There are patterns in life where things blend together and others where contrast or opposition prevail. These phenomena are so ordinary and common that we take them for granted. For instance, camouflage in the natural environment, gravity’s support or opposition, varying textures and tastes (e.g. juices and sauces or nuts and chips), friction, smoothness, the bonding attributes of chemical reactions, and the many varieties of human experience all attest to the presence of and interactions among life’s arrays and organization of matter and energy.
In the realm of human experience, we are all familiar with life’s ups and downs, the rotations and undulations of things going smoothly and pleasantly sometimes, but with opposition, conflict, and arduous effort at others.
There is a saying, aptly brought to mind when things don’t go our way: The problem with the universe is that light dust settles on dark surfaces, and dark dust settles on light surfaces. Or so it seems when life is tough and the chips are down.
When things are going well and flowing smoothly, life may seem more harmonious and auspicious, and we may be aware of a sense of being “in the zone,” where exertion seems relatively effortless, things are in the right place at the right time, and outcomes are favorable.
Actually, the interplay between harmony and opposition is fundamental to the order of the universe, to nature, science, and life. Opposition and challenge form the bedrock of flexibility. We may examine, discover, and verify this truth in so many domains. There can be teamwork and harmony in relationships and groups. Yet there is often discord, contention, or at least differences of opinion. The opposition of forces is not necessarily a bad thing: it can make for creativity, testing, and strengthening.
Chemical reactions are composed of a variety of attractions, yielding compounds unique and different from their constituents. Some chemical entities are unstable, whereas others are stable or even inert.
Geography and weather are subject to aspects of harmony and sanguinity, but also to periods of turbulence and instability. Solar systems are bound by gravitational forces, yet are disrupted on a grand scale by the formation and destruction of celestial bodies—on a scale of eons that is scientifically discernable, but, even so, difficult to apprehend.
These universal forces are recapitulated in the workings of biology: the ebb, flow, and interchange between harmonious congruence and the flexibility necessary for adaptation. These mechanisms develop in parallel and manifest through control mechanisms within the human brain and nervous system. Said succinctly, we survive and function through combinations of activities that maximize differences and distinction and activities that maximize sameness and congruence.
Differences and opposition are represented as challenges by which we develop and adapt neurologically and socially. Such mastery and adaptation results in and depends upon flexibility. Similarity, uniformity, and the power of teamwork lead to increased efficiency and reward. This is known as harmony.
To illustrate these concepts, think of music: there are themes of harmony, offset by counterpoint, contrast, divergence, variance, etc. The recapitulations in some orderly fashion make music organized, predictable, and satisfying. Whether there be different instruments contributing notes, chords, and timing, or a person playing piano whose two hands may be playing different notes or in simultaneity, the interplay of difference and sameness makes for permutations of performance according to recognizable and productive schema.
Obviously, to play different notes with the left and right hand on the piano, one must have trained and practiced flexibility. But without harmony and congruence, the notes would be disorganized and bereft of sensible and satisfying relationship and reception.
The interplay and recapitulation between flexibility and harmony is threaded throughout the universe—in nature, science, and the timing mechanisms of celestial bodies and microorganisms. Flexibility and harmony are also endemic to human brain function, whereby they underpin how we perceive, interpret, and operate within ourselves and upon the world.
This article explains the links between flexibility and harmony in the observable natural world (including human experience) and the electrophysiology of neural brain function, which underpins and recapitulates the essential and governing timing mechanisms that run our universe.
Our brains function by means of neural impulses—billions of nerve cells firing through action potentials (brief pulses that travel down the neuron to excite yet other neurons). These nerve firings allow or inhibit transmission of information, including chemical and hormonal release, thus forming the control mechanisms and habits of the brain and nervous system. Our neurons are organized into neural networks (relay systems) that allow neural activity to organize itself into “cooperativity.”
