The Tao of Neuroscience

alchemy in actionThe Tao of Neuroscience:
Len Ochs’ Magic Lights and the Realization of Cortical Flexibility

by Stephen Larsen, Ph.D.-February, 1998

Presentation at special session, the Sixth Annual Winter conference on Brain and EEG

Budhist to hot-dog vendor: “Make me one with everything!”

The Tao Teh Ching tells us that in order to become succesful as human beings we must become like water, like clouds, overcoming obstacles by flowing around them, offering no resistance to aggression, inwardly in relationship to all things. Also called “The Watercourse Way,” the dynamism of the Tao is most often referred to as “Flow” by those who dip into it.

The highest levels of Flow have been remarked by people engaged in athletic competition, but also classical musicianship, dance, acting, public oratory, and can probably be found to attend any creative or therapeutic act, in which there is a feeling of unity, of being “at-one” with All there Is. The self is experienced as transparent, effortless, graceful; there is no obstacle between thought and enactment. My own Taoistic experiences had been (appropriately enough) in mountaineering and Alpine skiing, in the martial arts, in playing with attuned musicians, and, most exquisitely, in lovemaking. I found myself evaluating the juiciness of the experience much more in the “how,” than in the “what” or “why” of the activity. “How nice, I thought, the Tao is in the How!”

Modern sports psychologists have realized the stunning performances that can be given be people in such states, and bent their efforts on how to evoke them. But in pursuit of Peak Performance, or Optimal functioning, it seems that at best, theorists have found ways to engineer the necessary but not sufficient conditions for performance. In the Tao Teh Ching, it says that if you try to seize or manipulate the Tao it will elude you. (I will discuss the conditions necessary to Flow later in this paper, as well as identifying the forces that seem definitely to obstruct its Taoist magic.) Suffice it to say that there is a grace about authentic union with the Tao that can be invited but not compelled.

And then what if you feel, as Woody Allen says, “At two with everything.” What if you went to a workshop and all you released was the “inner Klutz.” Our daily life may be a nightmare of fits and starts, noble intentions but impoverished performance. We bungle this and overreact to that. We wax far too optimistic for our own good, then feel defeated and lapse into a dark, paralyzing pessimism. We make impossible generalizations from our experience–“I’ll never, ever, do that again!” and violate them the next week, because such a reactive resolve, made in such a moment, is often ridiculous!

There is always, as Freud said, the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the self that is by definition “out of the Tao”, neurotic because self-defeating. (Out of harmony with the self, and thus out of harmony with everything else.) Then we look around us and see that everyone else is in the same sorry state, more or less. The world is a theater full of blunders, some great, some small. Cartoonist Robert Crumb caught the atmosphere: “Back in Grimesville, time lurches on!” The news, or any drive through an urban or rural slum tells the story; or take time to visit a prison! People communicate poorly, overreact, act unfairly to each other, even pull a nasty attitude for a long, long time.

“Our Life story,” said the great American psychologist Jerome Bruner, “is the vicissitudes of intention.” We intend this, but the undexpected happens and we get that. Put more succinctly by John Lennon: “Life is what happens while you are making other plans–including the determination to be Taoist or Zennish in all things! Reality keeps lobbing those old curve balls at us: Divorce, financial failure, tragedy, meetings with the IRS. Other people may neglect to see us radiant and wonderful. We take on their negative vision of us, and begin to act it out. The crucial question then becomes how do we handle these various insults to our well-being, including trauma, even tragedy, destructive and self-destructive myths about ourselves? In Greek Dramantic terms, the outcome of the encounter with these forces, the lysis, becomes the story of our lives.

In the midst of the insults and outrages of Fortune, modern life puts additional stresses on us in the form of information-processing tasks that our ancestors never dreamed of, requiring multi-processing of information and the ability to switch quickly from task to task. Included are balancing our budgets, acquiring technical and computer literacies, achieving political correctness, single-parent child rearing, driving, negotiating international airports, staying fit and healthy in a toxic world, and nourishing our souls in an (often) cultural wasteland. These things become difficult or impossible when we are “out of Tao”. Somehow, on the threshing floor of existence–with our own lives in the balance–Taoism may be more than a nice idea; it may be an ancient and highly viable Way for survival, and finding harmony in unharmonious places!. How does an innate flexibility help us cope with the sometimes unpleasant factuality of things, and the niggling demands for detailed high-performance that contemporary life requires?

