Report on the Winter Brain Conference

by Siegfried Othmer | February 10th, 2005

future_health.jpgThis was the thirteenth Winter Brain Conference, the first in some time without its own special T-shirt. The crowd was somewhat smaller this year than in the past couple of years. This tends to happen when the location stays the same for too many years, although the Hilton was certainly a good host, and the local weather gods were favorably disposed as well. The exhibit area was noisy and boisterous again. The conference was significantly “privatized” this year, with more training seminars booked before and after the Conference. This took away some of the energy from the conference itself, but it was nevertheless another opportunity to mix it up with the other people who are thankfully pushing the boundaries of this field. In that regard, this conference remains unique for its accepting and inclusive ambience.

The Winter Brain Conference continues with its traditional quirks: A Foundations Course that goes from 8 AM until 10 PM; plenary sessions that start before 8 in the morning; a schedule that drags out for five days; and a prohibitive admission fee that must discourage the casual attendee. The value of the conference is surely equivalent to that of a training course, but people may not know that when they have to commit their funds and time; many others don’t start out with that level of commitment to the field. The conference again paired the Winter Brain Conference with StoryCon, so both sides of the brain were being engaged. There was unfortunately no communal acknowledgement of the death of Marjorie Toomim. So Hershel had to handle this himself. And the after-dinner speaker this time was a comedian who tried to engage us with irrelevancies. What a come-down after we had been spoiled the last couple of years with Swami Beyondananda, and after the national tragedy of our recent election.

Tom Collura led a panel discussion on the first day on the projection or speculation for the next 100 years. My own contribution to that panel was to beg off on any such projection of technology developments—technologists themselves are notoriously bad at such things—but rather to project what might happen as our current knowledge diffuses into the society at large. These things happen much more slowly than the underlying technology developments, and are therefore much easier to project. The thrust of Tom’s presentation and mine were curiously similar. Both of us even referred back to the early history of our field with Hans Berger. My most “way-out” prediction was that science would begin to confront the phenomenon of mental telepathy (which had originally energized Hans Berger to pursue his search for the EEG—a fact that he concealed until near the end of his life).

This phenomenon is clearly real, yet it cannot fit into any of our current scientific constructions. This could be as earth-shaking for the sciences as the Michelson-Morley experiment was for cosmology. It is this very quality that keeps scientists from taking this on. One cannot readily subject this phenomenon to experimentation. It is nearly always observed in a state of nature. Science may abhor anecdote, yet that is where science often starts. As it happens, Tom Collura has in fact conducted a relevant experiment in times past. The EEG of a psychic was measured as he was making “guesses” about the identity of a card in a stack of cards. The EEG was found to be distinctly different on those occasions when his guesses were correct.

Analysis of the EEG pattern found it to be explainable in terms of brief bursts of gamma (nominally 40 Hz) that repeat at a rate of seven times per second. Looked at in the frequency domain, one sees signal bunching up at 7 Hz and its harmonics (14 Hz, 21Hz, 28 Hz, etc.) with the amplitudes of the harmonics peaking around 42 Hz. One must also look in the time domain to see the full pattern unfold. (The write-up of this work may be found on the Bulletin Board.)

future_health2.jpgThis observation connects in a variety of ways to our current preoccupations. First of all, it may be recalled that Rodolfo Llinas has proposed that a disturbance of the temporal coordination of gamma and theta may be a primary cause of psychopathologies. That is to say, good brain function depends on our getting this coordination right. It has also been proposed that the Digit Span task of the WISC is accomplished by embedding each element of the chain in successive cycles of 7-Hz activity. Thus, coherent functioning of theta and gamma rhythms could be the mechanism of working memory.

We also know that Val Brown has tailored his training toward special treatment of 7 Hz and its harmonics. He avoids inhibiting 7 Hz, by and large, and tends to reward the higher harmonics of 7 Hz; particularly 14 Hz, 21 Hz, and 42 Hz. As we can see from the Collura work, as well as from all the event-related potential work, it is not just a matter of the individual frequencies but rather of their temporal coordination. It also does not make sense to me to anoint any frequency as intrinsically good. Sometimes 7 Hz needs to be inhibited as much as anything else.