Brain activity may be accurately measured by engineering and physics principles that record the cycles of activity in terms of frequency, amplitude, and phase relationships. Frequency measures the number of wave cycles of the electrical activity from its highest point to its lowest point per second. Thus, a frequency of 10 Hz indicates electrical activity of ten cycles per second. Amplitude measures the magnitude of the waveform; this relates the strength or power of that electrical signal at a point in time. Phase refers to the degree to which two particular signals are mathematically aligned (congruent or harmonious) or misaligned (different). A waveform at its peak (highest point) can be assigned a value of 1.0 and at its nadir (lowest point) of -1.0. If the waveform consists purely of a single frequency, then it is known as a sine wave. And if it truly consists of only a single frequency, then it remains of constant amplitude. Any change in amplitude would bring in other frequencies until the signal settles down again.
Description of sine wave
Signals from two sites are said to be in phase when their amplitudes reach peak (+1) and nadir (-1) simultaneously. They are out of phase when one signal approaches +1 and the other approaches -1 simultaneously. (When two signals are perfectly in phase, they are said to be synchronous.)
Thus, any two waveforms—brainwave electrical impulses—may be measured and compared in terms of their phase relationship—that is, the extent to which they are congruent (similar) or disparate (different). Congruence or similarity is known as synchronous activity. Disparate or difference in phase is known as asynchronous activity. Our brains need and function with both synchronous and asynchronous rhythms.
Asynchronous activity allows for independence of nerve function, promoting and establishing flexibility. If you will, it allows the left and right hand to play different notes or different rhythms. Asynchronous brain activity fosters independent and discrete functions, the multitasking of life, and the abilities to operate with varying timing, which are vital for the operation of and discernment between different activities and events. Asynchronous activity allows us to respond to changing conditions (including metabolic survival needs), threat or danger, to learn new information and to problem solve. Asynchronous activity forms the essence of flexibility, the capacity and habit of shifting to mobilize the states and resources conducive to ever changing situations and demands.
Synchronous activity allows for harmony, the coalescence of similar functions and teamwork—strength in numbers and synergy. Synchronous activity allows the brain to “rest” and operate in a relaxed and composed manner, even in the midst of intense work. It’s easy to think of a sports team or orchestra playing together in unison, even as individual members contribute different portions. When you are sleeping or digesting well or when you are focused and absorbed in an activity without a noticeable stress reaction, you are operating with a predominance of synchronous activity in your brain and nervous system.
Our nervous systems operate with complementary functions of fight-or-flight and relaxation. However, the interplay of asynchronous and synchronous activity is more complicated. Even in stress responses, our nerves may be recruited to synchronous response in a state of emergency. In such situations, we are “harmonious,” but not relaxed or peaceful. Many cases of physical injury result in too much neurological synchrony—for example, when a stroke victim loses the perceptual and motor abilities to distinguish and control fine body sensations. Cognitive impairment debilitates, by degrees, the capacity to discern essential organizing principles that allow for concept formation and stability, new learning, and effective generalization to new experiences. Emotional impairment and trauma tends to recruit narrow nervous system responses that keep people stuck in past events and automatic overly synchronous responses.
Conversely, when the brain is very disorganized (e.g., from prolonged stress, injury, illness, or genetic/developmental irregularities), too much asynchronous activity may prevail, resulting in pronounced states of dysfunction and distress. Flexibility develops from organized asynchronous activity, interspersed with synchronous activity that fosters and supports neurological stability, self-regulation, and routine self-soothing.
The key concept is that optimal and adaptive brain functioning depends upon the contributions and checks and balances of asynchronous and synchronous activity. When our brains are balanced and adaptive electrically, we can respond with both flexibility and harmony.
There are many ways you can improve your flexibility and harmony, thereby increasing your health, contentment, and productivity. Nature assists this process in that physical activities and “three-dimensional” behavior (acting in the world) promote neurological stability and change, modifying inner activity through “mental” exercises that modify, in turn, the flexibility and harmony within the brain and nervous system.
