How Your Brain Reacts to Fright

Why do some of us like getting a good scare now and then?

When something startles you, your body’s response is pretty interesting. And like so many things, it all starts with our amazing brains.

Here’s why we jump and how getting scared works:

  • When we experience something scary, your brain sends out an immediate alert to your amygdala, the brain’s control center for emotions and reactions.
  • When the amygdala receives the alert, it activates your fight or flight response, sending a rush of adrenaline coursing through your bloodstream. This adrenaline sets you into a hyper alertness; your pupils dilate and your eye muscles tense to open your eyes wide, expanding your field of vision.
  • The adrenaline also causes your heart to immediately pump faster, increasing your blood pressure and breathing rate.
  • Your arms and legs raise with goose bumps, the mammalian response (seen frequently in cats) to make us appear larger to predators.

A few seconds later, another region of your brain kicks in, your prefrontal cortex — the region that rules your thinking. Only then does the assessment part of your scare begin.

Your brain begins to decide whether or not there’s a rational reason to be scared. If your fear is well founded, your prefrontal cortex finds ways to keep you safe. If not, it begins to shut down all that adrenaline, and your body begins to go back to normal.

Does anything good come out of all this?

Assuming we were watching a scary movie and not running from a bear, it might not seem as if anything good could come from being frightened. But — your body’s response to fear can give you some small health boosts.

Being scared can heighten concentration. You are more likely remember details about the situation (again, your amazing brain to the rescue helping you recognize patterns in case the scare reoccurs). That heightened concentration will also help you to remember your lines in a play, or nail a job interview.

If you are sharing your scare — such as watching a scary movie with friends or family, as you calm down, the act of sharing that extreme emotion will encourage the secretion of the hormone oxytocin, encouraging bonding.

How to calm yourself down when you are overly panicked:

Most of us cannot control the first part of panic, when your amygdala takes over. But we can train ourselves to react to fear less violently by learning to control our secondary stress reactions.

  • First, breathe deeply and steadily. That will help slow down the production of stress hormones, steadying your heart rate and helping your muscles relax.
  • Second, remind yourself that your body is responding in the way it is designed to, working to self protect. Embracing and understanding the process will help you calm down faster.
  • You can add to that calm by focusing on your vegus nerve — gently massaging from the top of your ear to the lob. This has been proven help reverse your body’s fight of flight response and calm you down.

Now that you know what’s going on in your body, feel free to enjoy a little scare now and then!

How Regular Exercise Benefits Your Brain

It’s fairly well known that research studies are finding that regular exercise absolutely benefits the brain, especially as we age. What we are still trying to determine is precisely how exercise helps counter the cognitive decline that comes with aging.

To find out, researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health have studied a unique group of middle-aged people at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s — 1,500 people who are cognitively normal, but have genes that put them at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or have one or two parents who have been diagnosed with the disease.

The research team is trying to relate which biological processes change with exercise. In one study, these at-risk ‘middle agers’ were divided in two groups, those not physically active and those that were. All had their brains scanned to track Alzheimer’s-related brain changes including differences in how neurons metabolized glucose, since people with Alzheimer’s disease tend to break down glucose more slowly. At the end of the study period, the group that exercised more showed higher levels of glucose metabolism and performed better on cognitive-function tests compared to those who did not.

In previous work, the Wisconsin researchers identified a series of Alzheimer’s-related biological changes that seemed to be affected by exercise by comparing people who were more physically active to those who were not. In this study, they showed that intervening with an exercise regimen could actually affect these processes.

Collectively, this body of research is determining how physical activity contributes to significant changes in the biological processes in the brain that drive Alzheimer’s, and may even reduce the effect of strong risk factors such as age and genes linked to higher risk of neurodegenerative disease.

So what does this study mean to you? Brain scans of people who reported exercising at moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes a week, showed that age-related changes to the brain were significantly reduced over those who sporadically exercised or did not at all. The benefits of exercise in controlling Alzheimer’s processes was even stronger among those with genetic predisposition for the disease.

