Neurontic

Manipulating your mind

In Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson writes about advances in neurofeedback technology. “Your Attention Please” describes Johnson’s attempts to peddle a virtual bicycle using the power of his brain.

He’s at a training session organized by a firm called The Attention Builders. As the name suggests, the company is in the business of building attention. The firm’s software was designed to familiarize children suffering from attention deficit disorder (ADD) with the experience of concentrating. To do this, they employ some new-fangled technology. A helmet that wouldn’t look out of place in TRON is used to track the subject’s brain waves, moment by moment. This piece of machinery sinks up with a console that runs a variety of video games. This particular game involves an animated bike rider. Theoretically, when the subject is experiencing peak attention, he can “will” the animated bicyclist to pedal. Here’s what happened when Johnson donned the helmet:

After a few minutes of calibration, [the technician] announces that the system is ready, and launches the bike game. A long stretch of intense humiliation begins. From the very outset, my bike refuses to budge . . . I try staring intently at the screen. I try staring intently at the wall . . . the bicycle remains frozen . . . I’m trying to focus on the game, but very quickly, I find myself focusing on the possibility that I have been suffering from ADD for years without realizing it.

Five minutes pass, and the game ends. All told the bike has made only a handful of brief nudges forward. I’m ready to swallow an entire bottle of Ritalin.

(Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson, 76)

The ability to peddle the bike depends on the subject’s ability to control his theta levels–the brain waves that result in distractibility. The helmet’s readings of Johnson’s theta levels suggested that his attention span was only slightly superior to a fruit fly’s. This, thankfully, was not the case. His inability to peddle the bike turned out to be the result of a technical hiccup. After recalibrating, he took the test again and proved to have impressive control over his theta levels.

Johnson’s venture into the realm of neurofeedback paints a clear picture of its current limitations. The technology is good, but not great. In some respects, it’s still frustratingly rudimentary, which is why I was so intrigued by John Geirland’s recent piece for Wired, Buddha on the Brain.

I won’t delve into the details of the article here. Suffice it to say, it’s recommended reading for anyone interested in Buddhism. What grabbed my attention (and immediately brought Johnson’s bike pedaling debacle to mind) was Geirland’s account of a study on brain activity in Buddhist monks.

The study was spearheaded by Richard Davidson, a neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson is a long time “spiritual seeker” and a personal friend of the Dalai Lama. This makes his interest in the subject entirely understandable. It also makes his findings somewhat suspect in the eyes of the scientific community. Many neuroscientists have contested Davidson’s results, but I find them intriguing enough to throw caution to the wind and present them to you anyway:

In June 2002, Davidson’s [team] positioned 128 electrodes on the head of Mattieu Ricard. A French-born monk from the Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Ricard had racked up more than of 10,000 hours of meditation.

[A researcher] asked Ricard to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” He immediately noticed powerful gamma activity–brain waves . . . indicating intensely focused thought. Gamma waves are usually weak and difficult to see. Those emanating from Ricard were easily visible, even in the raw EEG output. Moreover, oscillations from various parts of the cortex were synchronized–a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in patients under anesthesia.

The researchers had never seen anything like it. Worried that something might be wrong with their equipment or methods, they brought in more monks [provided courtesy of the Dalai Lama], as well as a control group of college students inexperienced in meditation. The monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times as strong as the students’. In addition, larger areas of the meditators’ brains were active, particularly in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.

(Buddha on the Brain)

Davidson’s study indicates that master meditators are capable of “alter[ing] the structure and function” of their brains through sheer force of will or–err . . . active non-resistance. These findings suggest that human beings have the ability to train their minds to conjure up and prolong optimal mental states, without the aid of virtual reality helmets or electroshock therapy. They suggest, in short, that our brains are far more advanced than our technology. To some this seems achingly obvious. To others, it’s a true revelation.

Davidson’s findings simultaneously thrill me and fill me with anxiety. It’s nice to know my noggin’s capable of tapping into a bottomless well of compassion. But my schedule is already pretty full and I just can’t see fitting in the requisite 10,000 hours of meditation.