Neuroplasticity 2.0: Enhancing Brain Change

The holy grail of human potential is unlocking neuroplasticity. Put in simpler terms, how do we get adult brains to be as “sponge-like” as kid brains? We now know more than ever about the neural mechanisms that underlie accelerated brain change, but unlocking that dormant potential and reproducing it at scale will be one of the great feats of the neurotech community. While there are many forces that influence neuroplasticity, this six-article series will focus on six separate areas that have been shown to increase neuroplasticity and what technologies are leading in each space. The first five “brain HACKS” are like levers, the research suggests, that anyone can pull to increase their neuroplasticity: H = Habits A = Attention C = Challenge K = Kinetic (Movement) S = Stress Reduction The sixth article will outline a new area called positive neuroplasticity — the science and tech of why the brain changes better when it feels good and how to become stably happier. Attention Is The Gateway of Neuroplasticity We’ll begin with ATTENTION — what it is, why it matters, why it increases neuroplasticity, how to train it, and what technologies are accelerating our ability to do so. Directing attention is uniquely human. In a sea of competing stimuli, attention is our ability to focus on some things and ignore others. Our ability to move our attention around like a laser beam gives us unique cognitive control over our mental life. As William James said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” In a nutshell, our conscious experience is composed of the stuff we pay attention to — whether by default or by design. While much has been (importantly) made about bringing our attention back to the breath — that singular mental bicep curl — perhaps one of the more important, but unsung virtues of attention, is that it gives us the power to unlock neuroplasticity. Summed up simply by Prof. Ian Robertson, quoted in The Mind and The Brain, by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, Attention “can sculpt brain activity by turning up or down the rate at which particular sets of synapses fire. And since we know that firing a set of synapses again and again makes [them] grow…stronger, it follows that attention is an important ingredient” for neuroplasticity. Not only does attention increase the rate of firing of a collection of neurons, but it turns down the volume of other neurons that don’t need to be involved. As science writer Sharon Begley puts it, “Paying attention physically damps down activity in neurons other than those involved in focusing on the target of your attention.” In other words, it increases the signal and decreases the noise. This bears out in a number of research studies, where attention is seen, according to Prof. Michael Merzenich, as “turning on the switches” of neuroplasticity. The implication of this research is that not only is attention trainable, but that neuroplasticity enhancement is also trainable. As you get good at one, you get good at the other. Training Attention and Neuroplasticity Training attention dates back thousands of years. It has many origins, not least in Buddhism, where it grew up originally in India and spread throughout South, Southeast, and East Asia. Because of the efforts of neuroscientists such as Prof. Richard Davidson, among many others, meditation and mindfulness have gained renewed scientific attention in the West over the past few decades. As meditation has increased in popularity and mindfulness has become something of a global buzzword, one of the many ways it has been conceptualized is as “attention training.” This type of attention training has been an antidote to the stressful culture of modern life. But, perhaps more importantly, it has renewed an interest in our ability to more intentionally observe, direct, and harness our attention, and thereby increase our ability to flip our neuroplasticity switches to “on.” While most meditation apps don’t market themselves as neuroplasticity enhancers, this is exactly what they are. But they aren’t the only ones. Neuroplasticity-Enhancing Technologies: Mindfulness Apps Mindfulness apps were the early leaders in the neurotech attention space. With Calm’s billion-dollar valuation and $143 million in funding, they’ve garnered not just the attention of the public, but also the attention of investors. Headspace has received 168.2 Million in funding to date and is the other major competitor. But others have come on the scene and are offering different experiences for different audiences. While most of them don’t have the reach of Calm and Headspace, their markets are growing. People report enjoying the simplicity of Insight Timer. Aura has tried to differentiate itself by expanding its market to include emotional health and sleep. The 10% Happier App has a devoted following of self-described skeptics. Sam Harris’s Waking Up has big fans such as Tim Ferriss and Susan Cain. Buddhify and Simple Habit target busy lifestyles and meditation on the run. One of my favorite newcomers on the block that has seen a surge of signups this past year is Bright Mind, that tailors your meditation experience through customized instruction and utilizes the wisdom of teachers such as Shinzen Young. Neuro-Feedback Technologies Using technologies such as EEG, infrared light, and breathing sensors, neurofeedback technologies have creatively been deepening our ability to stay focused and train our attention. InteraXon, makers of Muse — one of the first companies to put clinical-grade EEG sensors into a mass-market neuro-feedback product — have received 28.8 million in funding to date. They’ve recently released their third product, Muse-S, which has all of the meditation neurofeedback features of Muse 2, but uses EEG to deliver enhanced meditation to help you get to sleep easier. Potential X is focused on getting people into flow states through a combination of EEG sensors and neurofeedback, telling you when your focus is dipping and getting you back to focus through auditory feedback. Foci uses breathing patterns that are closely associated with cognitive states to give visual depictions of your different brain states throughout the day, helping you to notice and get back to states of concentration. When I met Blueberry founder, John David Chibuk, he intrigued me by describing his emerging technology as “mobile fMRI.” Blueberry does in fact measure blood oxygenation levels, but uses infrared light (instead […]

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