[ Mind variability – heart rate variability for the brain || Brainwave variability || Brain resilience || Epigenetics and resilience || Mind variability and resilience in practice || Mind and brainwave variability – light and sound meditation ]
If the past few years have taught us anything.., it’s that personal resilience is your responsibility. No-one or thing is going to protect you from sudden life changes. Do the needs of the many out-way the needs of the few? Or is it the other way around? History has thrown doubt on that question.
Either way, you are not the population. So what works for the population might not work for you. And this does not make you unusual or resistant. That’s just a convenient way for those with no clue how to help you, to dismiss you or label you as neurotic. Mind variability combines the science of brain variability and resilience.
In the article ‘Aha and insight – sudden bursts of insight in the brain’, I outline one of the keys to inspiration and creativity as being able to have the mind wander freely. This is done by non specific thinking while engaging in an undemanding task. So for creativity and insight, an unfocused mind is part of the goal.
On the flip side of that.., mind wandering has been identified as one of the traits of people who are unhappy. In this case focused attention should be the goal.
So which statement about this aspect of the mind is true and which should you aim to master?
This is about context and timing.
Mind variability – Heart rate variability for the brain
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is an established measure of heart health. HRV is a measure of the variable intervals between heartbeats. In contrast to what you may think, high variability is a positive indicator of health.
This same principal of HRV applies to mental health and brainwave activity too. Flexibility of behaviour and response leads to resilience. And resilience can mean the difference between life getting to you.., and you getting on with life.
As with any skill, mental states can be useful in one context and detrimental in another. At the right time, thoughts unrelated to current tasks allow for creativity, memory, planning and patience. But at the wrong time, these thoughts will have you forget to stop for groceries on the way home. The ability to switch from one mental state to another quickly and repeat-ably is one major key to fulfilment.
This is about the speed you can switch between fully aroused, active and externally focussed.., and fully relaxed, passive and internally focussed. The better and faster you can do that, the better your life and health will be.
Mental flexibility comes from cultivating the switch between the two states. Focusing on a demanding task in one moment.., and allowing the mind to wander in the next moment. And mental flexibility leads to mental resilience.
Brainwave activity is anything but regular. When someone is said to be in a Theta brainwave state.., what that means is that in that instance Theta is dominant. But electrical currents in neurons are constantly shifting in waves of synchronisation. Hence the name brain waves. Even in a dominant brainwave state, electrical activity shifts higher or lower to access information and direct movement. And behind all of this dominant and sub-dominant brainwave activity, is neural activity almost like white noise.
Until recently, this almost random constantly changing brain activity has been disregarded as noise and errors. Modern EEG equipment and software, filters this noise out and creates an average. This is a useful way to study the brain but it ignores the variability in brainwaves completely. Recent research suggests this randomness is not random at all. It turns out this neural noise and errors could actually be a marker of brain health. Adaption to environments is key to health and longevity. Researchers once thought that this adaption and behaviour took place despite neural variability and noise. Actually, researchers on ageing and behaviour now believe that we may be able to adapt BECAUSE of this variability not despite it. In clinical studies, people who have better brainwave variability perform better at tasks. The ability to modulate this variability moment to moment, seems to be required for optimal cognitive performance.
Brainwave variability and the individual
No two brains are the same or have the same brain activity signature. Averaging out brain activity across individuals misses this vital fact. Our brains are not an organised orchestra of activity that can be compared to each other. And yet, this has been the basis of most brain mapping in the past. Because for most situations and conditions, it works. And for most situations, comparing one persons brain activity to another is a great place to start. Scientists now understand that the brain has organisation in the noise also. Methods for measuring brainwave variability, have mainly focused on developing models of normal brain function. That then allows abnormality to be identified and quantified. This doesn’t account for people getting different results from the same remedial procedures though. And this is because one persons ‘noise’ may be healthy, while another’s may be unhealthy. By taking a persons brain variability as unique, normal becomes individualised and results become more predictable. Comparisons can be useful.., but the secret to your own progress is in understanding where you are starting from. And that is unique to you. How can you possibly get to where you want to go, if you don’t know where you are? Does this mean you need to know your own specific brain patterns? No.