This topic leads directly to what was the technical highlight of the meeting, namely Jay Gunkelman’s treatment of the binding problem. He observes that shifts toward activation of the ambient “dc” electrical potential occurs prior to the initiation of planned movement, whereas the rise in synchrony of gamma ensembles seems to take more than one cycle to achieve after the relevant stimulus. Perhaps it is the shift in dc potential that serves to organize ensembles over a large spatial scale on the millisecond timescale. And perhaps the relative sloth by which synchrony rises to observable levels indicates that gamma is not even the binding frequency. Well, that is certainly grasping the nettle.

As it happens, I am still struggling to get my own thoughts in order on this topic, but I have at least thought about this enough to be skeptical of Jay’s model. These matters will not be easily settled. One dilemma is that dc potential shifts can be both effect and cause. If we suppose that these quasi-dc shifts arise strictly in consequence of neuronal firings, once having occurred they also in turn influence the firing probability! Another difficulty is that the dc shifts cannot be the whole explanation for ensemble synchrony at millisecond timescales. Temporal coordination is the business of neuronal networks, and thus we must understand the phenomenon from within, not from without. It is the network itself that begets synchrony.

Networks can fall into synchronous patterns randomly, like the fireflies in Thailand, or they can do so in a managed way. If they do so randomly, then the process goes to the limit, and we have seizures. Jay is wrestling with the problem of global synchrony of ensembles in the presence of transport delays. DC shifts indeed could help to solve that problem. But only a fraction of pyramidal cells are ever involved in the synchronous activity that we measure at any one frequency. Another selection criterion must be involved, and that one must be frequency-based. It must be the bearer of the timing signature. The problem of transport delays is dealt with by positing a centrally located “beacon” that communicates to all cortical regions and serves to synchronize and resynchronize the networks. That, of course, is the role of our beloved thalamus.

The first evening there was supposed to be a panel on the shadow side of neurofeedback: “Is there a Guantanamo side to the neurotherapies?” The panel was to be led by John Fisher, who did not make it to the conference. With the throng gathered at the door facing the notice of cancellation of the panel, it was collectively decided to proceed anyway. We started modestly with discussions of what it means to give “informed consent” to neurofeedback at a time when people have not a clue about how fundamentally their reality may be altered by the experience. We talked about the denial of negative effects that is still extant within our field, and the ethical implications of that denial.

And I recalled for discussion an article in the Economist that raised the ethical issues around emerging neuro-technologies a year or more ago. If people are alarmed about the implications of gene modification in plants and animals, they should really be concerned about what is coming down the pike with regard to neurotechnologies, said the Economist. They mentioned things like improving IQ, etc., which we are already doing—and proud of it. “The altered human is already here,” said Science Magazine in the same vein. Perhaps there needs to be an ongoing “devil’s advocate” role within our community to raise ethical issues that in our collective zeal have been sidelined. It has rarely worked out in the past to have professionals judge the ethics of their own activities: bloodletting; electro-convulsive shock therapy; frontal lobotomies; insulin shock therapy; the Tuskegee experiment; flooding; compulsory pharmacotherapy— the list of outrages goes on and on, probably nowhere more numerous than in the field of mental health.

But the harder questions in the neurotherapy arena concern its use to elicit information—hence the Guantanamo in the title—and in the development and use of mind control procedures. What are the ethical bounds on the “involuntary” eliciting of information through mind alteration techniques? And what about the flip-side? If such mind alteration procedures are available, why are torture methods even being thought about at all—even in the “ticking-bomb” scenarios that Alan Derschowitz alludes to in an effort to domesticate torture and make it palatable to the squeamish among us?

