The Brain Regulated

Interesting you should write at this moment. I have been thinking about this very question. What happens to the structure of mind, of self and of meaning when you deeply regulate the brain. It’s a big question and I doubt that there’s one answer. Emergence and complexity come to mind. I spent last week at Bessel’s astounding annual international Trauma Conference. He and several others introduced neurofeedback to the world.

Neurofeedback allows the brain to learn its own regulation; and it is regulating, primarily or most importantly, fear and reactivity. Did you read my Chapter on Attachment and Neurofeedback in the second edition of Introduction to QEEG and Neurofeedback, recently published by Academic Press. I somehow doubt you’ve gotten around to this. I mention it in this context because I lay out this way of seeing neurofeedback as the high road to affect regulation which in turn leads to deepening relatedness. But even more is going on and that’s what I have been trying to get a handle on as I received your message.

Glenn Saxe gave a presentation on emergence at the conference and offered a matrix that would predict the emergence of a particular behavior in a traumatized boy. (I myself thought that good clinical data would have predicted the boy’s behavior as well, but that model is old.) If a matrix could be designed for Q data let’s say, then what one would predict after neurofeedback (is there ever really an after?) would be increased complexity. The brain’s potential emerges into increased complexity.

Do you know the work of the mathematician, Steven Wolfram? I know only a little about A New Kind of Science and may well botch the particulars, but Wolfram talks about emergence too and presents the math. One can begin a pattern on a trajectory on a computer and one of four things will happen. The first is that it will die; it can’t replicate at all. The second is that it will replicate itself endlessly (the second condition) – we might easily agree about the mental state/trait correlates of this, something like OCD or rumination. In the third condition, it begins to show changes , something new, but it never really slips free of its original defining pattern. You see it in the design to a greater or lesser extent. I think most of our mental activity could be represented in/by this condition. Maybe, and this is where it would get absolutely fascinating, most EEGs too would partake of Stage 3. Some would alternate between stage 2 and stage 3, collapse then emergence, collapse then emergence. I know what this feels like clinically, in myself and in my patients. It is the realm of psychotherapy for the most part. The awakening and then the withdrawal from awakening. And then in Wolfram’s cosmology there is Stage 4. This may be the realm of neurofeedback, at least its potential. In the 4th condition the original pattern is nowhere to be seen. The computer has made something completely new. I saw some of this art, the beautiful new designs, at a Wolfram conference a few years ago and it’s quite extraordinary.( Wolfram was originally interested in the EEG but it was too complex a signal to catch hold of in any model.) But it does seem that we are talking about the bloom of complexity in the brain through simplifying the mind. Most mystical traditions describe something like this. It is almost as if you can feel the richness of billions of neurons connecting, quietly without excursions or bursts. A profound internal engagement that resonates throughout the body. All the cells sing.

A man was presented in an NF consultation group, and he was described as being at ease in himself for the first time. After a few sessions of NF, he was opening doors and smiling at strangers. Unheard of for him. He thought it was his therapy. The senior clinician said, “Have any of you actually seen an outcome like this from psychotherapy?” No one does. Not like that. Meaning must have changed for him and therapy was validating the change so he made the easy mistake, which of course, is not entirely wrong and attributed the change to therapy. If you train yourself long enough, in the company of a devoted “other”, which is to say deeply within a relationship, two things seem to happen. The relationship becomes richer, more complex and quieter and then, with even more training, “Self” itself begins to disappear.

We live in reaction. Our suffering is reaction. We are rarely right with the source of our suffering. We are reacting to it or reacting to the reaction. Neurofeedback shuts this down, or at least has the potential to do so. (What do all those highly patterned neurons do then?) But the Other(s) is essential too. We cannot achieve complexity alone. We need to be in relationship to emerge into “no self”. It is an endless path. Emergence is unlikely to be finite. Where is the language for this in psychotherapy? Psychoanalysis embroiders Stage 3 and risks the rigidification of stage 2. (I just heard an interview with Woody Allen :-)) It can give meaning, and in this it is very important. Understanding can be both vital and enriching. Of course, even analytic meanings can and too often do become rigid, dry and repetitive. And, even more to the point, psychoanalysis doesn’t have the language to support this arena of meaning. Unless the analyst already has this language from a tradition other than psychotherapy, as he does in my case, and then together we can have moments of Stage 4 – something completely new.

And I also agree with you that psychotherapy can make sense of trauma, can align the person’s narrative and self understanding more closely with reality and in that can help to release functional capacity. When this happens – those rare and, even more rarely enduring, moments, one has to wonder how the brain has reorganized itself in the presence of new information. These moments feel incredible in the body as well as the mind. No matter what, I just don’t think we get there, or all too few do, through psychotherapy. We can get there through neurofeedback. But, sigh, looking around, that could be all too few people with neurofeedback too. We need the other. We need the training. We ned attention to the body. We need to practice. We then have the possibility of emergence.

I hope what I have written is comprehensible. Emergence never ends, nor perhaps this conversation…

Thanks for writing.