What about those that exercise even more? Studies show that people with higher aerobic fitness levels showed low amounts of white matter hyperintensities, which are signs of neuron degeneration. These show up as brighter spots on MRI images, hence the name. White matter hyperintensities tend to increase in the brain with age, and are more common in people with dementia or cognitive impairment.

So, exercise matters. A lot. This is confirmed by the National Institutes of Health. Exercise for your body’s fitness and your brain’s. It all contributes to aging gracefully and keeping your cognitive abilities going strong. If you are interested in knowing more about your brain, call INDY Neurofeedback to schedule a brain mapping.

How We Process Learning Intentionally And Unintentionally Is Very Different

Would you have trouble memorizing and repeating back ten un-related words? How easily do you absorb driving directions before using them?

Learning something intentionally is called explicit learning, such as the list of instructions and words mentioned above. However implicit learning – learning that is naturally absorbed and not intentional — is something brain researchers are very interested in learning more about.

Implicit learning is recognized as a core learning system that underlies our learning of language, music, navigating our environments, and much more. It’s been assumed that implicit learning is something we are born with, a strategy for basic, rudimentary learning. A good example is grammar. Although a six-year-old cannot explain the rules of grammar, s/he will know how to use basic grammar to communicate. The learning of language rules is an unconscious learning of abstract knowledge, even though it is absolutely learned information.

So how does this type of learning occur in our brains? And how much of a difference in this type of learning is there, from person to person?

In a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 64 healthy young adults were given four types of tasks that required implicit learning, including:

  • Ascertaining an artificial grammar usage and correctly applying it.
  • Predicting whether a particular group of images was going to trigger a specific outcome.
  • Guessing where a circle was going to appear on a screen based on prior sequences.
  • Classifying abstract visual stimuli into categories.

One week after these tasks, the same participants returned to complete an IQ test as well as different versions of each of their former tasks. They were tested on their working memory as well as their “explicit” learning (deliberately memorizing a list of words).

For three of the four implicit learning tasks, the researchers found a “medium” level relationship between a participant’s initial performance and how well they did a week later. This suggests stability in implicit learning ability.

The team also found that how well a participant performed at implicit learning bore no relation to their IQ or working memory results. It seemed to be driven by independent neural processes rather than those that explained explicit learning — which is linked to IQ.Their findings tended to reinforce earlier work which tied explicit and implicit learning to different brain regions and networks.

Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback, weighs in. “The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for explicit — but not implicit learning. Researchers have found that damage to the basal ganglia and cerebellum sections of the brain impair implicit, but not explicit, learning. Each area of our brain is responsible for different systems, functions and behavior.” 

These findings also suggest that someone might feasibly be smart, as measured by an IQ test, but not particularly adept at implicit learning – perhaps slower than someone else with a significantly lower IQ score. A good example of this is the ability to identify a barely discernible tumor in a medical scan, which would require implicit learning strength.

So, brain researchers wonder, can implicit learning brain mechanisms be trained? How might explicit learning help or hinder implicit learning?

“Our brains are incredibly diverse and complicated. It will be fascinating to learn about the results of follow-up research in this field,” says O’Neil.

If you are concerned about your recall or short-term memory, INDY Neurofeedback has drug-free, non-invasive training plans that can help you improve memory and brain function. Your first consultation is free.

Walking Backward And Brain Function

According to a fascinating recent Harvard University Psychology department study, people who walked backward, imagined they were walking backward, or watched a video simulating backward motion, had better short-term recall than those who walked forward or sat still. Finding out why is another matter entirely.

According to Harvard Psychology Professor Dr. Daniel Schacter, “It’s possible that people associate going backward with the past and this somehow triggers a memory response. We know it can’t have anything to do with how they’ve encoded the information, (as the subjects) weren’t walking backward when they stored the memories tested in this study.”

Here’s how the study worked:

  • 114 people saw a video of a staged crime, a word list, or a group of images. 
  • Participants were then asked to walk forward, walk backward, sit still, watch a video that simulated forward or backward motion, or imagine walking forward or backward.
  • Study participants then answered 20 questions related to the crime video.

