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On Mindfulness

by Siegfried Othmer | February 12th, 2015

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

On MindfulnessFormer governor Pete Wilson of California has been quoted as saying, “I tried introspection once, and I didn’t like it.” He had been a Marine in his earlier life, and it is not entirely surprising that the mentality of a Marine would not settle easily into a meditation routine. I actually have a certain sympathy for his attitude because I seem to face a similar barrier when trying the mindfulness thing. I enjoy the fact that my brain seems to bubble up ideas all the time that I then find entertaining to pursue. Turning that off is really not an option, as seasoned meditators know. All that one can do is choose how one reacts to the appearance of such kindlings of thought. The meditator has practice in just letting the thought go without pursuing it. And here is where the problem lies.

My brain is like the cat that has just espied the squirrel in the yard, and it then becomes obligatory to chase the squirrel up the nearest tree. This never gets tiresome, even though the squirrel is never caught. By the same token, thoughts are there to be pursued. The thought may never have occurred to me before, so it presents an opportunity to be elaborated that may be non-recurring. It seems a shame to waste that. It would be even more destructive of the process of mindfulness to just take a moment to cache the thought in working memory for later retrieval. That also doesn’t work. “What was that ‘bon mot’ I came up with this morning?” I Don’t remember. Short-term memory is short-term, after all.

While I am beating myself up for my inability to master what others see as a skill accessible to all, I manage to console myself with the similarity to other such situations. We already know through our clinical work that it is rather pointless to advise the anxious person to simply calm down. The brain won’t go, and that’s the problem that needs to be solved first. We already know that it is pointless to tell the depressed person to just buck up; to tell the ADHD child just to pay attention better; to tell the head-injured person to just get his life together; or to tell the criminal in the dock that he should feel compassion for his victims.

In each of these cases, the brain will not go there, and the lack of willpower, good intentions or efforting is not the problem. And for each of these cases, we offer a brain training remedy. So what about mindfulness? How do we support that with brain training routines? This is the natural domain of EEG synchrony training, principally in the alpha band but also in the gamma band. When the brain is in a calm, unengaged, but alert and attentive state, the dominant frequency in the EEG organizes into rhythmic bursting activity. This is particularly so when we also unburden the visual system by closing our eyes. When this rhythmic activity occurs in a time-aligned manner over cortex, we refer to it as synchronous. This activity can be reinforced through feedback, further consolidating residence in calm states.

If I am so certain of this, the reader might wonder, why do I still sound like a novice myself when it comes to mindfulness? By this point I have only done enough synchrony training to be persuaded that this may indeed be the efficient path forward for all of those who—like myself—have difficulty getting the meditation/mindfulness thing going. This becomes apparent very quickly, in fact, well before one has traveled any distance down that road. The auditory feedback captures the brain’s interest, and the visual feedback sustains the recommended single-pointed focus of attention. This is a bit like the cat watching the gopher hole. It can do so for a long time without any movement or distraction. The cat is fully engaged with the project without any apparent effort. The existence of feedback puts the brain in charge of the process, and aligns the objectives of the trainee and his brain. The flow of thoughts no longer dominates. As with the other conditions, the remedy lies in handing the problem of state management off to the brain with the aid of feedback.

We also know the value of synchrony training in this pursuit because others such as Les Fehmi already have forty years of experience with it, and that work in turn was based on thousands of years of experience with meditation in India and Tibet and other Asian countries, and in the monastic traditions in Europe. Les Fehmi, a psychologist who is one of the pioneers of neurofeedback, describes the process exclusively in the language of attention. And indeed it is our attentional resources that we increasingly bring under our control when we undertake this training. In the case of Les Fehmi, the objective is a state of Open Focus® rather than of single-pointed (narrow) focus. Attentional capacity is trained either way.

