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Journalist Undergoes QEEG And Discusses Experience
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
June 30, 2017
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What is the layperson’s perception of quantitative EEG (qEEG) or brain mapping? Does it seem exciting or scary? Does the average person view the qEEG results has a means of self-discovery or as invalidating to their sense of self? Recently, a journalist underwent a brain mapping and discussed her results with QEEG experts Cynthia Cerson, Ph.D. and Jay Gunkelman, QEEG-D. Her experiences were discussed in a recent article in The Atlantic: 


The woman who would be mapping my brain, Cynthia Kerson, had tanned, toned arms and long silvery hair worn loose. Her home office featured an elegant calligraphy sign reading “BREATHE,” and also a mug that said “I HAVE THE PATIENCE OF A SAINT—SAINT CUNTY MCFUCKOFF.”


Kerson is a neurotherapist, which means she practices a form of alternative therapy that involves stimulating brain waves until they reach a specific frequency. Neurotherapy has a questionable reputation, which its practitioners sometimes try to counter by putting as many acronyms next to their names as possible. Kerson comes with a Ph.D., QEEGD, BCN, and BCB. She’s also past president of the Biofeedback Society of California and teaches at Saybrook University. Even so, somehow it was the tension between those two pieces of office ephemera that made me instinctively want to trust her.


Kerson used to have a clinic in Marin County, where she primarily saw children with ADHD, using neurotherapy techniques to help them learn to focus. But she also worked with elite athletes who wanted to improve their performance, as well as people suffering from chronic pain and anxiety and schizophrenia and a host of other disorders. These days, she’s so busy teaching and consulting that she no longer runs her individual practice, but she agreed to bring out her brain-mapping equipment for me: snug-fitting cloth caps in various sizes; a tube of Electrogel, a conductive goo; a black box made by BrainMaster Technologies that would receive my brain’s signals and spit them out into her computer.


I’m the kind of person who procrastinates with personality tests; I’m susceptible to the way they target that place where self-loathing and narcissism overlap. I suppose it stems from the feeling that there is something uniquely and specially wrong with me, and wanting to know all about it.


So I’ll admit that I was thinking of this brain map in overly fanciful terms: It would be like a personality test but scientific. I kept thinking about this line I’d read in a book by Paul Swingle, a Canadian psychoneurophysiologist who uses brain maps to identify neurological abnormalities: “The brain tells us everything.”


Kerson placed the cap on my head and clipped two sensors on to my earlobes, areas of no electrical activity, to act as baselines. As she began Electrogelling the 19 spots on my head that aligned with the cap’s electrodes, I was nervous in two different directions: one, that my brain would be revealed as suboptimal, underfunctioning, deficient. The other, that it would be fine, average, unremarkable.


* * *


EEG tests, which measure electrical signals in the brain, have been used for decades by physicians to look for anomalies in brain-wave patterns that might indicate stroke or traumatic brain injury. The kind of brain map I was getting used a neuroimaging technique formally known as quantitative electroencephalogram, or qEEG. It follows the same general principle as EEG tests, but adds a quantitative element: Kerson would compare my brain waves against a database of conventionally functioning, or “neurotypical,” brains. Theoretically, this allows clinicians to pick up on more subtle deviations—brain-wave forms that are associated with cognitive inflexibility, say, or impulsivity.


In neurotherapy, qEEGs are generally a precursor to treatments like neurofeedback or deep brain stimulation, which are used to alter brain waves, or to train people to change their own. Neurotherapy claims it can tackle persistent depression or PTSD or anger issues without resorting to talk therapy or pharmaceutical interventions, by addressing the very neural oscillations that underlie these problems. If you see your brain function in real time, the idea goes, you can trace mental-health issues to their physiological roots—and make direct interventions.


But critics argue that neurotherapy’s treatments—which might take dozens of sessions, each costing hundreds of dollars—have very little research backing them up. And although the mainstream medical community is starting to pay closer attention to the field, particularly in Europe, in the U.S. neurotherapy is still largely unregulated, with practitioners of varying levels of expertise offering treatments in outpatient clinics. At the most basic level, not everyone who’s invested in the technology that allows them to do qEEG testing is able to correctly interpret the resulting brain map. Certification to administer a qEEG test—a process overseen by the International qEEG Certification Board—requires only 24 hours of training, five supervised evaluations, and an exam, with no prior medical experience.