Researchers found that people who walked backwards were significantly more likely to answer the 20 questions correctly immediately after walking backwards, than those who did not. This surprising result was true regardless of how old the participants were. On average, the boost in memory lasted for about 10 minutes after people stopped moving.

Improving memory recall

“Although more research needs to be made,” says Leanne O’Neil,  “the preliminary findings suggest that motion strategy might be a relatively simple technique to use to help people better recall past events.”

Psychologists know that a method called cognitive interviewing helps people recall details of a recent event by metaphorically walking a person through an event forward and backward. So it’s possible that literally walking backward may mimic something similar in the brain.

The Harvard study authors are looking at more studies to determine whether this and other motion-based memory aids can help elderly adults or people with dementia.

So, can walking backward help boost your short-term memory?

Lots of studies have shown memorizing lists, facts, or something specific such as memorizing a part in a play can be improved if the individual doing the memorization is walking while committing the details to mind. That may be one way to start working to boost memory.

Walking backward while memorizing would have to be done safely – perhaps while walking in a pool. It might be worth trying, suggests Leanne O’Neil.

If you are worried about your recall or short-term memory, INDY Neurofeedback has non-invasive tools to help you improve memory and brain function.

Can Aromatherapy Help With Brain Health?

The simplest answer is that we don’t know for sure. But in recent medical studies, essential oils and aromatherapy do seem to have a positive effect upon those with brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In one study, for example, aromatherapy was used with a group of the elderly suffering from dementia and/or Alzheimer’s. The patients were given rosemary and lemon inhalations (via diffusers) in the morning. Later in the evening, the diffusers were used with lavender and orange essential oils.

Caretakers and medical professionals studied this group after the morning and evening inhalation sessions. According to professionals in the study, “patients showed significant improvement in personal orientation, without any side effects.”

Although research like this is encouraging, scientists are not sure of the “why” behind the power essentials oils seem to have in helping maintain brain health in seniors.

Here is what we do know:

  • You are able to smell an essential oil because tiny molecules are being dissolved in the mucus lining of the olfactory epithelium located on the roof of your nasal cavity.
  • These molecules stimulate olfactory receptors, triggering sensory neurons which carry signals to the olfactory bulb that processes and filters the input signals of the essential oil scent.
  • From there, mitral cells carry the output signals from the bulb to the olfactory cortex, causes you to perceive the particular scent of the oil that you are smelling.

Interestingly, scientists know that the mitral cells not only lead to the olfactory cortex, but they also carry signals from the essential oil scent to other areas in the limbic system (the primal brain responsible for memory, instinct and mood.) The olfactory system is the only sensory mechanism that involves the limbic system and amygdala in its primary processing pathway.

This connection explains why smell is often linked to memory. This also gives us some insight into why essential oils are so popular as a non-pharmaceutical intervention for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Here are some ways to use essential oils:

  • In search of calm? Try chamomile, frankincense, lavender or vetiver.
  • Need deeper sleep? Lavender has shown increased sleep patterns in dementia patients.
  • For an energy boost, peppermint oil has been proven to increase oxygen capacity.
  • Geranium, lavender and mandarin orange, when mixed with almond oil base, resulted in contentment, increased alertness, and reduced levels of agitation, wandering and withdrawal.
  • Lavender, marjoram, patchouli, and vetiver significantly increased the active mental states of dementia patients.

Try using pharmaceutical grade essential oils in small doses, just a few drops at a time, and see what brain-body benefits you receive. Some of these oils do have contraindications with prescribed medications, so if you are on prescribed medications, first consult with your physician.

Our sense of smell – and its direct connection to our brains — is a powerful resource.

Are Male And Female Brains Different?

mens brains versus womens brainsQuite a few people think so.

In the not so distant past, medical professionals reasoned that since men had larger brains (5 ounces, on average) than women, they were better able to reason, think and process. Men were also said to be more proficient at certain types of thinking – such as strategy, logical thinking and math.