We have therefore, in this paper so far, a desideratum–the Taoish, peak experience state of Oneness, and something we want to get away from: The “Twoness”: Our own lurching awkwardness in the face of disappointments, other people’s attitudes about us, and bearing the results of our own self- dysfunctionality–which further depresses us, renders us anxious, or both. The mounding up of negative experiences, undealt with, traumas and insults, invites further failures and so on.

So we begin our exploration, even as did Freud and Jung in the history of psychiatry, with the understanding and undoing of pathologies–dysfunctional responses to the demands of life. As one of my psychoanalytically- sophisticated clients defined the classical neuroses, which afflicted him: “You discover that something doesn’t work, and you keep on doing it, anyway!” The Tao seems terribly far away. People out of touch with themselves quickly alienate everyone around them. From some case histories, we can track the very continuum of dysfunction, from the swamps lowlands of human experience, to the higher ground of average functionality, and on up to the peaks of Optimal Performance.

At Stone Mountain Center, an outpatient treatment facility, we treat a number of people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Closed Head Injury, Major Depression, some children with ADD or ADHD, Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and even Obsessive-Compulsive disorders, and Psychosis, if the person is not a danger to him or herself or anyone else, and has a good community support network. In each of these syndromes, something has happened to a person, once or repeatedly, and they have often found themselves in a pattern that not only fails to solve the ongoing challenges of their existence, but may instead descend a spiral into despair and paralysis. They feel mired in a bog.

Traditional psychotherapy now begins to process the content of one’s mind and psyche. Ultimately, those of us who have used it, know, psychotherapy can be very helpful, but, by itself often cannot remedy situations that have dysfunctionalities on the neurological and biochemical levels. (Words may not avail, nor meanings, the interpretation of dreams, even powerful emotional processing–however these things are indispensibly woven into the process of cure, as we shall see!) Here traditional psychiatry reaches for the pharmaceutical aid to control the grosser distortions of emotion and behavior, and in time, perhaps permit insight-oriented therapies or occupational therapies to begin their work. But in our protocol (see attached), this is where Biofeedback and the the interactive lights of FNS come in.

Biofeedback: It unmistakably feeds you back just one thing: youself. Precisely because the technology of self-regulation is mechanical and non- anthropomorphic, all our histrionics and manipulativeness, the “psychodrama of Everyday life” drops away. Sophisticated defense mechanisms are bypassed. The household robot does not lie. It is programmed to speak the truth! Truth initiates the healing process, the process of realignment within the self that then extends to the outer world. It is a marvellous demonstration of Jung’s principle of healing. He called it, “The self-liberating power of the introverted mind.” It is also the principle of homeopathy: “Like cures like”.

The Interactive Light, or FNS protocol, feeds back to the client’s closed eyes a gently flashing light, just off the dominant brainwave frequency. This is called “disentrainment” therapy, because it breaks up existing patterns. When synchronous brain activity is presented with similar but not identical synchronies, usually at an offset higher frequency, it tries to assimilate to that frequency–which then is changed again by a prearranged setting of offsets, and again tries to follow. The brain is bumped “out of its parking place” repeatedly. The procedure catches the ego off guard, because no conscious activity whatsoever is required, no effort, not even any intention.

The effect of FNS takes place at subconscious levels–possibly deeper even than Classical Conditioning effects. There can be no conscious resistance, because the process is truly unconscious. Dr. Len Ochs, the pioneer discoverer of the system, believes that the influence of the lights, just off the dominant setting, bypasses, at a level too weak to be detected (under layers of masking, or with very low microlumens of intensity) not only the ego’s, but the brain’s own automatic defense mechanisms.

Here we launch into some theory!

The brain, something potentially very smart, has gotten stuck in its dys- functional pattern! It is now very stupid, or very stupid in certain ways. (Not only are we messed up, we try to stay that way–the neurosis, stuckness). The citadel of the CNS defends itself against the onslaught of what it thinks are destructive insults or life-threatening disruptions! More primitive sub- cortical mechanisms are of course involved; the limbic and autonomic nervous systems respond to our hysterical thoughts through feedback loops that show us just how well we listen to ourselves (often our hysterical or dramatic take on things). We may wallow in the feelings, our thinking the opposite of clear or functional.