As Jay Gunkelman, an EEG expert and past president of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research, puts it: “It’s a Wild West, buyer-beware situation out there.”


All this is to say that while skilled interpreters can pick up all sorts of information from an EEG, these tests are also “ripe for overstatement,” according to Michelle Harris-Love, a neuroscientist at Georgetown’s Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery. That’s worrisome since, in recent years, EEG technology has gotten cheaper and more widely available. A qEEG brain map can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, which means more people are taking a peek at their brain waves, not just for diagnostic purposes, but also with optimization in mind.


“People will come in for optimal training,” Kerson told me as she adjusted the sensors in my cap. “But what often happens is we’ll find something a little pathological. Which I guess depends on your definition of pathological.”


NeuroAgility, an “attention and performance psychology” clinic in Boulder, Colorado, for instance, brainmaps CEOs and then uses neurotherapy to help them “come from a place of action, rather than reaction.” Other clinics promise to use the technology to help athletes and actors get in the zone, as Kerson did in her private practice. “There are business executives who want to reduce their obsessive-compulsive traits, or athletes who want to tune up their engines,” Gunkelman told me. “At Daytona, they’re all fabulous cars, but every single one of them gets a tune up three times a day. No matter who you are, if you look at brain activity, there are things we can do to get you to function better.”


* * *


For the first five minutes my brain was being mapped, I sat with my eyes closed. My mind felt unquiet; I was thinking about what it felt like to have a brain, trying to describe to myself the feeling of having thoughts. “Your eyes are moving around a lot underneath your lids,” Kerson said. She suggested I put my fingertips on my eyelids to keep my eyes from shifting. I sat like the see-no-evil monkey for the rest of the test, trying to remain thoughtless and keep my jumpy eyes still.


When the first half of the test was done, I spied my brain waves on Kerson’s computer screen: 19 thin, wobbly gray lines stretching across a white background. My brain activity looked like an Agnes Martin painting. Kerson had me turn the chair around for the second, eyes-open half, in case watching the real-time brain waves made me self-conscious. Her software program chimed out a warning every time I blinked, which turned out to be a lot. “I’m going to turn off the sound so you don’t get frustrated,” Kerson said.


When we were done, she scrolled through the 10 minutes of brain waves. Two of the lines looked alarming—every few seconds they jolted all over the place, like some sort of seismic indication of an internal earthquake. Kerson told me not to worry; the EEG also picks up on muscle movements, and those were my blinks.


“So there’s one thing I see right off the bat,” she said. “We’d expect to see more alpha when you close your eyes. But it actually looks pretty similar whether your eyes are open or closed. That tells me that you might not sleep well, you might have some anxiety, you might be overly sensitive—your brain talks to itself a lot. You can’t quiet yourself.” This was all accurate, if not news to me.


Kerson continued to scan through the test, selecting sections that weren’t compromised by my blinks, trying to gather enough clean data to match against the database. She ran the four good minutes through the program, which spat out an analysis of my brain waves that looked something like a heat map, with areas of relative over- and under-functioning indicated by patches of color. By most measures, my brain appeared a moderate, statistically insignificant green. “You’re neurotypical,” she said, sounding minorly disappointed.


Kerson nonetheless recommended vitamins to beef up my neural connections, since my amplitudes were a little lackluster. “Meditating would be good for you, but you’re going to need something else for meditation to work,” she told me, noting that I should consider some alpha training, which would involve putting on headphones to listen to sounds that would get my brain waves into the right frequency. I should also probably change out my contacts if I was blinking that much.


Kerson began folding up the electrode-studded cap, and I realized with a slight feeling of deflation that that was it. “It was nice to meet you,” she called out as I pulled out of her driveway. “And it was nice to meet your brain!”


* * *


A qEEG may not be anything like a personality test, but it still left me with the same unsatisfied feeling of being parsed and analyzed but still fundamentally unknown. My mind had been mapped, I had seen the shape of my brain waves, but I didn’t have any new or better understanding of my galloping, anxious brain, or what happens on those afternoons where I lose hours to online personality tests. Instead, I was just left with the vague sense that in some deep and essential way, I wasn’t performing as well as I could be.