But the benefits range much farther than that. To understand this larger realm we can still think in terms of attention, but now we do so at the level of the brain. Most of what the brain does is attend to its own house-keeping. Everything else is a mere detail by comparison. To do that well, it needs to communicate efficiently within itself. And in order to communicate well, the different functional entities have to be “on the same wavelength,” if you will. The whole choir needs to sing in the same key, to choose a better metaphor. Our most reliable indicator of this status is the uniformity of the dominant frequency over the scalp. If all the brain regions exhibit the same dominant frequency, then we can be assured that they are all talking to each other. This is the thinking that governs David Kaiser’s clinical decision-making. David Kaiser is another neurofeedback pioneer, but he is in the second generation like we are. So this is yet another line of argument that takes us to whole-brain synchrony as a clinical objective.

However, we also know that excessive EEG synchrony is the hallmark of dysfunction. We see excess EEG synchrony in epilepsy and in traumatic brain injury, in brain infections, in stroke, and in the developmental disorders of childhood. So one cannot train toward synchrony arbitrarily and with abandon. Clinical judgment is needed.

Siegfried Othmer, PhD
drothmer.com

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13 Responses to “On Mindfulness”

  1. Tue 10 Mar 2015, 9:34 am

    Wonderful article, Dr. Othmer, and I am glad to be on the newsletter list.

    I have a small mindfulness practice. When I first began, I had the same resistance and anxiety as you describe.. “What if I have some really, really brilliant thought that will be lost forever if I return to my breathing?” And during meditation there were indeed thoughts I would have preferred to pursue and to entertain. Well, that doesn’t seem to be an issue in my meditation any more, and I really don’t know how to explain why or how things changed except that possibly my initial resistance was a necessary and predictable phase I passed through that in the long run doesn’t have a lot of significance one way or the other. Besides, what’s the big deal about switching attentional styles for 20 minutes? You can pursue all the cool thoughts you like the remaining 23 hours and forty minutes in the day! ;o}

    Keep the articles coming.

    Thanks.

    Aloha,

    Rex
    Khon Kaen, Thailand
    rextutor@gmail.com

    http://www.MindBodyThailand.net
    http://REBTinfo.info

    Reply

  2. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Reply

    michael Reply:

    thank you dr. othmer for this nice article.

    the purpose of mindfulness training is to devellop the ability to have a choice whether you follow your thoughts or not. we all have pleasing thoughts, unpleasing thoughts, brilliant thoughts and many negative thoughts. our constant identification with our thoughts can cause all this trouble, especially with our negative thoughts.

    so with the ability to stay in this observer state and watch your sense perception and thoughts in a non clinging state, we devellop freedom. we can choose to whether we react to our thoughts and which thoughts we use.

    that freedom makes our creativity even deeper.

    may i ask how you setup your designs for training synchrony? you sum the alpha? and what locations do you use?

    you say if the whole brain has a simular dominant frequency it is in synchrony. do you use the dominant frequency as training objective?

    thank you very much, i always enjoy very much your newsletters,

    michael gerstenmayer

    Reply

  3. Thanks for your response.
    Our synchrony training involves several layers.
    The first level is feedback on the sum of channels, which yields a soft phase sensitivity.
    The feedback on this signal in continuous.
    But then we add a second level that imposes a tighter phase criterion.
    The feedback on this signal is discrete.
    The whole thing is embedded in our inhibit scheme.
    We’ve had the sum-of-channels training for a while.
    We just activated the second layer for what we now call the synchrony program.

    We are still in an exploratory mode with respect to placements and target frequency.
    What is most firmly established presently is the starting point for exploration.
    That is P3 + P4, the posterior hub of the Default Mode Network.
    We start at the dominant frequency around 10 Hz, but will then also explore 40 Hz.
    Later we may move pre-frontally for both 10 and 40 Hz.

    The promotion of whole-brain synchrony at nominally 10 Hz is based firstly on Les Fehmi’s multi-decadal experience.
    Secondarily, it is based on the findings of David Kaiser, on the basis of his analysis of hundreds of SKIL reports as well as theory. Finally, there is also the empirical evidence that if whole-brain synchrony is targeted explicitly, even severe kinds of mental dysfunctions seem to respond positively.