Our brainwaves in these situations are often characterized by increased amplitude and slowing, as well as dysregulation–wild fluctuations in frequency–or frozen sameness. We already know quite a lot about how (dys- functional) coherence propagates itself through the brain: through amplitude, frequency or phase coherence, through the recruitment of neurons and groups of neurons by other neurons. Our mental fundamentalists become aroused, and march through the streets of the mind chanting and carrying placards. In these collective states of our inner cast of characters, more of us becomes dumb, until (all of us) says and does the dumbest things: We abuse our spouse and then dare the police or the men in the white coats to take us! We become manic or depressed; we say the same things over and over.

Neuropsychologist E. Roy John has discovered many of the brain’s pathological signatures through dynamic MRI’s and and QEEG’s. He, and many others, now are beginning to recognize the (blurry) outlines, the neurological signatures, of Schizophrenia, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), Major Depression. One day, as John tells the story, a Research assistant who had been already found to have perfectly normal brainwaves, received news that her boyfriend was cheating on her. Hooked to the QEEG she suddenly manifested a pattern of almost psychotic Depression. (Normal becomes pathological with a few words.) Experience (in this case, “merely” psychological experience, not a blow on the head or seeing a loved one killed as in PTSD cases) delivers an insult to the brain.

Now the question immediately arises, “How long you going to stay there, honey?” A relatively healthy brain and psyche can share a tearful hour with a supportive friend or therapist, and feel better. But one already wounded with insults, and entrenched in chronic dysfunctionality tends to resort to only its old familiar (dysfunctional) patterns. If you hit with a powerful intervention, whether biofeedback or therapeutic, the brain (and the psyche) immediately resist. But try a gentle (Taoist) stimulation just off the dominant frequency, for as little as a few seconds. We are tickled, teased, out of pathological rigidity. We are not told where to go, just “eased out of the old groove.”

The verbal instructions which intitiate the FNS session say, simply,” Be inwardly attentive, with closed eyes, while the lights are flashing, and when we are done, tell me what you experienced. If you feel any discomfort or unfamiliar sensations during the treatment that feel disturbing, let me know and I will stop the session.”

We try to calibrate the treatments very carefully, because if we push too hard in the disentrainment process, the client is, within the next 24 hours, perceptibly “out of Tao”. This takes the form of a global irritability, or contrarily, fatigue, blurriness of mind, or the need to sleep. (Either of these conditions show people responding in a way that is typical to their own personality and metabolism.) Usually, even when this untoward effect happens, the following day the client is feeling better, and then usually an upward gradient that we associate with this treatment asserts itself. The period following the first 4 minute introduction to the lights, and the first stimulation along with mapping are observed very carefully afterwards, and protocol altered accordingly. An analogy could be made to the “aggravation” which follows a homeopathic treatment. As Dr. Ochs says, the lights simulate the stresses of life. The patient feels worse, a little mini-crisis, before they feel better–then the gradient of healing goes up from there.

We record from 21 sites, using the international 10-20 placements, and from our initial measurement, a map is created, ranking the sites on amplitude of brainwaves, and a standard deviation measure that relates to erratic or variable functioning at particular sites. The “site sort” allows us now to develop a kind of Tao of treatment, beginning with the healthiest sites. Gradually we work up toward the worst (most dysregulated, with high amplitudes and high variability). Resistance comes when we persuade a site to stretch its limits, or go beyond its usual adaptability–maybe even its clearly being influenced by what we call “the usual suspects,” other sites that try to drag the newly flexible one back into dysfunctional patterns. One image that comes to mind is pushing down on a trampoline. All the midgets tumble in toward the fattest midget–bounce a little, and the trampoline may even throw the trampoliners in the air.

Chaos theory applies here, and to borrow an analogy from chaos theory applied to climate: The butterly wing fluttering in the Amazon causes the typhoon in Japan. Tiny disruptive effects invite the entire ecosystem (or nervous system) to reconfigure itself. We are not “micromanaging the brain,” nor asking it to produce a particular frequency at a particular site, as in much EEG biofeedback. By visiting many sites, always from least, toward the most, out of Tao, the system is asked to build on its own strengths. In Chinese philosophy this might be called “the wu-wei of the site-sort.”

Now what is truly astonishing, and truly Taoish, is that during the course of this treatment, if we always stay close to the bounds of comfort, disrupting gently, but insistently, the brain’s pathological systems (and we have successfully treated closed head and spinal cord injury, PTSD, Major Depression, and bipolarity) normalcy (water flowing around the rocks of dysregulation and coherence) begins to reassert itself. When the Brain, and probably the entire Central Nervous System, finally settles down at the end of the treatment, it has received what Julian Isaacs calls “a California Aura Fluff.” It has assumed a different relationship to itself–maybe it is a little closer to the Tao, a little closer to its own health.

