has already reacted to flee the swarm. This automatic response – acting before thinking – constitutes a powerful survival mechanism to avoid imminent danger.


In turn, a separate, more deliberate process of learning to avoid similar situations in the future will also occur, rendering future berry-picking attempts unappealing. This more deliberate, “thinking” process will assist in re-evaluating an outcome and adjusting how rewarding similar choices will be in the future.


“To date the biological validity and neural underpinnings of these separate value systems remain unclear,” said Dr Marios Philiastides, who led the work published in the journalNature Communications.


In order to understand the neuronal basis of these systems, Dr. Philiastides’ team devised a novel state-of-the-art brain imaging procedure.


Specifically, they hooked up volunteers to an EEG machine (to measure brain electrical activity) while they were concurrently being scanned in an MRI machine.


An EEG machine records brain activity with high temporal precision (“when” things are happening in the brain) while functional MRI provides information on the location of this activity (“where” things are happening in the brain). To date, “when” and “where” questions have largely been studied separately, using each technique in isolation.


Dr. Philiastides’ lab is among the pioneering groups that have successfully combined the two techniques to simultaneously provide answers to both questions.


The ability to use EEG, which detects tiny electrical signals on the scalp, in an MRI machine, which generates large electromagnetic interference, hinges largely on the team’s ability to remove the ‘noise’ produced by the scanner.


During these measurements participants were shown a series of pairs of symbols and asked to choose the one they believed was more profitable (the one which earned them more points).


They performed this task through trial and error by using the outcome of each choice as a learning signal to guide later decisions. Picking the correct symbol rewarded them with points and increased the sum of money paid to them for taking part in the study while the other symbol did not.


To make the learning process more challenging and to keep participants engaged with the task, there was a probability that on 30% of occasions even the correct symbol would incur a penalty.


The results showed two separate (in time and space) but interacting value systems associated with reward-guided learning in the human brain.


The data suggests that an early system responds preferentially to negative outcomes only in order to initiate a fast automatic alertness response. Only after this initial response, a slower system takes over to either promote avoidance or approach learning, following negative and positive outcomes, respectively.


Critically, when negative outcomes occur, the early system down-regulates the late system so that the brain can learn to avoid repeating the same mistake and to readjust how rewarding similar choices would “feel” in the future.


The presence of these separate value systems suggests that different neurotransmitter pathways might modulate each system and facilitate their interaction, said Elsa Fouragnan, the first author of the paper.


Dr Philiastides added: “Our research opens up new avenues for the investigation of the neural system underlying normal as well as maladaptive decision making in humans. Crucially, their findings have the potential to offer an improved understanding of how everyday responses to rewarding or stressful events can affect our capacity to make optimal decisions. In addition, the work can facilitate the study of how mental disorders associated with impairments in engaging with aversive outcomes (such as chronic stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic disorder and depression), affect learning and strategic planning.


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Neuropsychoanalysis: An Emerging Field
By Jason von Stietz
September 12, 2015
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There is a new burgeoning field that combines two, often considered fundamentally different fields, neuroscience and psychoanalysis: neuropsychoanalysis. Although collaboration between these schools of thought seem surprising to many, it appeared obvious to Mark Solms, the pioneer of neuropsychoanalysis. This interesting new field was discussed in a recent article in The Atlantic: 


I am in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, surrounded by psychoanalysts. At moments, if I half close my eyes, I can imagine I’m in some European city, circa 1930: “The Kleinians have this very disturbing, I think, notion of countertransference as being something the patient does to you. They’re moving too far away from Freud’s understanding…” But in fact it’s 2010, and the conversation is new.


The experience of sitting on the edge of the huddle of analysts is, I imagine, like reading Dickens in the original serial: ongoing storylines, full of vivid characters, perpetually left in suspense. One analyst describes her work with Theo, a 30-year-old left in a wheelchair with global brain damage after a car accident, whose mother brought him to analysis with severe mental impairments and memory problems. Another discusses the progress he has made with Harry, left aphasic after a stroke, still able to comprehend but unable to express language.