What are the ethics around the training by our government of cold-blooded operatives, their emotional detachment secured by relentless rehearsals of the mission? What about the ability to split personalities and to direct their actions? One personality commits the deed, and the other personalities are oblivious to the experience; a formula for the perfect state crime. The Manchurian candidate lives. And finally, the ultimate abuse of the power of mind technologies: trauma-based mind control. The fact that this abuse gives offense to anyone of ethical sensitivities is not in doubt. The more serious concern is that this phenomenon has been with us now for some time, and it is not being addressed by the society at large. Hence nothing is being done to prevent the generational propagation of these horrid techniques.

The known fact that very low-level stimulation is capable of altering brain function makes it possible to conceive of modulated electromagnetic beams that can render localized populations temporarily dysfunctional. The phased arrays to be built in Alaska were ostensibly intended to communicate with our submarines at extremely low frequencies, but they could equally well be used to direct energy to a Fallouja when battle draws nigh and temporarily incapacitate the locals. On the other side of the ethical equation, if non-violent means of gaining control are available, would that not be preferable to the destruction of the city that did occur? In the emergence of the brain technologies, the ethical boundaries remain indistinct.

Lewis Mehl-Madrona spoke on “The social construction of Bipolar Disorder.” He is an American Indian shaman whose family had conspired to have him walk in the ways of the White Man, even though he was the descendant of medicine men. He started down the path of medical school, but ended up returning to his roots and acquainting himself with native methods of healing. He spoke in detail of three classic cases of Bipolar Disorder that had remained refractory to conventional medical and psychotherapeutic management. They recovered with a combination of meditation discipline, yoga, and lifestyle changes on a reservation, a kind of mental institution au naturel. He then listed another seventeen such cases that could not be discussed in the same detail but told the same story.

One wonders just how much mental health is being purchased with our $200 Billion annual expenditure on prescription medications, and how much is being gained by our being in thrall to the medical model of mental disorders. We are certainly better off than we would be without the medications, but are we better off as a society in mental health terms than folks were one hundred years ago, when all we had was aspirin? One could argue that the medications have allowed us to push the envelope more, much like soldiers in WWI taking cocaine to help them tolerate the long marches.

In any event, the work of Mehl-Madrona and his staff simply expands the scope of the argument that there are many pathways to improved self-regulation. There is an element here of brain-training (yoga), of calming and of going to our interior spaces (meditation), and of embedding in a healing community. The result was an enlargement of the person’s zone of stability along with a pace of living that did not provoke or exacerbate instability. In essentially all cases, clients were able to become medication-free as well as crisis-free.

Lou Cozolino was an invited speaker as well at the conference. We have recommended his book (The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy) for our training course ever since it became available. I attended only one of his talks, but found one of his narratives particularly helpful to our worldview. Cozolino was working with a victim of PTSD who was frequently undergoing flashbacks. These would occur in very precise sequence every time, and take a predictable amount of time to unfold. Cozolino was aware of imaging work that had demonstrated high levels of activation in the right hemisphere during such events, along with hypo-activation of Broca’s area. I would have been inclined to interpret such hypoactivation as simply reflecting the fact that the person is at such moments totally taken up by the experience, and is not doing anything that would involve Broca’s area. Cozolino decided to engage the person verbally in order to move him out of his flashback experience. This was not helpful in the event, it turns out, and had no lasting benefit for the incidence of flashbacks.

But later the person reported that subsequent flashback experiences now included the words that Cozolino had spoken to him. What better evidence could one want regarding the nature of this experience? The traumatic event heightens our memory acuity, and such acuity extends to everything that is perceived at that moment–including one’s physiology. Victims become blotter paper for experience at such times, and that includes in particular their own internal milieu. The flashback experience so totally replicates the original events that even the heightened acuity of memory is brought forward into the present.