I would now like to move to a discussion of the already high-functioning people who have undergone the FNS protocol. These include professional athletes and martial artists, computer programmers, doctors and professors, a shaman or two, and practitioners of Zen and other Mindfulness traditions. In general, these people have found their own day-to-day functionalaity polished.

One man said, “The improvements in my functioning are extremely subtle, but unmistakable nonetheless.” I go to the same (psychological) places, but I don’t stay there long. Pretty soon I feel clear and fine again. (We always interrogate clients about the three F’s: Force, Focus and Feeling; that is to say, mental and physical energy, the ability to direct mind and attention, and a positive mood state. If these three are in order, cognition and behavior unfold pretty well, we are productive, and happy. (One woman client (still a little ADD) told me: “I’ve achieved the three F’s. I feel fat, furry and frisky!”

Another man, a computer programmer, said: “I don’t have that chatter in my head, standing between me and what I’m doing. Hey, you offed the goddam committee!” Several found themselves suddenly resolving what had seemed to them and others to be “character flaws” such as disorganization and carelessness. Others found they had more energy and clarity for their spiritual practices

I think sometimes about shamanic initations. My first firewalk worked a little like the lights treatment. Tolly Burkan said: “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who have walked on fire and those who have not! Which would you rather be?” And I walked. I was disrupted–facing the fear, and actually walking the coals–and somehow healed a little in the process. I felt high for a week! (After all, what are taxes or minor annoyances when you’ve just walked on fire?) Doing a challenging rock-climb is analagous. It is even beyond Solomon’s opponent-process theory (which says it is exhilarating to face something daunting and overcome it. Challenged, one enters an ordeal, in the process one is lifted out of one’s usual fog. There is an encounter with something other–sometimes even the transpersonal–and a new condition of being is attained.

The most dramatic kinds of intitation human beings can experience are the confrontation with death. Whether this happens through intimate danger, an actual near-death experience, or is induced by an initiation ritual such as the ancient Egyptian and Greek mysteries, the self is somehow re-charged, renewed. One of our FNS clients was an Vietnam war fighter pilot. During the course of his treatment he began to remember flying into an enemy machine gun nest. “I could see those shining tracers coming right at me, almost feel them in my chest–there were two four-barrel 50 caliber babies blazing away. Suddenly time stopped, my mind slowed, I squeezed the trigger just…now! The rocket seemed to laze along under the plane, looping gently. Then all I saw in the rearviews was a big exploding ball of fire–a munitions dump–the plane was tossed like a leaf. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since.”

This man years ago went into Recovery, stopped drinking, and works on himself spiritually. Now, he finds the flexibility bestowed by “the lights” very helpful. On one occasion he came in deeply depressed over a relationship crisis, and when we started our FNS session was as uncomfortable as I had ever seen him, virtually writhing in his skin. We were both astounded to see the depression melt as we moved from site to site, successively, about thirty seconds of light stimulation at each site. I looked at him just after we finished the last site. His face was relaxed, and he smiled: “What was I saying when I came in here?” he drawled. “Don’t you believe any of that bullshit!”

A mother of a 16 year with ADD had “hired” him to clean out the courtyard behind their Manhattan brownstone, every year for the last four years. It had always ended in the same dismal failure, the mother not wanting to pay for such a lousy job, and yet desparately wanting to reinforce positive behaviors in her son.

During the course of the intake interview and CNS questionnaire, it turned out that as a baby he had been delivered by forceps, and when born had a huge hematoma, and permanent bump on his head in the posterior pareito- occipital region. When we did the 21 site brain map, the spectral arrays looked pretty good at most sites. When we got to the vicinity of the injury, the moderate Delta frequency activity jumped from 5mv to 20-40. (small Himalayas). But he had a beautifully flexible and low amplitude profile along the Rolandic fissure just anterior to the damaged region, especially on the right side. I asked his mother what he did well physically. The mother beamed with pride and said he was as good in tennis as he was bad in school. He was a champion.

Because of what I saw in this case, I gave an unusually good prognosis. After only eight treatments, the huge delta-theta waves began to diminish noticeably. His mother called up overjoyed. She was able to pay her son for a courtyard she could be proud of. It was organized–and tidily completed in the course of a weekend. Two days later he reported that he was able to sit down for four hours and complete all his back homework. (The longest he could concentrate had previously been about fifteen minutes.)

