Brain training promoted as a mental elixir
There is a term for people who are the first ones on their block to try the latest electronic gadget, be it a DVD player, a BlackBerry, or an iPhone. They’re called early adopters.
But a new crop of early adopters have taken this concept into a completely different area of life. Across North America, thousands of people have gotten wired up with electrodes in order to get their brains scanned—voluntarily—in an effort to train them.
Some, including singer Wynonna Judd, have relied on brain training to deal with addictions. Others claim it helped address sleep and eating disorders. Prison inmates have used this technique to overcome depression and enhance their well-being. War veterans get wired up to cope with posttraumatic stress disorder.
It’s called Brain State Conditioning, and it could be coming to a pharmacy near you.
Brody Rokstad, a UBC student, has undergone nine treatments at Finlandia Health Technologies, which is a Vancouver licensee of Brain State Conditioning. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Rokstad said he learned about this approach from Jeannette Barrett, a self-regulation therapist who has helped him deal with anxiety, depression, digestive problems, and loneliness.
Rokstad traces his problems to trauma he suffered in the womb when his mother learned of a death in the family. He believes that this caused his parasympathetic nervous system—which is in the brain stem and lower spinal cord—to seize up as a survival mechanism. This, Rokstad suggested, caused lifelong difficulties that can’t be addressed through counselling.
“Language and logic are immaterial to this section of the brain,” he said.
Rokstad claimed that his brain training has helped balance his brain and alleviate many of his earlier problems. “This has been nothing short of an absolutely transformative experience,” he said.
During brain training, a person is hooked up to an electroencephalograph, which tracks waves in various parts of the brain. A computer program converts these waves into audible sounds, which are fed back to the person as they go through various stages of thought and relaxation. According to the Finlandia Brain State Conditioning brochure, “Ultimately, personalized exercises are developed to optimize the brain, increasing balance and harmony.”
The theory is that the brain readjusts itself when it becomes aware of how established neural patterns—previously necessary for survival—limit a person’s effectiveness.
The creator of Brain State Conditioning, Lee Gerdes, says our brains can heal.
Lee Gerdes, CEO of the Arizona-based Brain State Technologies, recently published a book entitled Limitless You: The Infinite Possibilities of a Balanced Brain (Namaste Publishing, $27.95), in which he describes how this technology can train the brain by bringing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems into harmony.
The sympathetic system relies on adrenaline and noradrenaline, increasing the heart rate and blood pressure and triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol and blood flow to muscles. The parasympathetic system functions in the opposite way.
In the book, Gerdes, a self-described computer geek, likens brain training to a woman looking in the mirror to apply lipstick or a man using a mirror to avoid cutting himself while shaving. “Brain training functions as a mirror that enables us to balance our brain,” Gerdes writes.
He believes that many of society’s most serious problems—including various addictions, posttraumatic stress disorder, and even pedophilia—are often rooted in the brain being out of balance. Undesirable behaviour driven by unconscious motivations can be the brain’s way of self-correcting for this imbalance, he claims.
Gerdes maintains that with the right tools, the brain can heal itself. “It’s not brain surgery in terms of its invasiveness, and it’s not brain surgery in terms of its complexity,” he quipped in a phone interview with the Straight from Scottsdale, Arizona.
Juliette Sinclair, a Finlandia technician who delivers Brain State Conditioning in a quiet office on Vancouver’s West Side, told the Straight in an interview that she was skeptical when she first heard about the technology. But she maintained that after undergoing several sessions herself, she has experienced significant changes.
The mother of four young children, Sinclair said she never felt she’d had enough sleep. She said that brain training appears to have given her more energy and eliminated those feelings. As well, she is a nervous passenger in vehicles, and used to feel tense any time she rode the bus over the Ironworkers Bridge. She now addresses this by meditating.
“Now, I’m not bothered by it at all,” Sinclair commented. “I don’t have that sinking feeling.”