You can make approximations based on behaviour.
Brain and mind variability leads to stability
Variable thought, backed up by variable brainwaves and a variable heart rate, leads ironically to a more stable life.
And when this idea of variability is applied to the subject of hormesis (useful controlled stress) and brain health it makes sense.
Studies show that for most people, most of their time is spent in internal self generated thought patterns (mind wandering). This is interspersed with less frequent more externally focused task related thinking (focussed attention). Without variability in brain activity, thinking, action and environment.., abilities get lost. People become stuck in patterns of habit whether useful or not.
Mind wandering generally has a negative effect on task performance. However, people with a high level of variability between self generated and task related thought, are better at noticing their performance in real time. This leads to error correcting and overall better performance. Changes in attention, is a characteristic of people with greater cognitive ability.
Resilience is the ability to effectively deal with a changing stressful environment. To recover quickly from difficulties.
It’s important to say about resilience, that it does not mean having no measurable response to stress. The difference is in what action this stress results in. And this comes down to adaptions in the brain that are learnt and constantly changing. Learned helplessness and avoidance is an example of a lack of resilience. And is the reason many people fail to seek help.
Resilience is not a rare trait. Indeed it is a common outcome following adversity. IE: It is a successful adaption.., coping in the face of stress.
However, resilience is an active process. Especially when it comes to improving it. There are both active and passive variables that affect a persons ability to be resilient.
Epigenetics and resilience
Epigenetics is one such passive variable. This is the study of how behaviour and environment affect the way your genes work. Epigenetics describes how a gene is expressed without changes in the DNA structure itself. Science is just starting to recognise a subset of epigenetics where your ancestry affects your current behaviour. This was once considered ‘woo woo’ and spiritual belief only. But it is now becoming scientific fact. It’s not just body characteristics that get passed down generations from your parents and grandparents. For example, in lab studies of mice.., traits like resilience and others are passed down for up to five generations to offspring. This is both exciting and alarming. Because what it means is that what you think and do even before your children are born, will either serve them or hinder them.
Neuroplasticity and resilience
The exciting part is that resilience is a neuroplastic skill that can be learnt and changed. Positive traits can be strengthened and negative traits can be un-learnt. You CAN break the chain of generations. And people often do without even having that as a goal.
Our brain structure is constantly changing. It’s much more malleable than science first thought. Like a muscle, you can strengthen it or weaken it. And like a muscle, it’s use dependent. Brain neuroplasticity works both ways.., positive and negative. Just because you currently have a certain character trait, does not mean you will keep it. Therefore, the more you practice something correctly, the more your brain will respond and adapt. And the more your brain adapts.., the easier that task will be in the future.
Resilience is an ongoing changing ability. Maintaining optimal amounts of stress exposure throughout life may be the most effective way to prevent psychological conditions. This, as I wrote about recently.., is the basis of brain hormesis. As with many things in life, resilience falls into the category of use it or lose it!
Men, women and resilience to stress
There is evidence that women and men have different forms of resilience to stress. Women being on average better at coping with chronic (ongoing) stress. And men being on average better at coping with acute (shorter) stress. The neurochemical basis of this may be how the hormones Estrogen and Testosterone work with dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical produced in response to reward. But science now tells us that it is also produced sometimes in response to aversion from a stressful situation. Why is not entirely understood. But perhaps the addition of dopamine is to help facilitate resilience by causing brain plasticity. Dopamine is known to be involved in memory function and learning.
Mind variability and resilience in practice
Life will provide you with opportunities to become more resilient. Which is a nice way of saying ‘shit will happen’.
So how do you put all this together, foster mind variability, and become more resilient?
Knowing that the brain is in a constant state of renewal allows you to learn new coping strategies. New strategies for re-centering and moving effortlessly between heightened states and relaxing ones. And some of those are obvious…
Learning to quiet the mind on purpose, will teach you to more quickly recover from difficult situations. For some this is challenging, but technology can also help here. Phone apps for meditation or even devices that alter your state very quickly for you.