    Synchrony training is not an unalloyed positive. It is a risk for the class of conditions we call brain instabilities.
    So it is always done in combination with our other methods.

    Siegfried Othmer

    Reply

    michael Reply:

    thank you dr. othmer for your explainations.

    do you also train eyes open?

    michael

    Reply

    Siegfried Othmer Reply:

    It is customary for people to train eyes-open in the case of both synchrony training and infra-low frequency training. The difference is that in the case of synchrony training the visual channel mainly serves the purpose of providing some visual interest. It does reflect inhibit-related information in a very subtle way, but nothing related to the synchrony signal.

    Reply

    michael Reply:

    thank you for your explanations.
    i will try your synchrony training in bioexplorer with summed channels in the alpha range with an audio player that changes volume and the phase object connected to a midi tone for the discrete feedback. multiple inhibits also connected to a midi tone discrete feedback.

    some time ago i developped visual feedback in the peripheral vision. on two computer screens two meters apart are turning objects, their turning speed changes with the threshold. i did summed alpha training and at the same time coherence training with that and found the peripheral vision feedback to be helpful with this kind of training. when you go into peripheral vision you naturally relax and detach easier from discursive thoughts.
    however i am not a clinican and have limited experience with nfb.
    do you have any thoughts or ideas with this peripheral vision feedback?

    that would be very appreciated.
    thank you,
    michael

    Siegfried Othmer Reply:

    With regard to your idea of giving feedback to peripheral vision, it seems to me that this is already being realized in some conventional feedback. For example, in some of our feedback designs there is information imbedded in the lighting of the whole scene. Most of that lies outside of the range of foveal vision.

    michael Reply:

    do you use ambient light of the room as feedback or is the lighting which is changed on the computer screen?
    i guess you would use that feedback as continous feedback with not too much change because that would be annoying because of the flittering?

    in my case simple geometric shapes turn arround, also continious feedback. they come to a stop if brainwaves are in the desired range so the feedback for the alpha training designs is not annoying. the 2 feedback monitors are placed on the ground so your eye gaze is relaxed.

    may i ask your experience with this peripheral feedback? did it support relaxation of your clients?

    thanks,
    michael

    Siegfried Othmer Reply:

    I’m referring to the change in screen brightness. And yes, that means continuous feedback and it means subtle changes in ambient brightness.

    It is impossible for me to tease out the effect of one kind of feedback when it is being delivered in the context of others.

    michael Reply:

    thank you very much dr. othmer for sharing your experience, it has been helpful and inspiring.

    michael

  4. Richard Jacobs, Psy.D. says:

    Very well said. I recently took a course in Tibetan meditation (I am more familiar with Zen), and understood for the first time how “concentration meditation” over time naturally evolves into “awareness meditation”. (This teacher was not a fan of the whole mindfulness movement) Translated into your and Fehmi’s terms, there is a natural developmental progression in brain training from SMR to Alpha, (and in my mind, to Theta) synchrony that with enough neurofeedback, the brain will lead itself to. I’ve found that most of the time, if we watch the action of the brain over each training session and over time, it will show us when it’s ready to move from one state to the next. It happens in a holographic (or fractal) way, that is, there are small movements like this within a session, but larger movements over time. I have not explored training in delta or gamma (yet), and wonder if you have any thoughts/experience with that?

    Reply

  5. Jim Hardt speaks of advanced meditators being able to evoke synchronized delta activity.
    We have little experience in that range. We do, however, find great utility in synchrony training at 40 Hz.
    SMR-training has slipped out of our field of view over the years, by and large.

    I am not surprised that your teacher of Tibetan meditation is not thrilled by the mindfulness movement.
    The popularization of ideas always comes at some cost to the intellectual integrity of the original construct.

    Meanwhile, people like Dan Siegel are rather put off at the notion of intruding neurofeedback technology into the picture. Of course Les Fehmi was there before he was!

    Reply

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