You can improve your brain’s flexibility through invoking and befriending the challenge process (described extensively in my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times).
Challenge is a phenomenon that occurs at the infinitesimal levels of our cells and at the colossal levels of the larger environment and universe. Thus, regulating your moods or being able to get a better night’s sleep are significant conquests at a personal level. Challenges may be physical (such as getting through the day when you are tired or stressed; attaining a better level of fitness), emotional (such as dealing with difficult people or “tests” of your emotional stamina), logistical (organizing and planning), and cognitive (learning new or difficult material).
Though challenge may sometimes be competitive, its comprehensive value is in the process of adapting the brain and body to better levels of accommodation and flexibility. When you strive to meet challenges, you are engaging your brain’s use of asynchronous activity to become more flexible and better able to shift state and set of resources to meet the challenge.
The intensity, strain, and focus that come with physical or cognitive exercises develop flexibility, as well as skills and confidence. You may intuitively or experientially know that such endeavors produce these attributes. Let’s add to this the knowledge that your brain responds to challenges by practicing and improving its asynchronous functions.
Dealing with stress, conflict, and insufficient reward are not only endemic to life—they are the training grounds for improving asynchronous flexibility to better adapt to varied and evolving demands.
The other side of the coin involving brain balance is the continuity and regulation of synchronous activity. Our brains need rest, simultaneity, predictability, recovery, and reward in order to sustain replenishment, interest, motivation, self-protection, and inner harmony.
Synchronous activity contributes to harmony. These natural occurring life forces express themselves externally through “being on the same page” as others and internally by experiences of self-regulation, peacefulness, relaxation, and the flow of reward that the brain experiences. Though synchronous activity (as well as asynchronous activity) may occur during exertion, the nature of synchrony is composure, a fitting together of compatibles.
We accept the necessity of relaxation, the ability to calm ourselves, and the importance of schedules and health-inducing habits. (These are often easier said than done routinely.) By understanding the concept of synchrony and how it underpins your brain’s ability to regulate and control what’s important, you can more purposefully direct your energies to providing the balance your brain needs to function more optimally.
When you sleep and when you relax (assuming your brain is reasonably self-regulated and not “disrupted” by seizures, panic, extended overreactions, etc.), your brain is clocking along with synchronous rhythms. These are more or less “happy” and restorative brainwaves.
For most people who are accustomed, a drink of alcohol or moderate exercise will also induce synchronous rhythms. For some people, positive thoughts, looking forward to events, or engaging in familiar routines may also shift the brain into an abundance of synchronous activity.
It may surprise you that love is a major contributor to synchronous, beneficial brain activity. Love, affection, compassion, and empathy do more than feel good; these experiences are vital for healthy and restorative brain function. The wonderful news is that you can create and repeat these brain harmonizing experiences from your own will and intention in the very circumstances in which you find yourself. (Of course, there are challenges for everybody—this incorporates the asynchronous, flexibility component.)
Engaging volitionally in activities, experiences, thoughts, and feelings that promote synchrony in your brain are effective and strategic ways to improve your health, satisfaction, and productivity.
A varied mix of work, relationship, self-care, and recreational activities naturally provide your brain with practice in asynchronous and synchronous neural activity to foster flexibility and harmony. In addition, just as a physical fitness or rehab regimen can target and augment specific body fitness, there is a recognized way to do this for your brain.
There is a viable, proven way to directly train the organization and efficiency of brain activity through electronically mediated exercises. This technique has been around for decades, and is progressively becoming more refined. It is called EEG neurofeedback (also called EEG biofeedback or simply neurofeedback or biofeedback). It is a procedure that directly trains your brainwaves through the use of computers and specific, carefully calibrated software. The program is based on electrical brain activity that is measured by the electroencephalogram, or EEG.