In an old Taoist story, there is a community where everything seems to be out of harmony. People quarrel openly, the dogs bite each other, there is filth in the streets, courtyards are cluttered, and there is a drought–no rain for months. The crops are dying. Finally, at a town meeting beset by bickering, a possible solution is entertained. Get the Taoist! A messenger is sent to his eeyrie, high in the misty mountains. He comes into town in no great hurry, an unassuming old man who shies away from the adulation. He merely asks for a hut, out in the rice paddies where he can sit alone. And in three days, the rain comes, and with it, a palpable easing of the tension.

“How did you do it?” A visitor asked, amazed.

“When I first came here,” the old man replied, “I felt agitated myself; everything was no-good; I understood why the dogs bit each other… It took me three days to put myself in harmony.” “But, but, said the visitor, “You must be a great magician, you ruled nature, you changed the world itself!”

The old man shrugged his shoulders. “I do not know,” he said, “all I know is that I feel better.” He picked up his bag and went back to the mountain. (This was one of early biofeedback pioneer Carl Jung’s favorites stories. He used it to illustrate what he felt was the core principle of Eastern spirituality: The self-liberating power of the introverted mind. We create our universe. Put our own house in order and the world around us seems to change magically.

But how do we get that Oneness the Buddhist wanted from the hot-dog vendor? Any five year old knows. Here is a story in conclusion.

One snowy winter’s day in New York State, a little five year old girl begged her mother for permission to follow her father’s snowplow down the half-mile long driveway. Mother trepidatiously let her go, all bundled in her snowsuit, running after the plow on her little short legs. At the end was a hill her mother never could have imagined her running up–but up she went, seemingly effortlessly, as mother watched. She caught up to her dad, and rode triumphantly home in the plow, having completed a mini-hero’s journey. She told the story of her adventure. Mother marvelled duly at the hill-run. “Oh I didn’t really do it,” said the little girl, “Mother Nature carried me!”

It is this kind of natural Optimal Performance that I feel we are pursuing with the Tao of Neurotherapy: Never grossly disruptive, flowing on with the waves themselves, stimulating, then diligently inquiring into subjective experience as it unfolds: a cureless cure. Sometimes gentle coaching, and lifestyle counseling, is useful. It helps to suggest to people that they are suddenly going to find themselves with undreamt-of new abilities. “Use them!” (Clean that room, organized that desk, conceptualize that paper without your usual anxiety that paralyzes.) “Ride the wave” might be a better metaphor than “Seize the day!”

One man with a lifelong major depression made definite but slow improvements with the FNS until I began to teach him Qi Gong (An ancient Chinese art of energy-flow.) He found that if he began the day with Qi Gong exercises, his energy rose and he was able to now use the clarity and organizational skills stimulated by the work with the lights. He was able to return to gainful employment, and began studying music seriously, a lifelong passion he had never been able to actualize.

In the realm of brainwaves, it is clear that Taoism is a desideratum, and should guide the protocol. How to become (or recognize) a Taoistic therapist? It is one who above all notices how much anything–light and sound devices, ordinary EEG Beta or SMR training, or FNS itself, disturbs the daily life of the person. Then back off until the effect becomes almost unnoticeable–or gently positive. That way the CNS has time to equilibrate itself within its own limits of comfort. The Tao is not too disturbed, Mother Nature “carries us.”

Brainwaves themselves, as the name implies, are rhythmic oscillations on the surface of the sea of consciousness. (As we know, dating back to the work of Kamiya and others, changes in consciousness do accompany shifts in the rhythm, or the amplitude, of brainwaves.) Meditators have noticed that meditation is more succesful after the lights treatment, and there is less of that incessant mental chatter–the AM Radio disc-jockey–that afflicts so many of us. Since we live in a machine age, and have been tyrranized, as well as served by them, is it not inappropriate to find our Taoist balance through a little, light-emitting machine! (And if TV had helped to make kids ADD, when they watch a display of their brainwaves on a monitor, that which hurt also heals (similia similibus curantur.)

Moving gently, from state to state, like clouds on a moonlit night, relaxed, calm, confident, in our training, our self-education, we sense the depths of the psyche; eyes and ears open, mind poised lightly, taking on the reflections of experience like a mirror, flowing like water. Thus may we receive instruction from Mother Nature, and learn to move through our lives in Tao.

by Stephen Larsen, Ph.D.