First full training session today. Phew. It was hard.
To backtrack: I’ve restarted brain biofeedback, but this time I’m training a brainwave frequency that isn’t usually trained, the 40Hz gamma brainwave. It’s all experimental. As my trainer said: “I’ve never done this frequency before.” But I figure if I’m going to recover as fully as I can from my brain injury, then I need to be willing to be a guinea pig – keeping risks minimal, it goes without saying. And in my humble opinion, brain biofeedback is a heck of a lot safer than any pill.
Today, I trotted, or rather swam through the heat, to the ADD Centre’s Toronto satellite office. Given that I live in Toronto, it’s much closer than their Mississauga office. Dr. Lynda Thompson and Andrea had trained my Toronto trainer last week. They also went over my results in more detail with her and discovered I was spiking at the 10Hz frequency (alpha brainwave). They had printed out a bar graph of all the frequencies, and that bar stood head and shoulders over its neighbours. As she explained to me, they were going to add it to the inhibition frequency for training, but that should not affect my creativity. In fact, they felt it would enhance it as it would even out all the alpha brainwave frequencies to the same power. I remain skeptical – but that is my wont. I’ll know if including 10Hz in the inhibition set is detrimental to my creativity if I find my writing starts to stutter or stop. So far, this blog is writing along nicely. Maybe I’ll be okay.
We spent a few minutes catching up. She was over the moon about how much I’d changed since she’d last seen me in 2007; she particularly noticed the re-emergence of my sense of humour (liking that it was British) and how my voice had life and prosody to it. Compared to how my voice was in 2005 when I first showed up – I had no affect back then – it was like night and day. It’s good to have these kinds of moments. They tell you that all your hard work has made a diff.
She hooked me up to the CZ position. First, I put on a breathing sensor – a strap that goes around my stomach to detect breathing – and a heart rate sensor on my left thumb. They’ve discovered that the thumb produces the strongest pulse most reliably picked up by the sensor. They use this nifty self-gripping bandage-type material to hold the sensor in place. I remember when they first began to use it on me during my first stint with brain biofeedback between 2005 and 2007. It made things much easier to keep on. Ain’t tech great? Anyway, the trainer then scrubbed my ears. Only Dr. Lynda Thompson scrubs hard enough to ensure good connection from the get go. Everyone else is afraid of hurting their clients, for the scrub is like sandpaper on your skin. But as I told the trainer, I can handle it and then there’s no futzing about trying to fix the connection. After the ears were scrubbed, the trainer used hand spans (sometimes they’ll use a tape measure) to determine the CZ spot and scrubbed that.
Interesting factoid: summer skin is harder to get a connection on than winter skin because you produce more oils in the summer.
She then plastered electrode paste on the two ear electrodes, which she clipped to my ear lobes. The ears are like the grounding wire in an electrical cord. She repeated the same action with the electrode that went on the head – this is the one that allows you to communicate with the computer and that the computer measures the brainwaves from.
As I mentioned last week, the CZ position was chosen because it picks up more areas, including the frontal cortex, sensory motor, and deeper structures like the anterior cingulate and is less affected by muscle tension.
After I was hooked up, the trainer tested the connections. Any not green, that is red or yellow, she strengthened either by pressing or pinching or by adding more goop, I mean electrode paste.
Then we were ready to begin training my brain.
First we did thirty seconds of baseline to see where I was with the frequencies we’re interested in, in this case the 40Hz and EMG (52 to 58Hz), as well as my heart rate and breathing rate.
Next I deep breathed for two minutes with eyes closed. She wanted me to be aware of my body and how my breathing felt. I did well, of course. Ahem. That psychologist in year one post-brain injury trained me well. As he said, I would need that skill to get through the tough times ahead. Deep breathing is a skill everyone ought to have, and though it seems like it at first, it is not a difficult one to master.
Next I deep breathed to the HRV (heart rate variability) screen for three minutes, thirty seconds with eyes open. There’s a breathing pacer in the top left corner. The trainer can set the rate to whatever I can do and to what is most optimal to dropping my heart rate, increasing HRV, and reducing muscle tension. She set it to six. At the end of the HRV screen, I’d achieved 6.01. Not the perfect 6.0 that I achieved last week, but it would do.
She had pre-chosen the screens for me before I arrived and had decided we would begin training my brain to produce more gamma waves with the toughest screen: sailboats. And then unbeknownst to me until after I had completed the three minutes, she had deliberately added in distraction. The way the screen works is that the computer shows you a picture of three sailboats. Each sailboat represents a frequency you either want to inhibit or want to enhance. The top and bottom boats represented the “bad” frequencies, and the aim for those was to ensure they didn’t sail blithely across the screen. The sailboat in the middle represented the gamma brainwave I wanted to enhance. That sailboat had to cross the screen. When it does, music will play too, giving you both auditory and visual feedback that you are doing the right thing.