Gerdes writes that he developed the technology using himself as a guinea pig after suffering a vicious beating in San Francisco by teenagers, including one wielding a baseball bat. He claims to have suffered the effects of this trauma for a decade before deciding to use his computer expertise and his knowledge of cognitive psychology to address the symptoms using brain-training techniques.
He discovered that it worked. Gerdes, who studied psychology while obtaining a master’s degree in divinity, also took the technology into the Nevada prison system. He tried it out on six inmates with the permission of the warden and the state’s director of corrections.
According to a report on his company’s Web site, almost all of the inmates were gang members with a high probability of engaging in disruptive behaviour. After the sessions, five demonstrated significant progress in achieving their stated goals. These included managing anger, increasing attention and focus, boosting happiness and well-being, overcoming depression, increasing motivation, and improving social interactions. One inmate remained the same in terms of anger management and sense of calm, but improved in three other areas.
“These men were all chosen by the correctional division and they were all what you would call ”˜bad boys’,” Gerdes said. “None of the six have had any acts of violence in a year and a half.”
He readily admitted that his techniques have not been subjected to independent peer review. He said he hasn’t done this because he doesn’t want to give away proprietary information, which could be snapped up by competitors. “I’ve been in the software biz for quite a while, and I know how fast it’s stolen,” Gerdes said.
Brain State Conditioning is based on the concept of neuroplasticity, which suggests that the brain continues to evolve throughout a person’s lifetime. In his 2008 self-published book Your Healthy Brain: A Personal & Family Guide to Staying Healthy & Living Longer, Bowen Island geriatric psychiatrist Stephen Kiraly defines neuroplasticity as the ability of brain cells to sprout and branch. This allows the cells to make new connections, establish new functions, and take over the functions of cells that are no longer active. “When you exercise a muscle it gets bigger and stronger—brain regions respond the same way to increased stimulation,” Kiraly writes.
Gerdes said he disagrees with the “allopathic view” that brain chemistry dictates brain function. He claimed that by changing the brain’s functioning, it’s possible to change the brain’s chemistry. “We do know that harmonizing the brain brings it to an optimum pattern, but I don’t have any concept about what that will mean in specific pathologies,” Gerdes said. “I only know that the person—when they’re optimized—will have more well-being in all aspects of their lives.”
He suggested that brain training could counteract pedophilia. He claimed that with an EEG, he can show that pedophiles have brain patterns unlike those of the rest of the people who’ve used his technology. “It was only when I started looking at brain patterns years later that I realized a person doesn’t become a pedophile because they lack values, but because they have a brain imbalance,” Gerdes writes in his book. “When I saw with my own eyes the tormented state of the pedophile’s brain, and realized this state had likely been inflicted upon them in their own childhood, I was brought to my knees in terms of shame for the way I had condemned such individuals.”
He emphasized that protecting children is “absolutely essential”, but also insisted that pedophiles can be cured. “A pedophile commits an act of pedophilia because their imbalance drives them to try to balance their brain by ”˜stepping on the gas,’ which takes the form of seeking control,” he writes. “This is a condition that brain training can address.”
Gerdes’s work is likely to attract a fair amount of controversy in the coming years, not only for what he says about pedophilia, but also for his comments about schizophrenia. According to Gerdes, one of the inmates in the Nevada prison system who underwent Brain State Conditioning had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and showed remarkable improvement following the sessions.
Gerdes emphasized that there needs to be a lot more research before anyone would suggest that brain training can heal people of schizophrenia, which is a devastating disease. He added that medications people take for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can be “huge hindrances to the effectiveness of the training”.
Finlandia’s owner, Harlan Lahti, told the Straight in a phone interview that he decided to offer Brain State Conditioning in Vancouver to give an alternative to people who don’t want to rely on mind-altering medications. It costs $2,000 for a basic program of 10 two-hour sessions.
“I think I can safely say too many drugs affect your brain in a negative fashion,” Lahti said. “I don’t think there is anybody who would say that’s an incorrect statement.”
But until Gerdes’s technology undergoes peer review, the public will have to trust its creator’s word—as well as testimonials from Wynonna Judd and others—that brain training is an effective alternative to medication.