Your Very Active, Unconscious Brain

Whether you are asleep or wide awake, your brain is always active.

Even when your body rests deeply in a coma — supposedly beyond the reach of feeling and thought — your brain is hard at work commanding the systems that are pumping blood through your body, moving air into an out of your lungs, and making sure your digestive system is processing food. Most likely, we now know, your brain is doing even more than that.

Research shows that the supposedly unconscious brain can indeed register sensations, store memories, and is where 99.9% of our mind activity resides. Even at root level (unconsciousness), our brain stores our thoughts along with perceptions and emotions, impacting what we say, think and do.

In studies at the University of California San Francisco, some sedated patients could, upon awakening, repeat word-for-word what doctors said while they were under sedation, indicating the brain may even be aware of its surroundings while anesthetized.

We know our brains work differently when under anesthesia and other drug-induced altered states. We also know those states are very different from the dreaming brain. And very different from an awake brain.

It is difficult to define consciousness. That’s why scientists studying the brain are turning their attention to brain connectivity rather than studying individual regions of the brain for clues to consciousness. When researchers track the way sensory signals (brain neural impulses) travel from one part of a conscious brain to another, these signals jump to many different parts of the brain. However, when the brain is unconscious, the signals don’t hop around. Instead, they tend to stay put and gradually fade.

This may mean that consciousness is more a matter of internal brain communication rather than information processing. And some brains, researchers are finding, are better about communicating information internally than others.

We are fascinated by just about everything related to brains here at INDY Neurofeedback. If you want to see how the connectivity in your brain is working and want to keep your brain in peak condition, give us a call.

12 Facts you Probably Didn’t Know About Your Brain

At INDY Neurofeedback, we are completely fascinated with understanding how the brain functions.

But we don’t study the brain just to understand it better. We use technology and neurofeedback to help people learn more about their individual brain function to help them use their brains more effectively and productively.

For instance, INDY Neurofeedback can help people overcome behavior issues from brain injuries, or help people stop repetitive or compulsive behaviors, bad habits, or overcome fears. Using neurofeedback, we can also help improve the quality of sleep, and help with anger and stress management. We can also help with chronic pain management, and help those with ADHD and autism symptoms.

Here are some interesting facts about our amazing brains and brain function. Did you know, for example, that:

  • Babies are born with all the neurons they will ever have?
  • An entire area of the brain is devoted to hearing consonants?
  • Your brain burns 20 percent of your body’s oxygen and glucose?
  • Your brain requires about 20 watts of electric power – about the energy as a household light bulb?
  • Completely different parts of the brain are responsible for determining quantity (how many) and volume (how much)?
  • Unconsciousness occurs eight-to-ten seconds after loss of blood supply to the brain?
  • Everyone, including the deaf, use the left hemisphere to process language?
  • You are more likely to remember something if the experience combines information and emotion?
  • There are special grid cells in the brain that help you navigate?
  • Seeing someone in distress triggers mirror neurons in your brain to feel similar emotions?
  • The part of your brain that recognizes an object is different from the part in your brain that locates it?
  • Reflex responses such as a knee jerk, come from the spinal cord, not the brain?

INDY Neurofeedback is here to help your brain responsiveness by helping you retrain the way you think, react, recall, and respond. If you have a question about your own condition or concern, we’re happy to activate our brains and listen to you!

Your Brain and Memories

Do you remember watching the video of that first passenger plane crashing into the World Trade Tower over and over again the day of September 11th, 2001? Most of us think that’s what we saw as we learned of the attacks. But most of us have remembered this incorrectly.

Because we saw that footage hundreds of times, it’s what we associate with that day. But the fact is, we did not actually see that plane crash footage until more than 24 hours after the attack occurred because it wasn’t released to the public until the afternoon of September 12th.

So if our memories cannot actually be completely trusted, what’s going on here? Quite a lot, actually.

It turns out that scientists have long known that recording a memory takes more than filing away a thought. Recording a memory requires adjusting the connections between our neurons – and we have a lot of those – 100 billion neurons in all. Each and every one of our memories adjusts a tiny subset of the neurons in the brain, changing the way they communicate.

Then those changed neurons need to send messages to one another across narrow gaps called synapses. A synapse is much like a busy mail center, complete with machinery for sending and receiving letters — our neurotransmitters — specialized chemicals that convey signals between neurons

Eric Kandel is a 2000 Nobel laureate neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York City who has done five decades of groundbreaking memory research. Kandel has shown how short-term memories—those lasting a few minutes—involve relatively quick and simple chemical changes to the synapse that make it work more efficiently. He proved that to build a memory that lasts hours, days or years, neurons must manufacture new proteins and expand the associations between other neurons to make the neurotransmitter memory stick and be retrievable.

Long-term memories must literally be cemented into the brain’s synapses with many, many neuro associations over time. Kandel calls this long term memory “consolidation.”

We tend to think that our memory system works something like a journal entry. Before the ink dries, it’s possible to smudge what’s written. But after the memory is written down (consolidated), it changes very little. Yes, memories tend to fade over the years, but under ordinary circumstances the content stays the same. But Kandel’s research challenges these assumptions.

