Three powerful techniques I’ve used to shift my brain and body
My brain has always struggled with space. As a teenager, this meant I could memorize long poems or do lightning fast mental math, but often got lost driving five minutes away from home. It meant that I could never follow a dance instructor to save my life; or that I aced college physics courses until I bombed the units involving orientations of magnetic and electric fields. It was so bad that on one occasion when I drove a college boyfriend through my hometown, he asked why I didn’t take a shorter route between two points. After a moment of silence, he looked at me in disbelief and said, “Oh my God! You’ve lived here your whole life and you never realized there was a faster way?”
Despite the frustration and embarrassment it often caused me, this personal quirk was also what drew me to neuroscience. I was fascinated with my mind and the possibility that I could understand and even change it. I felt then- and still feel- that if a person’s personality and abilities are shaped so fundamentally by the brain, then there is no greater freedom than the ability to alter it.
Luckily, the years I studied neuroscience in college seemed to coincide with an explosion of exciting research. It was a period when researchers were shedding light on the science fiction dreams of AI-human cyborgs, the abstract realm of meditation, and the promise of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is possibly the most exciting to me personally because it is a field devoted to learning how the brain continues to grow and change throughout our lives. It suggests that we can grow beyond the brain we are born with into the person we want to be.
In the years after college, I explored neuroplasticity in theory and in practice. What I want to share here are the three best techniques I’ve found to change my brain and how they work.
Biofeedback: How the conscious speaks to the unconscious
Recently, one of my coworkers made an interesting statement: “People know they should make long-term changes like eating better and exercising more. What they don’t know is how they can change themselves starting right now. And more importantly, whether they actually can change themselves.” His statement resonated with me because I’ve felt the same internal struggle he described. Over the past twenty years of being bombarded with ads for quick fixes and trends, I’ve become skeptical of claims that something will change me. During periods of depression, I’ve been skeptical that I even can change.
The best evidence I’ve found to counter this skepticism is biofeedback. Biofeedback is the process of collecting any physical metric (e.g. heart rate, heart rate variability, EEG) and teaching someone to change it. What is fascinating is that biofeedback allows individuals to change processes that are entirely unconscious, such as brain waves or heart activity. For example, children often practice biofeedback in the form of simple video games hooked up to EEG machines, which only allow them to win when their brains are in the desired state. This is a technique practitioners often use with epileptic children to help them reinforce mid-range brain frequencies and inhibit slow-wave patterns associated with seizures. And according to emerging research, biofeedback has also been successful in improving outcomes in conditions as diverse as anxiety, ADHD, chronic pain, epilepsy, and even PTSD.
In my daily life, I’ve used a simpler method of biofeedback that can be measured directly from my phone: heart rate variability (HRV). HRV measures the variance in time between heartbeats to assess the body’s resilience to stress. I’ve used it after runs and meditations to understand the state of my body and observe long-term trends as I heal from Lyme disease.
Whether measuring HRV or EEG, one of the most valuable aspects of biofeedback is that it allows someone not just to see improvements over days or weeks, but from one moment to the next. If I watch my HRV measurement, I see in real time how deep breathing and thoughts of gratitude calm my body. In those moments of watching my heartbeat reflected on the screen, I have proof that even the smallest actions I take can impact my body and set off a positive change.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young: How simple exercises improve complex skills
A few months ago, I came across the incredible story of Barbara Arrowsmith Young, a woman born with severe disabilities who managed to re-wire her own brain. As a child, Barbara struggled with a huge number of impairments that made things as simple as understanding grammar, following conversations, and moving through space almost impossible. It wasn’t until she came across the work of Mark Rosenzweig, an early researcher of neuroplasticity, that she believed she could change her brain. Inspired by Rosenzweig’s experiments with rats, Barbara created simple, intensive exercises to practice her weakest skills. She spent countless hours each day reading clock faces and poring over math flash cards until finally, she began to see improvements. Even more surprisingly, Barbara not only saw improvements in her exercises, but in broader areas of logic, movement, and even social interactions. Her insights eventually led her to found the Arrowsmith School in Canada, where she helps learning disabled children make similar improvements.
To me, Barbara’s breakthrough was discovering that consistently training weak or injured brain areas through basic tasks not only improves performance on those tasks, but improves all complex skills based on them.
After reading Barbara’s story, I became determined to improve my own spatial reasoning, which has impacted so many areas of my life. I downloaded the “Recognise” app, which offers brain training in left/right discrimination and Graded Motor Imagery*. As I expected, my initial performance was abysmal (33% accuracy, compared to a population average of 80%), but I quickly improved. From there, I began taking online spatial reasoning tests and spent an hour each evening rotating, folding, and unfolding 3D shapes. After an agonizing first evening, I’ve seen my accuracy and speed get a bit better each time.
Though this experiment is ongoing, I’ve noticed a few improvements in my daily life: I can follow movements in YouTube videos without slowing them down to 50% and I can rotate objects in my mind far better than I ever could in college. While it doesn’t happen overnight, seeing even small improvements has given me a huge amount of optimism that I can succeed in ways I once thought impossible.
*Interestingly, the “Recognise” app science page notes that Left/Right discrimination is often reduced in those with osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel, or other forms of chronic pain
Feldenkrais: Changing the mind through the muscles
“A fundamental change in the motor basis within any single integration pattern will break up the cohesion of the whole and thereby leave thought and feeling without anchorage in the patterns of their established routines.” -Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement
In other words, if you change the activity of your muscles, you will inevitably change the way you think and feel as well.
I learned this firsthand after a sudden onset of Lyme disease symptoms last year left half of my body stiff and shell-like. Unable to find much health through traditional doctors and therapists, I spent a number of months exploring approaches like Hanna Somatics, Egoscue Method, and Feldenkrais Method. Though all helped, I found Feldenkrais to be particularly interesting because of its underlying premise: movement, thinking, and feeling are intertwined. Since we “move according to our perceived self-image” according to Moshe Feldenkrais, if you change one aspect of it, the rest must also adapt.
Though the basis of Feldenkrais Method is profound, most exercises are very simple. As I followed the Awareness Through Movement program, I practiced movements as basic as standing up or rotating in small circles from my ankles. The goal was to bring awareness to simple movements and release excess muscle tension. With each session, I began to feel a little lighter and more open (for more detail, see this post).
As with biofeedback, much of the thrill of Feldenkrais Method was the proof it gave me. As a concrete person, I wanted real evidence that I was changing and there is hardly anything more real than the feeling of your muscles changing and your entire body moving with ease.
What I’ve found from all three approaches is that the results I get are far greater than what I initially set out to improve. As I worked on my muscles with Feldenkrais, I gained a greater overall ease in my body; as I practiced spatial reasoning, I gained greater confidence in my intelligence; as I practiced biofeedback, I became calmer by learning which behaviors stressed my body. More fundamentally, I overcame my skepticism and realized that I can always change myself. And that’s a liberating feeling.