So we may readily grant the claim of the false memory enthusiasts that memory is indeed malleable, but we do so without giving up on the essential integrity of memory. What is missing from the traumatic memory is a time signature. Whatever co-occurs with the flashback may end up being incorporated in the flashback and hence become part of the memory of the original event. This vulnerability can be abused, as it has been in the experiments by the Elizabeth Loftuses of this world; it can also lead to unfortunate escalations of ostensible memory into the realm of the bizarre on the part of overly zealous therapists. On the other hand, nothing of this kind would be possible but for the facilitation by an original traumatic event! The original trauma establishes the template for both the heightened memory acuity and for its availability subsequently in therapy. In fact, we take advantage of this in alpha-theta training, which can be modeled in its application to trauma as a technique of memory modification, one in which the event memory is gradually severed from physiological memory.

Les Fehmi presented on his method of rewarding synchrony in his five-channel measurement by means of a discrete reward at the alpha frequency. Every cycle of the summed signal that exceeds threshold leads to a discrete reward that is timed so as to arrive in visual cortex just when the next cycle of the alpha wave appears. This is the equivalent of pushing on the swing every time its comes your way. The phase of the feedback signal has to be carefully adjusted, and this differs with each person. The phase of the reward signal is optimized to yield the response that feels most comfortable to the trainee.

The approach clearly works, and yet it stands in considerable contrast to our own approach, which attempts to put the feedback somewhat in the background of awareness by making it gentle and unobtrusive. Qualitatively we obtain the same experiences, but with synchrony training there is more explicit guidance of the process. It would be trivial to move toward the sum of P3 and P4 signals instead of using Pz with the available equipments that support our preferred kind of alpha-theta training, NeuroCybernetics and BrainMaster. Two-channel synchrony already captures the majority of the advantage gained with five-channel synchrony. Les Fehmi also offers a preamplifier that conditions the signal for subsequent processing with a single-channel system. Finally, Les has developed a complete analog system that offers neurofeedback in the old-fashioned way. There has been many a time that I have had second thoughts about the path we took to developing the new instrument entirely with software. There is probably still a niche for the analog system, and Les is exploiting it. I look forward to hearing more.

Barbara Fisher and Janice Thurber presented on Reactive Attachment Disorder. What stuck with me was their juxtaposition of trust and control or power. The lack of trust in the safety and reliability of relationships that characterizes the RAD child translates to a need to control events and relationships absolutely.

Karl Pribram spoke on the last day about the Dragons of Eden that were supposed to reside in the nether parts of our triune brain, having been tamed by the moderating influence of our primate neocortex. Alas, the story does not fit. It is not alligators that conspire to wipe out the alligators in the neighboring bayou. The better story is that cortical function crucially determines whether we are Islamists duty-bound to slay the infidels, or Irish Catholics duty-bound to take up arms against Protestants and vice versa. The better story is that birds show us the highest development of the reptilian brain (if indeed such a hierarchy makes sense at all), and they don’t fit the mold of a particularly aggressive tendency. Here we have species without an elaborate neocortex, yet their niches in life resemble our own more than is the case for most of our mammalian relatives. There is aggression, sure, but also familial devotion, collective child-rearing (acorn woodpeckers), and even life-long monogamy.

But even now the story is incomplete. Positing our species’ propensity toward violence in the neocortex is only a modest improvement on the earlier theory that blames our primitive ancestral brain. We do battle, or inhibit doing so, with our whole brains. None of the decisions on the pathway to war are localizable to any particular part of the brain. Dysfunction may be causally localizable. Function is not. Circuits that promote aggression must be matched in any species with the architecture to inhibit that aggression–a story that goes back to Konrad Lorenz. Our enormous present capacity for love and affection found its evolutionary origins in that original inhibitory circuitry. What started out as a threat gesture, the baring of teeth, became transmogrified into the positive gesture of a smile. And we smile with our whole brains. When we do not, it is usually detectable.

In closing, I want to cover briefly what is happening on the instrumentation front. Val Brown exhibited his system with the G-Force display in which a commercially available program is used to merge engaging graphics with information derived from music and from the EEG. Sue Dermit Brown has migrated even more toward the use of an inhibit-dominated strategy, with the result that the experience of the training is completely gentle and comforting. It is truly velvet glove treatment, with no forced march into self-regulation. I welcome the trend toward more dynamic and EEG-responsive displays, even though I have no idea about what the contingencies are even though I experienced the training myself. The G-force graphics seem to be non-recurring, so one is led from one engaging display to another. The brain does not ask much in this regard. A little novelty goes a long way.

