Training the brain to stress less

Neurotopia recently began beta-testing a dry sensor, mobile headphone and tablet system that would map brain waves.

Story highlights

  • Experts are mapping elite athletes' brains to determine optimal brain wave patterns
  • Neurofeedback may be able to retrain the brainwaves of children with ADHD and autism
  • STRIVE and SimCoach are two programs being used to help soldiers returning from war
Train the brain. Until recently, this phrase made me picture Neo from "The Matrix" proclaiming "I know kung fu" after he had martial arts abilities uploaded into his brain.
But what if we really could harness technology, Neo-style, to help train our brains to better cope with everyday stress?
For many of us, the days seem to pass in one anxiety-ridden blur after another. Mental health professional increasingly agree that these daily sprints, accompanied by a soundtrack of endless beeps, chirps and vibrations emitting from various devices, set off our stress systems, keeping us in a persistent and physiologically damaging state of fight-or-flight.
"The way we live our lives now is like running marathons," said Dr. Leslie Sherlin, a neuroscientist and chief science officer of Neurotopia, a company that provides brain training to athletes. "And in some ways, that's great, but you can't run marathons all the time."
Keep that pace, says Sherlin, and at some point, you will burn out. You may also suffer from a weakened immune system that can lead to an increased risk of disease.
Most of us have received some kind of formal instruction about diet, exercise, the birds and the bees. So why aren't we training our brains to better manage stress?
Some of the most compelling training to help prepare people to better handle stress is going on right now with athletes and soldiers.
For these two distinct groups, performance under high stress is a must (albeit for very different reasons). But the technologies being used to train them could benefit the rest of us as well.
Training athletes for the field
I became interested in the way athletes train for peak performance in high-stakes environments last year, when I interviewed Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist who works with Sherlin to train elite athletes to perform optimally during high-stress competition. Gervais and Sherlin work with athletes from the NFL, NBA and NHL as well as Olympians, golfers and many others.
What Gervais told me then was that the key to high performance was a disciplined mind. While not exactly news, the methods Gervais and his colleagues use to teach mental discipline were quite interesting. They were using older Eastern disciplines like mindfulness, presence, meditation, deep breathing and neurofeedback.
As part of their training, Gervais and his colleagues hook up athletes to electrodes and perform a baseline qEEG: a quantitative electroencephalogram. They use the results to create an individualized brain map.
The map helps these sports psychologists assess and quantify mental aspects of performance like focus, decision speed, reaction time and stress regulation.
Once the brain is mapped, the psychologists conduct half-hour neurofeedback sessions to teach athletes how to reach optimal brain wave patterns. In a typical session, the athlete will sit before a large screen as sensors monitoring electrical activity in his or her brain are placed on the scalp.
The athlete then focuses on achieving desirable brain wave patterns that, in turn, influence what happens on the screen. It's bit like controlling a video game with only your thoughts. The version I saw involved cars racing through a desert.