Changing your breathing pattern can switch you quickly between modes of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Specifically between the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ and the parasympathetic ‘rest and recover’ modes.
Finding something to be grateful for even in times of stress, will help rewire the pathways of stress in your brain. One interesting way to to that is with a specific question…
Often overlooked, but quality sleep will do more to help you be resilient than almost anything else. Just ask someone who doesn’t get good sleep. There is a comprehensive series of articles on better sleep here…
Purpose and routine
Having a purpose goes way deeper than just resilience. It keeps you progressing forward. And progress, is the key to fulfilment. Add to that some routine things that you do on a regular (preferably daily) basis, and resilience will be natural.
Being with friends or family during stressful times, reduces the activity of stress/arousal hormones noradrenaline and cortisol. And it also activates the reward centre of the brain, increasing dopamine. Both results will help make you immune to long term stress and more resilient.
Integration of experience
Integration isn’t just something done during therapy. Any experience that is significant or challenging needs integrating to be understood and learnt from. Without it, the opportunity to reset emotions is missed and patterns will be maintained and repeated.
Controlled stress exposure and stress inoculation
This will happen naturally if you are active in life. Or you can do it on purpose. Cold or heat exposure, certain types of breathwork and exercise all put stress on you. And the fact that you choose to do it creates resilience. It teaches you that you can put yourself under stress and control the discomfort. And also engages the idea of hormesis mentioned earlier.
Getting creative and combining two or more of the above methods or using them in specific ways can be even more powerful.
Resilience and mind variability training
Preparation is ALWAYS better than reaction. Training for resilience by engaging mind and brainwave variability has many benefits. If you have practised ways of dealing with unexpected events before they happen, you are far more likely to be resilient. One way of doing this is with a type of conditioning or anchoring.
Or you can make it part of your routine.
Here’s an example that you can easily do…
Start with some form of medium to intense exercise followed immediately by meditation. This teaches your mind and body that it can quickly switch from an aroused state to a relaxed one. You can even make a game out of it in your mind. Exercise to get your heart rate and breathing rate elevated.., and then see how fast you can go into a meditative state. IE: How fast can you reverse the physical and mental effects of exercise?
Or another example might be to see how fast you can become relaxed and non reactive to suddenly turning your shower from hot to cold. This is a tough one, haha.
Mind variability can also be enhanced by purposely altering your thinking style back and forth. Between mind wandering and focused attention. This is alternating between thinking detached from sensory experience, and thinking stimulated by external sensory information. As a useful side affect, this will also help you put learnings into long term memory. Experts on learning have long known that the best way to learn is to take regular breaks from focusing to do something undemanding.
Mind and brainwave variability – light and sound meditation
Light and sound meditation using light machines or psychedelic light devices create powerful altered states of consciousness. The RoXiva RX1 is one such psychedelic light machine. Music and visual imagery, combine to create a type of psychedelic light therapy or brainwave entrainment. It can be incredibly profound, allowing users to enter deep trance states. The experience is more than that though. In particular the photic entrainment offered by flickering light very quickly alters brainwave activity. If a person is over aroused they tend to have higher brainwave frequencies dominating. Or if the person is subdued and unfocused, they tend to have lower brainwaves dominating. By choosing which entrainment frequencies to use, this can be changed. And purposeful changing like this leads to flexibility and resilience in brain activity. All while remaining under the control of the user as to the intensity of the experience.
This balance of ‘stress and relaxation’, allows the body and mind to do what it was designed to do. To be flexible in a variable environment. And synchronising activity across the two brain hemispheres (as entrainment does) brings with it a host of other benefits too.
The overall lesson here.., variability is good. Change is often experienced as uncomfortable, but change is the only constant. And embracing change, is what creates resilience. It doesn’t matter what changes ‘out there’. The only thing that matters is your ability to consistently recentre yourself. And that takes practice.
That practice is worth every minute of your time. In fact that practice will most likely make you live longer and healthier.
On that subject I highly recommend you read the article on brain hormesis.