The screen also includes bar graphs showing the actual frequency outputs in real time as well as my breathing rate and other things I didn’t pay attention to. The trainer sets the max and min power for each frequency. So for example, to get me to enhance the gamma wave, she’ll set the min to 1.5 and max to 5. (I had produced it at 1.7μV during baseline.) If I go below 1.5μV, the bar will turn shocking red, and my sailboat will stop dead in the waves. If I go above 1.5μV, the bar will turn happy green, and the sailboat will go go go. There is one caveat to the boat moving: the other bars have to be in their green zones too. Their green zones are set in the opposite way in that to be green I need to drop the power of those frequencies, not enhance them.
We began. The gamma boat jerked forward. Then she began distracting manoeuvres, and the inhibitory frequencies shot into the red, and my gamma boat stopped. And it would not move. I deep breathed more mindfully. The bars all went green, and the boat jerked forward. But then my unwanted brainwaves shot into the red, and that top sailboat almost took over my gamma boat. Grrr. Luckily, the bottom boat representing the EMG frequency stayed quiescent. I kept deep breathing; she stopped distracting me; and my gamma boat started sailing again and eventually won that race. Phew.
That was three minutes of tough work. I had a celebratory drink of water, as I did after every screen. The next screen though almost defeated me.
It was a ball that hovers in mid-air. You need to float it upwards until it bursts into mini coloured balls that fall to the reflective ground, get absorbed, and rise up into the air as one ball again. Repeat. (You can see a tiny picture of it here.) The same bar graphs appear, but there is nothing to show you how you’re breathing. Yet it is a more visually busy screen than the sailboat one and so tougher in a different way.
BTW, my brain is playing these games. No mouse. No keyboard. All brainwaves.
Don’t ask me how it works.
It just does.
Anywhoo, I began as before except that she made the parameters tougher, that is I had to achieve a higher gamma frequency power to get it into the green zone. I started off okay, and she didn’t distract me to nearly the same extent. But halfway through as the ball started, stopped, floated around, stopped, wouldn’t move, wouldn’t move, wouldn’t move, jerked into motion again, my head began to hurt – a concentration headache right under the CZ electrode – and I could feel fatigue washing the energy out of me. It is not like muscle effort when one strains to lift a dead weight yet it is. I wanted to give up. But there’s something about the power of having someone sitting right next to you, expecting you to keep going, saying “that’s great” every time you get the ball (or sailboat) moving again, that keeps you going, that stops you from quitting.
After that excruciating three minutes, we chatted. That is also part of the training. They did that with me back in 2005 and 2007. I don’t remember what we chatted about, only that I was animated, and we laughed. It was a good rest. And I was ready for the third screen at the end of the chat period.
This screen was a biplane that you fly around an island. It’s really, really cool and fun. All sorts of neat camera angles and flying happiness. Much to my surprise, I kept that sucker going – until I blinked. That set off my unwanted brainwave frequencies into the red. Sheesh. So I tried not to blink, then I tried to blink really quickly twice in a row then not blink for awhile. I liked that plane flying. It was such a rewarding experience after that ball. She told me at the end you have to blink, don’t let the temporary rush of red stop you. Sigh. Well, okay.
That was the end of active training. We cooled down with another two-minute HRV screen.
I took off the sensors as she took off the electrodes. And I was out of there. I had taken a nutritious Simply Bar* with me, as well as the water. I had eaten half just before I began training so that its nutrients would hit my brain as I began training; I ate the second half as I left. I developed a headache fairly soon, which I hadn’t had last week and was resolved by a large supper. I shall have to take more food with me next time.
I also became suddenly tired and sleepy within minutes of leaving. On the other hand, my vision was good again, and I was able to take a long flight of stairs without any of the usual perceptual problems. I noticed that improvement two days after last week’s session too. I was gratified to see I could take a long flight down without hesitating, stopping, or needing to hug the left rail. My mood was strange. It was like any time I stopped thinking, a good mood was allowed to bubble up, then my usual neutral state tried to reassert itself. The war of the brainwaves!
The best way to see how I’m doing is to calculate the ratio of gamma brainwave to EMG. Because EMG affects the gamma brainwave, the latter can change just by changing the former. But if the ratio of the two goes up throughout the training sessions then you know the gamma brainwave rose more than fully accounted for by rising EMG.
I improved over last week by starting at a higher ratio. I did drop with the ball screen, but overall I did well. This is, after all, day one of full training.
*I was introduced to the Simply Bar because my father had been consulted on its formulation.