But the truth is, male and female brains work extremely similarly. Regardless of gender, the bigger a person is, the bigger the brain will be. It is body size – not male or female genes or brain structure — that determines brain size. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that bigger brains are ‘better and more able’ brains.

The proof

That said, it took MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging brain scans) to reveal that that human brains are capable of growing, changing and modifying in all kinds of varying ways, regardless of the gender of the owner.

In a 2015 study at Tel Aviv University, for example, the brains of more than 100 brain structures in over 1400 brain scans and found that it was impossible to define female-typical and male-typical brains.

Our brains, it turns out, tell the tales of the lives we have lived and the experiences we have had. Education, occupations, health, nutrition, sports, and habits like drinking and smoking – all play their part. The way we work, think and perform tasks reflects all of these things. So for instance, the hippocampus of a 20-year New York City taxi veteran will be larger and more complex than an occasional weekend Uber driver.

So where did male/female brain stereotypes come from?

The short answer is society protocols and expectations. Society traditionally allocated certain life-roles and career choices (and gender ‘appropriate’ toys, games and behavior) to men and women which emphasized differing skills and opportunities. This, in turn, shaped brain strengths and neural pathways.

Today, research shows us that every person’s brain is unique. Digital literacy, for example, is gender neutral. So is math ability and organizational skill. And yes, even chance-taking is gender neutral.

Time to discard the outdated concept of male and females are better or worse at doing and being. Every one of us has a truly amazing, absolutely original brain.

To learn the specifics about your unique brain, schedule a non-invasive mapping with us.

Neurons, The Amazing Building Blocks Of Our Brains

“The human brain is nothing short of amazing,” says Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “From speaking, pattern recognition, reading, thinking ahead, and memorizing – to breathing, walking, digesting, and organ function — all begin with the fundamental unit of the brain, the nerve cell or neuron. It really is fascinating.”

brain mapping and neuronsThe human brain contains an estimated 90 billion neurons, each one a different size and shape. Interestingly, just one neuron can reach from one side of the brain to the other. But no matter the length or shape, each neuron links to hundreds upon hundreds of others in an amazingly complicated network.

Some of these chains of neurons send information to the brain from the body’s extremities, registering foot placement while walking or balance while climbing stairs, for instance. Others send information from the brain to the body, signaling the need to sleep, the sense of being full, or sending a complicated series of exercise instructions to the appropriate muscles of the body. Still other neuron chains share data among themselves to construct subconscious or conscious thoughts, store memories, and acknowledge emotions.

“Even the network of neurons in and of itself forges trillions of connections throughout the brain and body,” adds O’Neil. “That makes the human brain – as far as we know — the most complicated organ on the earth.”

Scientists hope to be able to map out the entire brain with all its connections. This knowledge will help us to more completely understand the distinct areas of the brain containing cells with similar structure, function and connectivity, and how and why they are connected to other areas.

We are well underway in this brain mapping process. Neuroscientists have already charted an equivalent map of the brain’s outermost layer, called the cerebral cortex. They have been able to subdivide each hemisphere’s folds into 180 separate parcels. Some ninety-seven of these areas have never previously been described, despite showing clear differences in structure, function and connectivity from their neuron neighbors.

“The brain mapping we do at INDY Neurofeedback is different, but just as fascinating,” says O’Neil. “It relies on information from a Quantitative EEG. Our software performs thousands of statistical calculations correlating the functions of brain location with the functions of each dimension of each component band. The software then takes these calculations and correlates them with the 50k normal and abnormal brain maps in the database. The items chosen for analysis are derived from functional MRI research and traditional neurological texts. It is amazing how much we can know about areas of the brain.”

If you have a question or a concern about brain function, let’s talk, neurons to neurons!

New Study Shows How Neurofeedback May Help Brains Self-Regulate

Cognitive behavioral therapy, commonly known as CBT, can help people better control their emotions by teaching them new ways of thinking. A recent study suggests this approach could be strengthened by using neurofeedback.