Mark Solms, the neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst who founded this group in 2001, and continues to oversee its progress, is hardly the first to turn to brain damage seeking insight. Many of neuroscience’s greatest and most legendary discoveries have tumbled forth from damaged brains—from Phineas Gage, the 19th-century railroad worker whose frontal-lobe injury illuminated the brain mechanisms of self-control, to the patient known as H.M., whose radical surgery provided scientists with the ultimate test case for how the brain organizes memory.


But instead of waiting for these case studies to turn up, Solms decided to seek them out himself, and to see what might come from applying to their injuries an unorthodox means of investigation. Solms has spent his career bringing Freudian theory into the room where only biological fact had previously existed. He is a leading figure in a new interdisciplinary undertaking—along with a growing number of analysts, scientists, and others—named neuropsychoanalysis.


In the popular imagination, the term “psychoanalysis” conjures up silent doctors in dimly lit rooms, witnesses to the unfurling of dream images and childhood memories. And couches, lots of couches. This is the stereotype, the myth, but the field wielded an enormous authority throughout the 20th century, and continues to influence our most basic assumptions about human nature, like the power of the unconscious mind, the profound importance of early childhood experience, and the fact that memory is fundamentally dynamic.


Psychoanalysis has since taken on the aspect of the underdog. Many—maybe most—are unwilling to call the study of inner reality, psychic conflicts, dynamic forces and repressed material a science. And until recently, there has been relatively little empirical proof that psychoanalysis even works. Up against the quick and easy fixes of prescription medication or short-term, practically oriented cognitive-behavioral therapy—and under the skeptical eye of insurance companies—psychoanalysis faces an uncertain future.


Today, neuroscience is the golden child, commanding newspaper headlines, substantial government grants, and an ever-increasing portion of the public imagination. With its armament of modern tools and acronyms, it offers a seemingly endless list of options for looking at the brain. Neuroscientific findings are morphing into cultural truths: We are “hardwired,” a collection of parts, of “circuits” and “networks” that “light up” when “activated.” The brain has become our modern metaphor; it is where we look to find out what’s really going on. Already, neuroscientific research has penetrated the field of economics, the courts, and beyond. It is decidedly less common to hear psychoanalytic concepts invoked in these same circles.


With their starkly different goals, methods, and cultures, psychoanalysis and neuroscience can appear to be two different species, mutually alienated, as if preoccupied with two altogether different pursuits. But to some, like Solms, they are merely two views of the same object. Psychoanalysis looks at the brain from the inside out: What does it feel like to be this thing? Neuroscience looks at the brain from the outside in, measuring its behavior, investigating its physical mechanisms.


Solms supervises the progress of his group of New York psychoanalysts on monthly trips from South Africa. Tall, solid, and thick-wristed, Solms is in his late forties, but looks older. His gray hair, poking up in all directions, is completely unattended to, like a member of the family with whom he is no longer on speaking terms. In New York, he listens to developments in the group’s roster of psychoanalytic cases. In Cape Town, he is a professor of neuropsychology, making rounds in the University of Cape Town’s teaching hospital, and chairing the university’s neuropsychology department. He leads a kind of double life—one that began in the early days of his career, when he worked with brain-damaged patients by day at the Royal London Hospital, training at the Institute of Psychoanalysis by night.


Solms first trained in neuropsychology—a branch of neurology that draws links between people’s external behaviors and the specific regions of the brain involved in producing them—thinking that of all the subsets of neuroscience, neuropsychology was, as he puts it, “where you’re most likely to find out about the person himself.” But he was disappointed. Neuropsychology seemed to avoid everything that had to do with questions of personality, emotion, motivation—in other words, the things we mean when we speak of “human nature.” Instead, the operating gaze was trained onto the strictly quantifiable: How many digits could the patient hold in his working memory? Neuropsychology, Solms discovered, asked black-and-white questions that could be answered on standardized tests.