Kandel found that a memory could be weakened by any sort of trauma. In animal testing, if an electric shock or a drug that interferes with a particular neurotransmitter was administered just after a lab rat was prompted to recall a memory (lab maze), the memory (the maze run) became disjointed. This suggested that memories were vulnerable to disruption even after they had been consolidated.

He also proved that memories are not consolidated just once, when they are first created. Instead, they need to be at least partially rebuilt every time they are recalled. That means that recollections can be swayed by intense emotions, misleading information, hearing another version of the same story, trauma, and many other brain interruptions. Kandel’s experiments and other scientists research suggested that memory can easily be distorted without people realizing it.

People do tend to have accurate memories for the basic facts of a momentous event, for example, that a two planes were careened into the World Trade Towers. But we quite often misremember smaller details around the momentous ones. In this example, television and other media coverage reinforce the central facts. But recalling personal memory experience allows distortions to creep in. Our memories become malleable, with whatever is present around you interfering with the original content of the memory.

“This may be a big part of the reason why,” suggests Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, “that family members witnessing the same family event, often remember it very differently. It’s also why those dealing with traumatic stress around a memory may have trouble remembering details. Strong emotions can absolutely affect or change the way our memories work.”

Screen Time and Your Child’s Brain

The medical community has known for the past 30 years that spending large amounts of time in front of a TV or computer screen had a negative effect on a child’s developing brain – but specifically what parts of brain development were affected and for how long, have not been well researched or understood.

Thanks to new longer-term research studies, we now have more comprehensive, useable data. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported in JAMA Pediatrics that an increase in screen viewing time is linked to poorer progress on key young childhood developmental measures over time, including communication and language skills, memory, attention span, problem solving, and social skills.

This pronouncement is the result of a far-reaching psychological study from the University of Calgary in Canada, where 2,441 mothers and children aged two to five were studied over the course of three years. Initial baseline data were collected at the start of the study, when the children were two years old, then again when they were three and five.

By following the children over many years, the University of Calgary study learned more about how screen time and early child brain development intersect. Mothers reported on how much time their children spent in front of a television or computer screen on a typical day. They also reported on their child’s developmental measures by answering questions about their child’s behavior, communication skills, and social interactions. The study found that on average, the young children in the study were spending about 2-3 hours per day in front of a screen. (It’s worth noting that The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that young children spend no more than one hour a day watching quality educational programming.)

Children who spent more time using TV or computers did indeed show poorer performance on developmental measures. (Interestingly, the study did not find evidence that the opposite was occurring. In other words, children with developmental issues were not more likely to spend time in front of a screen.)

These measurable links remained strong even after researchers accounted for other factors that can influence development, such as parents’ education, children’s physical activity levels, and whether parents read to their children regularly.

“The study results show that there is a lasting influence of screen time, especially when children are two to five years old, when their brains are undergoing a period of tremendous development,” according to the JAMA Pediatrics article.

“It also strongly supports expert guidelines that recommend limiting screen time for young children,” notes Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “When the brain is rapidly developing new connections, it learns from every kind of experience it receives. So when watching a screen, the child is missing out on the opportunity for interacting with others and the surrounding environment.”

It is important to note, however, that not all screen time is detrimental to brain development. Families can develop healthy media habits by watching with their children, pointing out and discussing interesting ideas to contribute to language, skills and learning, making the time beneficial.

The Fascinating Brain-Gut Connection

As you eat your dinner, some pretty fascinating things are going on in your body that go well beyond filling your stomach and keeping your body fueled.

  • As you swallow, multiple enzymes in your gastrointestinal tract release the nutrients from your food into your bloodstream and deliver them to the muscles and organs in your body to give them energy.
  • You are also feeding the billions of bacteria at home in your gut. In fact, there are at least two pounds of them.
  • Interestingly, you are also actively feeding your brain, which requires a lot of fuel – and prebiotics.

Really? Your brain and gut work together? “Absolutely,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “That’s because what you eat doesn’t just feed your active body, it also profoundly influences your mental as well as physical health. Even more interesting, what your body can’t digest may be the biggest boon to your physical and mental well-being.”

Here’s why:

  • Every person’s microbiome is distinct, influenced by age, genetics, diet, and sex.
  • There’s a sort of secondary market for the indigestibles in your colon. This is where an incredibly diverse family of permanently entrenched bacteria feed on the enzyme-resistant carbohydrates you eat.
  • Prebiotics, types of dietary fiber that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut, influence the production of gut bug-derived metabolites like short-chain fatty acids, compounds that play a pivotal role in gut-brain communication.
  • Your colon actually ferments these in ways unique to your inner gut biome. The composition of this unique microbiome influences such functions such as memory, sleep, appetite, vulnerability to stress, anxiety, depression, and lots more.

“In other words,” says O’Neil, “your gut may have way more to do with your brain than you ever thought possible.”