“To understand this study, you first need to understand how the brain works,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “The healthy regulation of our emotions involves our prefrontal cortex, responsible for the regulation of activity in many other areas of the brain, including the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped cluster of neurons located on each side of the brain, and is involved in memory processing, decision-making and emotional responses.”

“Problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety and panic disorders – which we see at the INDY Neurofeedback center every week — are associated with heightened amygdala activation. So, targeting this heightened activation area of the brain with neurofeedback could be beneficial, according to a group of scientists, who set out to prove their hypothesis.”

Scientists from the US, Germany and Switzerland joined forces recently to investigate whether the response of the amygdala to stress could be increased by providing participants with feedback on their amygdala activity while they tried to regulate their emotions using an fMRI brain scanner.

How the study worked

  • In the study,15 participants with good mental health were placed in a neurofeedback group while 11 others were placed in a control group. All participants underwent four weekly real-time fMRI emotional training sessions that involved looking at a sequence of negative emotional images (to provoke amygdala activation) and asked them to try to regulate their emotional reaction using a reality check
  • The reality check strategy involved using phrases such as “these are only pictures” and “I am participating in an experiment” (a form of cognitive reappraisal).
  • Only participants in the feedback group received visual feedback on their amygdala activity while they looked at the pictures and attempted to regulate their emotions.
  • Participants in the feedback group were also provided with visual feedback in the form of changing colored squares that corresponded with their amygdala activation. In the control group, these color squares changed randomly and the control participants were told they were meaningless.

What the study showed

  • By the fourth week, when participants performed the reality check, the feedback group showed significantly decreased amygdala activation as compared to the first week.
  • Interestingly, no such decrease of amygdala activity was observed in the control group even though they used the same reality check exercises.
  • The feedback group also exhibited better task-related communication between the amygdala and other brain areas involved in emotional control.

In short, although the sample sizes were small, this study strongly suggests that amygdala regulation can be trained and regulated. It also supports existing research showing promise for the application of neurofeedback in the treatment of problems like PTSD, anxiety, addiction, and depression that are associated with heightened amygdala activation.

Leanne O’Neil and her INDY Neurofeedback center team work with many clients suffering from anxiety disorders. If you would like to see if we can help you, give us a call to set up a free consultation.

Omega-3 Can Help After a Brain Injury

Although there is no known cure for a brain injury, there is an established Omega-3 Protocol for the management and recovery of brain health following an injury to the brain.

Omega-3s are essential to the development of the human brain. So it makes sense that following brain trauma, such as a concussion, providing omega-3s can help the brain begin to heal itself.

What are Omega-3s?

Omega-3s are unsaturated fatty acids that occur naturally in fish oils. Omega-3 is classified by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). In fact, the FDA has stated that up to three grams of EPA+DHA per diem is safe for the average adult without fear of adverse events. (There are no known significant drug interactions with omega-3 fatty acids.) Omega-3s can be ingested as supplements or through food.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), Omega-3s appear to prevent irregular heartbeat, reduce fatty plaques inside artery walls, decrease blood clotting, decrease triglycerides (blood fat), increase HDL (good cholesterol) and decrease inflammation.

Since many head injuries result in brain inflammation, and often, brain bleeds, the qualities of Omega-3s make them especially helpful for brain health after injury.

How can you add more Omega-3s into your diet?

It’s simple. Add more fish to your diet or take a high quality, pharmaceutical grade fish oil supplement.

Here are the fish that are highest in Omega-3s:

  • Mackerel (4,107 mg per serving)
  • Salmon (4,023 mg per serving)
  • Cod Liver Oil (2,664 mg per serving)
  • Herring (3,181 mg per serving)
  • Oysters (565 mg per serving)
  • Sardines (2,205 mg per serving)
  • Anchovies (951 mg per serving)
  • Caviar (1,086 mg per serving)

There is an established Omega-3 brain health protocol, established by Dr. Michael A. Lewis, a member of the Brain Health Education & Research Institute.