Thought Tech is close to offering the features we would like to see included in the Infiniti suite. They are already offering frequency-shifting and adaptive thresholding. A two-channel display is needed, since we are all headed in that direction. And we would like to see the incorporation of our Alpha-Theta module. I had not appreciated the fact that the Procomp Plus is available with the new Infiniti software for $1,750, which is in the same ballpark as the BrainMaster.

J&J has made the first overture in the direction of a two-channel display with a rectangular graphic that also shows some history in a kind of comet tail effect as the rectangle grows and diminishes. They are also implementing a more sophisticated auto-thresholding scheme, one that moves rapidly when it is far from the end-point, and much more slowly once the final endpoint is approached. They have abandoned the two-channel C2-mini amplifier in favor of a four-channel unit with higher specifications. That has pluses and minuses for us. The two-channel unit was fully adequate for our purposes, and the new one is more expensive. The new unit also interfaces with the BioExplorer software.

The Mind Media folks were there from the Netherlands. They exhibited a variety of remote-capable EEG, EMG, and GSR units, along with sets of active electrodes that contain preamplifiers at the head end, before one ever gets to wiggly wires that can introduce movement artifacts into the EEG signal. We will be evaluating the active electrodes at our office. Simply reducing the effects of gross movement on the EEG measurement should be welcomed by anyone working with autistic or ADHD kids. Along with the impedance meter featured at the EEG Support booth, we have here two straight-forward methods of improving our clinical effectiveness.

Len Ochs did not have a booth, but during the pain panel he talked about his new photonic stimulator, a device using infrared LEDs for application to pain management and wound healing. He is currently going into manufacture on the devices, but Sue and I both availed ourselves at the conference of Len’s services with the prototype photonic stimulator that Len had brought with him.

BrainMaster showed off their new wide-band software, as well as the enhanced interface to BioExplorer. Significantly, BrainMaster is back in business with the tactile interface, and they offer the least expensive option for doing EEG-based photic stimulation. BrainMaster and BioExplorer have both implemented the Lissajous display for work in the phase domain with two-channel training.

Hershel has expanded his offerings with a new derived measure for his HEG training. The most attractive way to go in that regard, if one does not already have Thought Technology instrumentation or BrainMaster, is to use the Pendant offered by Bruce McMillan together with the BioExplorer software. Bruce has a Pendant for Hershel’s nIR HEG, one for Jeff Carmen’s pIR HEG, and one for two-channel EEG, all at very favorable pricing, considering that he is not yet in mass production.

I was pleased to see the return of the undulating bed that we had at one or two of the Clinical Interchange Conference some years back in Santa Ynez. The exhibit was next to Chuck’s booth with the personal ROSHI, so a ride on the undulating bed with a CD and headphones, and with visual stimulation from the personal ROSHI, was not to be missed. People might think of this unit for an alpha-theta chair, or simply as a prelude to alpha-theta. I failed to ask about pricing.

Finally, there was a lot of excitement at the EEG Support booth because of the new hardware offerings, the QIKtest and the impedance meter. It appears that the QIKtest found a receptive audience. With regard to the impedance meter, people still have to be convinced that they need one at this price. Fact of the matter is that there is considerably more electronics in our impedance meter than in an entire BrainMaster or Procomp amplifier.

There was also the obligatory seminar in the Jacuzzi late at night, the hike into the local Indian canyons, and forays into the downtown watering spots. All in all, it was another energizing experience that will carry us through another year. Finally, I want to remind folks that the affordable way to do this conference is to purchase admission a year in advance, that is to say now. Prices are at less than fifty percent of the admission price at the door next year. It is unlikely that after 13 years Rob will alter his pricing policies for the conference. So this remains the best way to go.

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