In this episode I am speaking with Dr. Andrew Hill is the founder of Peak Brain Institute and a leading neurofeedback practitioner and biohacking coach for clients worldwide. At Peak Brain, Dr. Hill provides individualized training programs to help you optimize your brain across goals of stress, sleep, attention, brain fog, creativity, and athletic performance. We will talk about how using neurofeedback can boost brain performance.
Table of Contents
In this podcast, Dr. Hill and I discuss:
- What is neurofeedback?
- How can measuring things like brain waves and heart rate variability solve health problems, and help people reach their goals more easily?
- How effective has neurofeedback been shown to be for improving executive function, sleep regulation, stress response, reactions, and processing speed?
- How can neurofeedback help with medical problems such as chronic fatigue, stress-related exhaustion, autism, seizures, ADHD, and Parkinson’s?
- How do nootropics and psychedelics overlap with the feedback this technology provides?
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Ari: Hey there, this is Ari. Welcome back to The Energy Blueprint podcast. I am incredibly excited to share today’s guest with you. Today’s episodes, two of them, with you, and that should give you a sense of how important I think this information is for you. I did a total of about three hours of podcasting with today’s guest, Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Hill, because I think the content of this conversation and what he’s talking about is literally, and this is not an exaggeration, one of the most powerful tools, strategies, technologies that we have available to us to enhance our brain.
I would say it’s in the top three. I would put the top three as meditation, plant medicine-assisted psychotherapy, or psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, and neurofeedback. That is the subject of today’s episodes, neurofeedback.
Dr. Andrew Hill is one of the world’s top experts in neurofeedback, and this is something that is, at this point, near and dear to my heart because, as you’ll see in these two episodes, which actually go over my personal brain map results electroencephalography looking at my brainwaves of my brain in different regions of my brain and correlating that, comparing it basically to hundreds or thousands of what they call healthy controls. People with healthy, normal brain function. Basically, what they do is they compare your results on your brain map to those people to indicate certain things that might be going on in your brain. This is then linked up with your subjective experience.
You sit down actually with the person who is interpreting your brain map results, and they go over, “Hey, there’s low activity here. There’s high activity in this part of the brain. This are paired together. There’s a hot spot of high activity in this region, which could indicate this.” For example, could indicate attention deficit hyperactivity, could indicate anxiety, could indicate hypervigilance, could indicate depression and mood regulation issues, could indicate brain fog.
Any number of things like that, and then they’re matching this to year subjective experience and identifying areas of weakness, areas of potential strength, but areas of weakness and things that you want to work on. Matching up, what are your goals? What do you feel like are your brain’s deficits with what the brain map, the actual measurements of your brain activity, are showing about what’s going on in your brain.
You’re going to hear in these two episodes how that was done for me, and you’re going to hear in the second episode, which was recorded several weeks after the first, you’re going to see the updated brain map. I did two. One at the beginning prior to starting neurofeedback, and then I did another one after about 20 sessions. You are actually going to see the real images of my brain activity and the results of those 20 sessions of neurofeedback from brain map number one to brain map number two after 20 sessions of doing the work, the neurofeedback work, to target these specific areas of weakness in my brain and goals of mine of what I want to optimize further.
There’s a lot of layers here that are really interesting, but the big thing that I want you to get is number one, this is truly one of the most powerful if not the single most powerful strategy tool for brain enhancement that we have available to us. I want to strongly encourage you all to do neurofeedback.
This is something I am now a huge advocate of, and not for no reason. I actually have the brain map results that have allowed me to see how profound the changes have been on my own brain in just 10 weeks of doing this work, 20 sessions roughly of doing this neurofeedback training. I’ve had absolutely profound results both in terms of the objective brain map EEG measurements, where they can actually see objectively here’s how your brain has changed, and in terms of my own subjective experience. In terms of focus, in terms of motivation and drive, in terms of sleep quality, in terms of not being quite as distractible and many other areas, enhanced calmness and resilience. Less excessive hyper-vigilance.