“Oliver Sacks has this saying: Neuropsychology is admirable, but it excludes the psyche,” Solms says.


Solms first heard of Freud as an undergraduate, when he stumbled across a seminar in the comparative literature department. He showed up a few weeks after the start of the semester, just as the class was assigned Freud’s lesser-knownProject for a Scientific Psychology, a summary of his attempts grapple with neurology in the years before he turned his full attention to the psychological. After completing his training as a neuropsychologist, Solms began to school himself in Freud’s ideas in earnest, and when he moved to London in his late twenties, began to train as a psychoanalyst. For the past decade, in his off hours, he has been working on the revision of James Strachey’s original English translation of the complete Standard Edition of Freud, all twenty four volumes. He often wonders what he’s gotten himself into.


It took Solms some time to understand that his inclination to combine two branches of psychology would be seen by many as controversial or problematic; that the two disciplines, psychoanalysis and neuroscience, are mostly indifferent to each other, and even, at times, opposed. But for Solms, they were intuitively compatible.


“I say it was obvious to me—why wasn’t it obvious to everyone?” Solms told me. “Like everything else, it was personal. My brother was brain-injured. When he was 6, he fell off the roof and suffered a closed head injury. I saw that my brother is not who he was. His personality is different and our whole family is different. All of that because this organ is not functioning as it was before.”


Solms and his work have a magnetic pull. People uproot their lives and come to South Africa to enter into his orbit. When I visited Solms in Cape Town, there were two such examples on hand: a Swiss expert on neuropeptides and a psychoanalyst from Vienna, both of whom had both moved to Cape Town specifically to work with Solms. The latter was preparing to begin a study that Solms had designed: psychoanalyzing a population of patients with Urbach-Wiethe disease, an extremely rare genetic disorder in which a person’s amygdala gradually calcifies until it is almost completely defunct. Solms was particularly interested in what effect this might have on the content of their dreams.


“Biology is truly a land of unlimited possibilities. We may expect it to give us the most surprising information, and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years to the questions we have put to it.”


So reflected Freud in 1920. Having spent 20 years toiling away in labs, peering down microscopes, he arrived at the conclusion that the questions he wanted to answer about the human mind couldn’t be answered by what was then understood—or understandable—about the human brain. The knowledge wasn’t there, and neither were the tools. He continued to emphasize, however, that eventually, long after his own lifetime, the moment would come when brain science would be ready to fill out the psychoanalytic principles that he was busy laying down. Solms and his followers believe that moment is here.


It can be difficult to see how someone like Solms fit into the neuroscientific landscape. To say “Freud” to scientists engaged in the pursuit of empirical truths is to risk making yourself instantly suspect and quickly irrelevant. Yet however unlikely the idea, however unimaginable the design, neuropsychoanalysis may offer something valuable: a sketch of inner life where creativity isn’t simply explained as patterns of electrical waves, sadness as the number you circle between one and nine, and love confused with the mating habits of prairie voles.


As Solms told me: “There can’t be a mind for neuroscience and a mind for psychoanalysis. There’s only one human mind.”


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The Neural Activity of Happy Older Couples
By Jason von Stietz
September 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Getty Images


Does being in a long-term and committed relationship change our neural activity? Researchers at the Rotman Research Institute Toronto and University of Toronto studied the brain scans of 14 older adult women while they viewed of either their husbands or strangers. One interesting finding was that women who reported higher relationship satisfaction showed greater activation in brain regions containing mirror neurons. The study was discussed in a recent article in Slate: 


Have you ever waited with excitement to share some amazingly good news with your partner, only to experience a surge of frustration and resentment when he or she barely reacts to your announcement? As a society, we place a huge amount of emphasis on being there for each other when we’re in need, but past research has actually shown that relationship satisfaction is influenced as much, if not more, by how we react to each other’s good news. Whereas emotional support from a partner when we’re down can have the unfortunate side-effect of making us feel indebted and more aware of our negative emotions, a partner’s positive reaction to our good news can magnify the benefits of that good fortune and make us feel closer to them.