Neurofeedback permits the brain to function more efficiently and proficiently by taking advantage of the brain’s plasticity, or ability to adapt and utilize different aspects of itself when this flexibility is advantageous. During neurofeedback training, you (and the practitioner) observe your brain in action from moment to moment. We show you this information on a computer screen and simultaneously reward your brain for changing its activity to more appropriate patterns. This is a gradual learning process. It affects and conditions any measurable aspect of brain function.
Neurofeedback is training in self-regulation. This self-regulation is a necessary part of good brain function. Self-regulation training makes your brain and central nervous system function more capably.
Neurofeedback works by giving the brain a chance to see itself in action. That’s the same process by which the brain learns a motor skill. But in the neurofeedback process, instead of the brain seeing itself shooting baskets, it is observing its own EEG. This simple process of self-observation allows it to improve both shooting skills (in one example) and its own self-regulatory capacity in the other. At the top level, then, neurofeedback then involves monitoring your brainwaves and converting these electrical signals from your scalp into digital information that in turn governs various visual, auditory, and/or tactile feedback pathways. The brain picks up on that information and acts upon it in its own best interests.
To do this, we attach electrode sensors to your scalp. Nothing goes into your head via these wires—neither electric current nor information. The sensors simply monitor and conduct the signal from your head and brain to an amplifier and from there to one or more computers. The computer equipment digitally transforms your brain signals into audiovisual information, usually presented in the form of a variety of engaging entertainment. While your brain is being trained, you watch the movie or “play” the game for about thirty minutes at a time and influence the feedback by actually controlling it with your brainwaves. The marvel of electronics makes this possible, but the key to its efficacy lies in the technology of filtering your brainwaves and in the science of selecting the range of signals that your brain should alter in order for you to feel and function better.
There are many ways in which we learn and use new information or organize and modify our habits. Neurofeedback involves very efficient learning at deep levels of brain neural activity—the levels at which asynchronous and synchronous activity originate.
The distinguishing features of neurofeedback are that it:
Earlier, in discussing brain activity measurement, I referred to the concepts of frequency, amplitude, and phase relationships. Let’s recall these terms in order to explain how we can train the brain for better asynchrony and synchrony, thus developing better flexibility and harmony.
When an electrode is placed on the scalp, it samples the signal coming from that area (site) and displays the information as a cycle ranging from a peak of +A to -A. The height A of the wave is measured in microvolts (millionths of a volt) and is displayed in an undulating line a certain number of times per second (frequency). For example, a brainwave pattern of 12 Hz at 75 microvolts would mean that there are twelve up-and-down complete cycles each second. Each cycle would include a peak of +A and a nadir of -A, where A refers to its particular amplitude. The point at which the waveform crosses from plus to minus in each cycle can be assigned the phase value of zero. Phase values for each waveform vary continuously and smoothly until the wave undergoes a complete cycle, and then it repeats.
In training the brain for better performance and flexibility, we can address the modifications of frequency, amplitude, and phase.
Our brains operate with multiple frequencies, ranging from the EEG range (from 0.5 Hz upward) down through the infralow frequency (ILF) range (below 0.1 Hz). We can train the ranges typically associated with muscle and cognitive operations (typically with concentrated activity somewhere within selected bandwidths in the 4-80 Hz range) and with primitive emotional and developmental functions (we often train below 0.01 Hz). It’s important to understand that our brains constantly transmit electrical impulses among nerve cells along many pathways that utilize different frequencies simultaneously. When we intervene to “invite” and influence the brain to alter even a few of these circuits at a given frequency range, we are powerfully affecting a variety of neural networks in the brain.
By “rewarding” certain frequencies and “inhibiting” others, we can train the brain to become comfortable using a preponderance of certain time signatures that facilitate better operations in certain circumstances and with certain activities. We refer to this process as enabling state management. For example, slower brainwave activity (which we have all the time) is better suited to relaxation and sleep, whereas faster frequencies are needed for cognitive problem-solving, physical activities, and emergency response. Brain training results in better abilities to “shift” into the state most appropriate for and conducive to the task at hand.
