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Using technology to train the brain

Mind over matter

Posted: Friday, May 18, 2001

BOULDER, Colo. -- On the frigid south flank of Alaska's Mount McKinley, Boulder climber Mark Twight was hunkered down in a wind-rattled tent, preparing for one of the toughest climbs of his career.

He'd trained for months, with sprints up Boulder's Green Mountain, solo speed-climbs up the first Flatiron, and hours in the weight room. But faced with the daunting task ahead, a 9,000-foot ice and rock route called the Czech Direct, the accomplished mountaineer was beginning to succumb to stage fright.

It was time to train his brain.

Twight slipped on a set of headphones and a pair of special goggles, plugged into a Walkman-sized machine and closed his eyes. For the next 45 minutes, he sat in darkness as pulsating lights and sounds, frequencies set to prompt certain brain wave activities, coaxed him into a state more receptive to autosuggestion.

''I reminded myself I had 20 years of experience and could get away with what we were intending to try,'' recalls Twight, 39.

Three days later, he'd achieved a record-breaking ascent, climbing in 60 nonstop hours a route done only twice before in no less than seven days.

''Physical training for a particular event is the easiest thing to do,'' says Twight. ''Most athletic failures are rooted in the mind.''

While still in the vast minority, Twight is among a growing number of elite athletes using brain wave training to heighten their performance.

The new Boulder Center for Performance and Sport Psychology will open this summer, using neurofeedback -- a form of biofeedback in which people train themselves to control their own brain wave activity -- as a training tool.

Already, athletes at the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, the Canadian National Olympic Sports Center in Toronto and several American universities are hooking up to neurofeedback machines to train to relax and focus.

A few companies are marketing small, do-it-yourself units like Twight's which, rather than teaching an athlete to bring himself to a particular brain wave state, use light-emitting diodes and select tones to deliver him there.

The idea behind both methods is the more the trip is made to a particular state, the more clear the neurological pathway becomes, the easier it is for the athlete to get there on his or her own.

Some skeptics say the emerging technology is too bulky and too expensive. But believers predict controlling brain waves may someday be as crucial for athletes as eating right and training regularly.

''Over the years, the athletes have gotten bigger, stronger, faster than ever. The next horizon is the mental edge,'' says psychologist Steve Stockdale, staff consultant for the Boulder Center for Performance and Sport Psychology.

A 20-year-veteran in the field of neurofeedback, Stockdale has long used the method to help people with attentional disorders, sleep and anxiety problems.

He recently teamed with Boulder psychiatrist Earle Shugerman and therapist Kerri Honaker to form the Boulder center.

On an initial visit, a client sits in a chair for 30-45 minutes, while 19 sensors measure the surface electricity of his or her brain. The resulting ''brain map,'' a complicated graph of jagged peaks and valleys, is plugged into a database and compared with baseline normals. This allows the trainer to identify brain wave readings chronically above or below the norm.

For example, a swimmer easily distracted by the athlete in the next lane may show excessive theta brain wave activity, commonly associated with a daydreamy, meditative state. A ball player who chokes on game day, overridden by anxiety, may show too much beta, the brain wave associated with intense attention.

Once the brain map is analyzed, the client again plugs into the machine and watches his or her brain wave activity, broken into four brain wave states, depicted as colored bars in a graph on screen. The task: to figure out how to change the mental state to move the bars to a specific position.

For an athlete training for competition, that position is often a delicate balance between intense focus and relaxation.

''An athlete must be able to focus, focus, focus, let go, relax, execute,'' says Stockdale. ''It's a combination of being relaxed and focused at the same time.''

Denise Trease, a psychotherapist who lives in Reno, Nev., has been there.

For years, the 50-year-old elite skydiver went through the same mental routine every time she prepared to jump from a plane. She'd begin second-guessing herself.

When Trease's initial brain map showed jagged peaks of theta waves, and low valleys of beta waves, she began training to reverse the trend, hooking herself to a neurofeedback machine three days a week for three weeks.

She was shocked by the results.

''After the first day, I was driving home and I just felt this little lift,'' she recalls.

Today, she no longer has to use a machine to find that zone. It comes automatically, she says.

Tim Conrad, of the U.S. Olympic Committee, also believes neurofeedback is promising. But until prices decrease and the units get more portable, he doubts use will become widespread.

Shugerman's Neurosearch-24, manufactured by Boulder-based Lexicor Medical Technologies, runs a hefty $13,000, including the brain-mapping software.

A session with a licensed neurofeedback practitioner with access to such a machine runs about $100 to $125 per session, plus $500 for the map.

Simpler units which plug into a personal computer, such as the Peak Achievement Trainer used at the U.S. Olympic training center, run about $3,000.



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