I decided to seek out a second opinion from Gunkelman, whom several people had described to me as the go-to guy for interpreting EEGs. Gunkelman worked as an EEG tech in a hospital for decades, he told me. “In the early 1990s, I figured out that I had read 500,000 EEGs,” he said. “And then I stopped counting.” When he looked over my results, he grumbled about not having enough data to work with; for a proper brain map, he needed at least 10 minutes each with eyes open and closed, he said. But he nonetheless zipped through the EEG readout with the confidence of someone who’s done this more than half a million times before.


Like Kerson, Gunkelman zeroed in on my alpha. “When you close your eyes, you expect to see alpha in the back of the head, and we’re not really seeing that,” he said. That meant that my visual processing systems weren’t resting when my eyes were closed—the same inability to quiet down that Kerson had noticed. He also saw evidence of light drowsiness: “With an EEG, we can tell exactly how vigilant you are,” he said. He was right; I had been sleepy that day.


Then, perhaps to throw my drowsy, overactive brain a bone, Gunkelman noted some nice things about my alpha, too. “The alpha here is 11 or 12 hertz, a little faster than average,” he said, which generally correlated with better memory of facts and experiences. But if I wanted optimal functioning, he agreed with Kerson that some alpha training would help teach my brain to chill out so I could sleep better and be maximally alert during the day.


There had been something appealing to my anxious, over-alphaed brain about having yet another way to think of myself as an underperforming machine that could be tweaked and tuned up. But in the end, hearing Gunkelman describe my brain waves in such clinical terms had the opposite effect. I felt protective of all the ways my brain was still a mystery to me, and everything the brain map couldn’t show.


I’ve kept one of my brain-map images as my desktop background. I’m not sure why I feel attached to it; I couldn’t pick it out of a lineup of other brains, and I didn’t really learn anything new about myself from the experience—the map is not the territory, as they say. But even so, I still like looking at it: my speedy, drowsy, neurotypical, not-quite-optimal brain.


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Power Results in Less Mirroring and Reading Emotions
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
June 27, 2017
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Are the rich and powerful out of touch? Why do leaders sometimes seem clueless about the needs of those they lead? Recent research found that those in power often stop using social skills, such as mirroring and “reading” people’s emotions, that were necessary for them to attain power. The findings  were discussed in a recent article in the Atlantic:


When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.

What was going through Stumpf’s head? New research suggests that the better question may be: What wasn’t going through it?

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.


Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.


That loss in capacity has been demonstrated in various creative ways. A 2006 study asked participants to draw the letter E on their forehead for others to view—a task that requires seeing yourself from an observer’s vantage point. Those feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E the right way to themselves—and backwards to everyone else (which calls to mind George W. Bush, who memorably held up the American flag backwards at the 2008 Olympics). Other experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling, or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.


The fact that people tend to mimic the expressions and body language of their superiors can aggravate this problem: Subordinates provide few reliable cues to the powerful. But more important, Keltner says, is the fact that the powerful stop mimicking others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”


Mirroring is a subtler kind of mimicry that goes on entirely within our heads, and without our awareness. When we watch someone perform an action, the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response. It might be best understood as vicarious experience. It’s what Obhi and his team were trying to activate when they had their subjects watch a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball.


For nonpowerful participants, mirroring worked fine: The neural pathways they would use to squeeze the ball themselves fired strongly. But the powerful group’s? Less so.


Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. None of the participants possessed permanent power. They were college students who had been “primed” to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge. The anesthetic would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting—say, by dint of having Wall Street analysts whispering their greatness quarter after quarter, board members offering them extra helpings of pay, and Forbes praising them for “doing well while doing good”—they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.


I wondered whether the powerful might simply stop trying to put themselves in others’ shoes, without losing the ability to do so. As it happened, Obhi ran a subsequent study that may help answer that question. This time, subjects were told what mirroring was and asked to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response. “Our results,” he and his co-author, Katherine Naish, wrote, “showed no difference.” Effort didn’t help.