  • STEP 1: Begin with a high quality fish oil supplement—Not all fish oil is the same

For Capsules: Each 1,000mg soft gel Omega-3 capsule should contain approximately 600mg of EPA & DHA omega‐3s combined.

You will need approximately 175 capsules for first two weeks.

For liquid concentrate Omega-3 oil: 1 ½ teaspoons (7.5 ml), containing approximately 3000mg (3gm) of EPA & DHA omega-3s combined.

  • STEP 2: Begin taking Omega-3 capsules as soon as possible following a brain injury:


Take 5 capsules (3 g of EPA/DHA) three times a day for 7 days

or 1 ½ teaspoons will provide approximately 3 g (3000 mg) of EPA/DHA. In most cases, five capsules of concentrated fish oil is sufficient.


Take 5 capsules (3 g of EPA/DHA) two times a day for 7 days.

  • STEP 3: Maintenance. Continuing a MAINTENANCE DOSE is important to maintain optimal brain health.

Take 5 capsules (3 g of EPA/DHA) a day.

This Brain Health and Research Institute protocol has been developed as a guideline. Since every patient and every brain injury is different, patients and their healthcare providers may wish to adjust the dosage to their needs. For example, if the injury is more severe or happened months or years prior, the patient may prefer to be on a higher dose for a longer period of time.

How can you tell that the Omega-3 protocol is helping your brain function?

Patients typically notice improvements within the first week, and often in the first several days. Depending on the individual and the injury, patients have described being able to think more clearly, more energy throughout the day, decrease headache frequency and/or intensity, and a sense of calmness.

Although this clinical protocol was tested following concussions and head injuries, some patients using the Omega-3 protocol following a stroke, or with ADHD symptoms, or depression, may also benefit from having more of the nutritional foundation of Omega-3s. Naturally, results will vary from person to person.

As always, every individual is different. Consult with your healthcare provider for the best advice for you.

8 Ways to Lower Your Dementia Risk

No one wants to suffer with dementia in old age — or for that matter, at any age. Are there steps one can take to minimize the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback says, “The short answer is yes, researchers believe so. But more studies are needed to uncover what causes dementia in some people and not in others. It helps to understand the complicated nature of the development of dementia. In the majority of cases, dementia and Alzheimer’s, like other relatively common chronic conditions, develop as a result of complex interactions between heredity, physical health and the environment in which you live.”

Researchers have been trying to parse out which of the interactions including age, genetics (heredity), environment, lifestyle, and any and all coexisting medical conditions, might be the most important.

Researchers note that some risk factors, such as age and DNA, cannot be changed, but other risk factors most certainly can be minimized. This is especially true when you consider unhealthy habits such as smoking or heavy drinking, which can be curtailed or stopped. Another lifestyle change to reduce dementia risk is exercise. Lack of exercise spells trouble, both in the physical body (atrophy of muscles) and the mind (exercising the body also benefits the brain). Ongoing research in multiple areas may lead to new ways to detect those at highest risk.

Ongoing research in multiple areas may lead to new ways to detect those at highest risk. Meanwhile, here’s what we know that you can do to help mitigate your risk of developing dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Do not use anticholinergic drugs (Here is a LINK to the November 6, 2018 blog that addresses this issue.)
  • Don’t smoke (or if you do, quit as soon as possible).
  • Keep active and exercise regularly. Even walking counts.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, begin to make changes to your diet and exercise regimen to lose weight gradually and permanently.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables.
  • Drink very moderately, if at all.
  • Keep cholesterol and blood pressure at a healthy level.
  • Keep regular social connections and interactions strong.
  • Learn something new every day. Travel. Try new foods. Take up a new hobby or activity. Intellectual activity is very important.

Although we are a long way from knowing everything about why some of get dementia and others do not, we are learning more and more all the time.

Take charge of your health! Make the changes noted above now to stay ahead of deteriorating brain health – and be as healthy as possible as you age.