Now an unusual brain-imaging study, published recently in Human Brain Mapping, has added to this picture, showing that the relationship satisfaction of longtime married elderly women is particularly related to the neural activity they show in response to their husbands’ displays of positive emotion, rather than negative emotion.


Psychologist Raluca Petrican at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and her colleagues at the University of Toronto recruited 14 women with an average age of 72 who’d been married for an average of 40 years. The researchers scanned these women’s brains as they watched some carefully prepared videos.


The silent ten-second videos showed each woman’s husband or a stranger displaying an emotion that mismatched the way the video clip was labeled in a one-sentence description on the screen. For example, the clip might show the husband smiling or laughing about a happy memory (such as the first house they bought), but the video was labeled misleadingly to suggest that the man was showing this emotion while talking about a sad memory (such as the time he got fired). Other videos showed the reverse mismatch: a negative emotional display, ostensibly shown while talking about the memory of a happy event.


Essentially, the videos were designed to make the women feel like they were seeing their husband or the stranger display a surprising emotional reaction that didn’t match their own feelings. The real-world equivalent would be a situation in which a husband is happy about something that his wife doesn’t “get”; and the questions are whether she will notice, and whether she is she more sensitive to this incongruent emotion in her husband than she would be in a stranger.


The first important finding to emerge from this setup was that the women showed enhanced overall brain activity—which suggests more mental and emotional neural processing —when watching the videos of their husbands compared with videos of the strangers, but only when the videos showed displays of surprisingly incongruent positive emotion. During the other types of videos (when the men appeared to display strangely negative emotion), the women’s brains showed just as much overall activity when watching a stranger as when watching their husband. In other words, their levels of whole-brain activity betrayed a special sensitivity to their husband’s (versus a stranger’s) unexpected positive emotion.    

This jibes with the past research that’s shown it’s our response to our partners’ positive news that is all-important for relationship satisfaction. Remember that these women had been married for decades, so it’s likely that they and their husbands have been doing something right relationship-wise. The brain-imaging data suggest part of the reason might be that the women are acutely tuned to when their husbands are showing happiness that’s personal to them (rather than common to both partners).


This specific interpretation trips up a little with another main result: The women’s levels of marital satisfaction (according to a questionnaire) correlated with the amount of neural processing they showed in response to their husbands’ positive and negative emotion.


However, the special importance of how we respond to our partners’ positive emotion was supported by another key finding. Namely, women who scored higher on relationship satisfaction showed more brain activation in regions thought to contain mirror neurons (neurons that are considered important for empathy) when watching their spouses than they did when watching a stranger. Moreover, this enhanced mirror-neuron activity was especially present for the videos showing their husbands’ positive, rather than negative, emotion. Again, this appears to support the idea that marital happiness goes hand in hand with sensitivity to our partners’ positive emotion (though the researchers acknowledge a different or complementary interpretation that people in happy relationships have a suppressed response to their partners’ incongruent negative emotion).


We need to interpret these preliminary and complex findings with caution. And the exclusive focus on wives’ reactions to their husbands’ emotions does lend the study a slightly retro ’70s vibe—what about the way that husbands respond to their wives’ emotions, and the importance of that for the marital happiness of both parties? But that said, the results are tantalizing in suggesting that at a neural level, people in a long-term, committed relationship are especially sensitive to their partners’ positive emotion, and particularly so when this emotion is different from their own. This neatly complements other past research showing, for example, that people who are unable to differentiate their partners’ emotions from their own (they assume they’re the same), tend to be viewed by their partners as more controlling and smothering.


As a whole, this entire body of research gives pause for thought. How do you react when your partner arrives home on an emotional high? Would you only notice if you were feeling happy too?


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