Recent studies show that it is prebiotics that curb your brain’s response to stress, dampening secretion of the hormone cortisol. Prebiotics also step up to regulate the way your brain processes emotional information, helping to keep it from depression.

What prebiotics can you eat to help your brain-gut connection?

Nondigestible carbohydrates (fiber), prebiotics act as fertilizer for specific strains of healthy gut bacteria.

The best-researched prebiotics are complex carbohydrates called FOS (fructooligosaccharides), which are found in fruits and vegetables.

GOS (galactooligosaccharides) are another helpful prebiotic strain, found in legumes.

New research has also discovered that polyphenol antioxidants in green tea, red wine, blueberries, and cocoa boost populations of beneficial bacteria in your microbiome. No wonder you get an emotional release after eating chocolate and consuming a glass of red wine!

The first few months of life and adolescence seem to be particularly important times for regulation of gut-brain health. This is because the diversity of the microbiome during that period will have lasting effects on the adult body, helping set the body’s stress threshold for life during certain sensitive periods of development, when the brain is growing especially rapidly.

Overall, says Leanne O’Neil, prebiotics are dietary components that can promote gut and brain health with links to physical health and mental well-being at any age. So eat – knowledgeably!

Diet & Exercise Might Reverse Aging in the Brain

Everyone knows that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise are the keys to good health and staving off early signs of aging. But did you know that those same health benefits can keep your brain healthy and youthful as well?

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have established that even among a group of people over 55 years who already showed signs of age-related thinking problems, exercising regularly while maintaining a healthy diet over six months improved their performance on cognitive tests.

The 160 people chosen for the study had cognitive skills similar to people in their 90’s, significantly older than they actually were. The volunteers were divided into four groups:

  • one group participated in an aerobic exercise program
  • another was assigned a low-sodium or Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet
  • a third was asked to exercise and change their diet at the same time, and
  • a fourth control group was provided educational sessions about how to improve their brain health.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the group that exercised and changed its diet at the same time showed the greatest improvements in cognitive tests after six months. The control group, however, showed a continued decline in their brain test scores, and there was no significant benefit from either exercise or change in diet alone.

We now have evidence that exercise and the diet together are better than dieting or exercise alone. The research also showed it is possible to improve senior neurocognitive function, and possibly even postpone development of dementia late in life.

“The bottom line is that it’s never too late to acquire brain and overall health benefits from exercise and better eating,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback.

“Researchers know that physical heart health, as well as how well blood circulates throughout the body and brain are tremendously important to retaining cognitive skills,” O’Neil continues. “That’s because our brains rely on oxygen–rich blood for fuel. In fact, our brains use more oxygen than any other organ in our bodies. Just another reason we incorporate the Heart Math program with all our clients.”

Marijuana and the Adolescent Brain

More and more states are legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use. Researchers, doctors, educators, and parents are taking note and need to fully understand the health effects of cannabis use in minors.

You and your teen should consider these new research findings:

  • com and U.S. News and World Report released a 2018 survey that found 2.1 million middle and high school students have engaged in vaping marijuana.
  • Researchers in Europe found that marijuana can increase the amount of gray matter in a teenager’s brain, which affects adolescent development.
  • A new study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that after just one use of marijuana, the teenage brain can be altered.

We do know that marijuana can slow a person’s reaction time, make their heart race, and affect short-term memory. But what else might it do, especially to developing adolescent brains?

In one study, researchers scanned the brains of 46 14-year-olds from Ireland, England, France, and Germany. They found that those who used marijuana had higher brain volumes than those who didn’t. Specifically, brain volume referred to increased gray matter, a mass of cells that affect how humans mature over time.

Here’s why this matters. At age 14, the median age of the teens in the study, “Teens’ cortical regions go through a process of thinning or pruning,” says the lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry. However, when marijuana was introduced, the increased amount of gray matter “disrupted this pruning process” which, in turn, interrupted the normal maturation process. But how much, or to what end, we don’t yet fully understand.

In addition to changing the teenage brain, marijuana also has other effects on the human body:

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, is the main psychoactive component in marijuana. THC reacts with the body’s cannabinoid receptors resulting in slower reaction times to stimuli.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse has shown that marijuana can make a user’s heart rate temporarily jump. This feeling may last between 20 minutes and three hours and can cause a heart rate increase of up to 50 beats per minute. Since a usual resting heart rate is 60 bpm, this rate is nearly double the average.
  • Marijuana users may also experience issues with their short-term memory loss, since the THC affects how a brain processes information, according to a 2013 study.

Compounding all these verifiable health issues is what behavioral psychologists have long known about adolescent brains. That is, because the frontal cortex of their brains is still developing, adolescents are much more likely to engage in risky and experimental behavior. Additionally, vaping (rather than smoking) marijuana is seen as a cooler, more accepted way to get high. Plus, weed is now more readily accessible (often legal for those 21 years and older) across America and elsewhere.

Parents and their teens should take notice. Although we have research showing that marijuana affects the brain in some limited long- and short-term ways, we simply do not yet know what the long-term outlook is for teens who smoke or vape marijuana on an ongoing basis.