This is a depressing finding. Knowledge is supposed to be power. But what good is knowing that power deprives you of knowledge?


The sunniest possible spin, it seems, is that these changes are only sometimes harmful. Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful efficiency boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us more obtuse. Even that is not necessarily bad for the prospects of the powerful, or the groups they lead. As Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has persuasively argued, power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others. But of course, in a modern organization, the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organizational support. And the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headlines suggests that many leaders cross the line into counterproductive folly.


Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation. John Stumpf saw a Wells Fargo where every customer had eight separate accounts. (As he’d often noted to employees, eight rhymes with great.) “Cross-selling,” he told Congress, “is shorthand for deepening relationships.”


Is there nothing to be done?


No and yes. It’s difficult to stop power’s tendency to affect your brain. What’s easier—from time to time, at least—is to stop feeling powerful.


Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.


Recalling an early experience of powerlessness seems to work for some people—and experiences that were searing enough may provide a sort of permanent protection. An incredible study published in The Journal of Finance last February found that CEOs who as children had lived through a natural disaster that produced significant fatalities were much less risk-seeking than CEOs who hadn’t. (The one problem, says Raghavendra Rau, a co-author of the study and a Cambridge University professor, is that CEOs who had lived through disasters without significant fatalities were more risk-seeking.)


But tornadoes, volcanoes, and tsunamis aren’t the only hubris-restraining forces out there. PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi sometimes tells the story of the day she got the news of her appointment to the company’s board, in 2001. She arrived home percolating in her own sense of importance and vitality, when her mother asked whether, before she delivered her “great news,” she would go out and get some milk. Fuming, Nooyi went out and got it. “Leave that damn crown in the garage” was her mother’s advice when she returned.


The point of the story, really, is that Nooyi tells it. It serves as a useful reminder about ordinary obligation and the need to stay grounded. Nooyi’s mother, in the story, serves as a “toe holder,” a term once used by the political adviser Louis Howe to describe his relationship with the four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Howe never stopped calling Franklin.


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More Evidence Aerobic Exercise Improves Brain Functioning
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
June 12, 2017
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Research suggesting that aerobic exercise improves mood and brain functioning continues to mount. One recent study found that 30 minutes of walking on a treadmill for 10 consecutive days could lead to a clinically significant improvement in mood. This study was among many that were reviewed in a recent article in Science Alert: 


"Aerobic exercise is the key for your head, just as it is for your heart," write the authors of a recent article in the Harvard Medical School blog, Mind and Mood.


While some of the benefits, like a lift in mood, can emerge as soon as a few minutes into a sweaty bike ride, others, like improved memory, might take several weeks to crop up.


That means that the best type of fitness for your mind is any aerobic exercise that you can do regularly and consistently for at least 45 minutes at a time.


Depending on which benefits you're looking for, you might try adding a brisk walk or a jog to your daily routine. A pilot study in people with severe depression found that just 30 minutes of treadmill walking for 10 consecutive days was "sufficient to produce a clinically relevant and statistically significant reduction in depression."


Aerobic workouts can also help people who aren't suffering from clinical depression feel less stressed by helping to reduce levels of the body's natural stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, according to a recent study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.


If you're over 50, a study published last month in the British Journal of Sports Medicinesuggests the best results come from combining aerobic and resistance exercise.


That could include anything from high-intensity interval training, like the 7-minute workout, to dynamic flow yoga, which intersperses strength-building poses like planks and push-ups with heart-pumping dance-like moves.


Another study published on May 3 provides some additional support to that research, finding that in adults aged 60-88, walking for 30 minutes four days a week for 12 weeks appeared to strengthen connectivity in a region of the brain where weakened connections have been linked with memory loss.


Researchers still aren't sure why this type of exercise appears to provide a boost to the brain, but studies suggest it has to do with increased blood flow, which provides our minds with fresh energy and oxygen.


And one recent study in older women who displayed potential symptoms of dementia found that aerobic exercise was linked with an increase in the size of the hippocampus, a brain area involved in learning and memory.


Joe Northey, the lead author of the British study and an exercise scientist at the University of Canberra, says his research suggests that anyone in good health over age 50 should do 45 minutes to an hour of aerobic exercise "on as many days of the week as feasible".


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