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To All of Our Veterans

by Siegfried Othmer | November 8th, 2013

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

EEG Info NewsletterMost of those who enter the Armed Forces benefit from the training experience, and would agree that life in the military allowed them to improve in their personal competence and skills to a greater degree than if the same amount of time had been spent in civilian life. On the other hand, it is also likely that combat experience exacts a price in a large minority, if not the majority, of service members. This is not easily accepted because it is difficult for any of us to confront our own shortcomings. The burden military discipline imposes is to take full responsibility for one’s own performance. When that is not possible, denial is the likely response. You want to own the problem by any and all means, and go from there.

What happens if the problem lies with the very instrument that harbors your intentions and your will—your brain? What happens when your brain can no longer organize your life in order to implement your life goals? Your first inclination, no doubt, is to question your ‘self.’ But let us pick this problem apart. Your ‘self’ is really quite in order here. Your intentions are the right ones. Your motives are good. It’s the execution and the follow-through that are the problem, and those are matters that must be discussed in terms of your brain.

So let’s go back and ask the question, what in the military experience gave you the leg up that civilian life would be unlikely to match? The answer: it was the rigorous physical training, and the mental training that went along with it. Now let us apply that same wisdom to the brain: If your brain is letting you down, you need to train it. If you left something behind in Iraq or Afghanistan or Kuwait or Vietnam, your brain just needs some rehabilitation. You do not get there through willpower. You actually have to train the brain.

Training the brain is now a viable concept. Over the last few years, thousands of veterans have had a chance to benefit from a brain training program that has been in development mostly over the last six years. This method rests on developments in the brain sciences that go back forty years. It’s taken a long time, but now we have these tools to share with our returning veterans.

Returning veterans can be divided roughly into three groups: The first group is doing just fine, taking its skills into the civilian world and finding ways to deploy them. The third group is the one that is struggling mightily. Members of this group either qualify for the diagnosis of PTSD or traumatic brain injury or come close to qualifying. For these we offer brain training at no cost through our Homecoming for Veterans program to get them back into functional existence.

This message is mainly addressed to the middle group. You are doing ok, but in truth some things are not as good as they were before you went to war. This could show up in any number of ways. Memory may not be as good. Planning and executing take more effort. Sleep is more of a problem. Perhaps there is more irritability, and you have to try harder to keep your emotional reactions under control. Perhaps you are relying on alcohol to calm anxiety. Perhaps you are smoking marijuana. Or you are smoking more cigarettes. Or there may be that bit of tinnitus left over from your blast exposure. Maybe there is even that occasional flashback that you would rather not experience again. Perhaps there is merely the uneasy feeling that you are not on top of things as you once were.

All this and more can be resolved with brain training. If we can handle full-blown PTSD and TBI, we are certainly up to handling this. And so is your brain. The brain is remarkably adaptable, as we are finding. Sometimes it just has to be shown the path back to good function. That is essentially what we do. Our role is merely to show the brain its own electrical activity (albeit very selectively), and the brain takes advantage of that information to walk back up the path from dysfunctional patterns to functional ones. It is indeed that simple in principle.

Not only is brain training possible, it is also easy. It is not arduous like physical fitness training. The brain in this sense works almost oppositely from the way the body responds to physical challenges. It works better when it is not working hard. The trauma of war is an ongoing issue in your brain, tying up your resources like an occupying army. Trauma busies up your brain unproductively, and in turn keeps you from being as productive as you could be. It is necessary to lead your brain back toward calm and alert states. But this process doesn’t really involve you very much, meaning that you don’t actually have to do the work. The process really does involve just your brain, and while that process is going on, we may even distract you by showing you movies—just so that you don’t interfere with the process. Your brain gets trained in background, and you can only get in the way. Sorry about that.

It does take a clinician to walk you through the process, because decisions have to be made with regard to the conditions that maximize your brain’s effectiveness in recovering function. This does not make it a medical procedure, though. It remains just a training process. The only ‘thing’ that is involved here is information back to your brain about what it is doing at that moment. Nothing else. But once you experience the results, you may find it hard to believe that the clinician didn’t actually ‘do something.’

As an example, trainees going through the process may report the lifting of brain fog. In many cases, they were not at all aware of the brain fog until it lifted. They had to experience the contrast. That illustrates a major issue. We tend to come to accept our own limitations and just decide to live within them. That would indeed be a commendable attitude if there were nothing else that could be done. But if a little brain training can help, then the entire calculation changes.

The next question that arises is with regard to risk. If the technique can make things better, can it also make them worse? That cannot be ruled out as a matter of principle, but that is also why we insist that the training be guided by a clinician in all cases. If things start heading off in the wrong direction (for example, your sleep gets worse instead of better; you have more nightmares rather than less), then the clinician simply alters the training protocol slightly until things are headed in the right direction. We know how to do that. We’ve done this with tens of thousands of people.

It is necessary for the trainee to understand this part of the process so that he won’t head for the hills right at the beginning, when training protocols are still being sorted out. A little patience may be needed at the outset before things are headed in the desired direction.

What are the limits on the upside? Do you need to continue the training forever? The limits in each case are given by biological factors in each individual brain. We don’t know what these are ahead of time—or at any time, for that matter. If it were entirely up to us, we would train your brain until your performance plateaus. And if your performance level should slip in future, you would be advised to come back for a tune-up session or two or three.

Those of us who do this professionally train our own brains regularly at intervals that are appropriate to each individual—once every month; once every several months, etc., depending on the need. Those who have suffered brain insults in war should consider favoring their own brains with a similar regimen. The analogy to physical fitness is relevant here, but the benefits of training the brain seem to be retained much better.

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

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