Besides influencing the brain’s adaptation to more functional state management frequencies, we can train amplitude—that is, influencing the strength and power of brain activity associated with particular functions, such as vigor, focus, relaxation, creativity, etc.
Increasingly, though, we are finding that training phase relationships among neurons yields tremendous results in promoting the blend of asynchronous and synchronous activity.
Phase training involves training the phase relationship between two sites in order to promote phase differences. This procedure trains the brain’s ability to meet challenges, become more flexible, and problem solve automatically and without conscious reasoning. This is because the timing relationship between different brain sites is the most critical variable when it comes to the brain’s internal communication in connection with state management.
Here’s how it works:
Electrodes are placed at two scalp sites during each training period, and the rewards (moments when the movie effects or video game progress) are set to occur when the two sites show phase differences in activity. Let’s explain this mathematically and then relate it to improvements in brain activity and daily life.
Signals from two sites are said to be in phase when their amplitudes reach peak (+1) and nadir (-1) simultaneously. They are out of phase when one signal approaches +1 and the other approaches -1 simultaneously. (When two signals are perfectly in phase, they are said to be synchronous.) As you train by playing the video game, your brain is intermittently rewarded for “figuring out” how to make the frequency cycles from each site occur at slightly different times. (“You” think you are piloting a spaceship on the screen, while your brain is in the control room, working furiously to figure out the timing codes to keep things moving.) In phase-based training, the reward is not based on the amplitude, but rather on the timing differences between when each of the two signals reaches that amplitude. Mathematically, the rewards occur when the differences become greater (i.e., move away from zero toward an absolute value of one, either positive or negative).
You can think of this as similar to teaching instrumentalists in an orchestra to play different notes at the same time (or teaching your hands to play different notes on the piano at staggered time intervals). The effects of this kind of flexibility are staggering and infinite. When you can master playing different notes in varying combinations of time synchrony, you are becoming a master, perhaps eventually a virtuoso.
Taking the musical analogy a step further, phase training is like teaching your brain to sing in harmony, in choral rounds, and in synchrony, as needed.
Phase training tunes and trains your brain modules to coordinate among themselves and to communicate with the outside world like a practiced and well-timed group of musicians. Perhaps you are familiar with singing in staggered choral rounds. Remember the song, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”? When two groups sing it together, they are in phase, and the timing code looks like this:
However, when they sing in choral rounds, they are out of phase, and it looks like this:
Notice that singing in rounds and transitioning back to unison requires careful attention, as well as the ability to focus narrowly and then expand that focus to incorporate the context and its sequence and timing. In order to do this properly, you must be able to shift as necessary. This is a complex task, yet most elementary school students are able to do it (provided that their brains are functioning well). When your brain can shift time codes and integrate and adapt different timing mechanisms, you can pay attention, screen out distractions, maintain continuity, sift and shift to accommodate salient details, and follow a task through to its conclusion.
Is improving your brain flexibility and harmony something you want to be able to do better and more consistently? Neurofeedback—and phase training in particular—will help you far along that path.
When your brain learns to differentiate its timing mechanisms (which is what phase training conditions it to do), you progressively achieve the following:
If you’ve read this far, you have great interest, patience, and an admirable tolerance for details. Though the electrophysiological principles are fascinating to me, I realize that for most they are complicated, boring, and esoteric. Even as I explain a very simplified version of these principles, I’m reminded of sitting in excruciating math classes (some of which I taught in graduate school), laboring through theorems and proofs, when what was really desired was to get to the correct answer. The methodology and hope were and are that the right science, closely monitored, evaluated, and adjusted, will lead to better quality of lives for the majority.
As stated at the beginning, the interplay between harmony (compatible synchronous activity) and opposition (contrasting challenge and asynchronous activity) is fundamental to the order of the universe, to nature, science, and life. The flexibility that develops through interspersing these complements spawns survival and productivity.
To the extent that we can improve and maintain flexibility and harmony, we are in line with the realities that govern the operations of our universe and our brains.