In particular for me, one of the things that I was struggling with is I work so much. I work so hard. I have so many projects going on right now that my brain has, over the last few years, been wired into a state of constant go, go, go. I’m always thinking. My wife often comments to me that my brain is always working, the wheels are always turning. I’m always formulating ideas and thinking through certain things and analyzing things.
The downside of that, there’s lots of good side, there’s a lot of productivity and great things that come from that, but the downside of that way of being is sometimes it’s hard to just relax. It’s hard to get my brain out of work mode and thinking mode and just let go of the work, drop it all, and allow my brain to just drop into playing at the beach with my kids or playing in the house. Just listening to some music and relaxing and reading a book, for example. It’s hard for me to do that. Historically, it’s become hard.
This neurofeedback is one of the thing– I should say is the main thing that has allowed me to do that much more effectively, along with, again, becoming much less distractable, much more focused, sleeping better, feeling less stressed, being more resilient, and so much more. You’ll see in the objective results how my brain has actually changed objectively, not just from my own subjective experience of it.
A little background, interesting aspect of neurofeedback here. Neurofeedback is actually something I did as a kid. I’m trying to think how many years ago, 25-ish years ago. I did as a kid. Actually, the reason at that time was that my older brother was diagnosed with ADD. The doctor wanted to prescribe Ritalin, and my parents didn’t want to do that. They thought it was a bad idea to prescribe Ritalin and that there was likely going to be too many negative side effects. They did something very unusual, very fringe at the time. They signed him up for something, which was then called biofeedback.
They thought, well, if big brothers going to that biofeedback training, even though little brother hasn’t been diagnosed with ADD, maybe we consent little brother, Ari, along with him. I started doing this training with my older brother, Yoni, who some of you may know, his name’s Dr. Yoni Whitten. He runs a business called Pain Fix Protocol, and he’s a world-class chiropractor and pain expert and posture expert, and one of my personal closest friends in addition to my big bro.
Anyway, so I did this for a brief stint, maybe six months a year as a little kid. Basically, forgot about it for 25 years. Then recently, I stumbled across Dr. Andrew Hill, a talk by him. I started reading some research on neurofeedback, and I was extremely impressed with it. I went to look for a neurofeedback clinic in my local area. At the time, I was in San Diego, so I went to San Diego. I spent part of the year there. I went to see if there’s any clinics nearby. I found an amazing one in Solana Beach called Brain Excel, run by a guy who’s now become a good friend of mine. His name is Elia Nikolaev.
He’s an amazing guy. The clinic is an amazing clinic. It turns out Brain Excel in Solana Beach is an affiliate for Peak Brain, which is run by today’s guest, Dr. Andrew Hill, who is, again, a world-class expert on neurofeedback. Basically, Dr. Andrew Hill is actually analyzing those brain map results, coming up with the treatment protocol, and figuring things out. He’s actually the neuroscience expert behind the whole operation.
Basically, this has been transformative for me, and I’m deeply grateful to have rediscovered neurofeedback as an adult very recently, 25 years after I did it as a kid. I want to share all this with you guys. I think that this is something that can be profoundly beneficial for you if you’re struggling with any brain-related symptoms, whether it’s brain fog, whether it’s mood issues, depression, anxiety, whether it’s ADD issues, whether it’s sleep issues, and racing thoughts, hypervigilance, whether you just don’t have enough chill in your brain. If you’ve got migraines. There’s many different things that this can help with. I encourage you all to explore it.
One of the other things that’s interesting is this is not just for problems. That’s what drew me to it. I have already a highly functional brain and I perform very well in really– I don’t want to say every area. There’s probably things I’m not very good at. I’m sure there are, but pretty much every area of my life. I’m already doing very well at.
This is something that appealed to me because a lot of high-level CEOs, entrepreneurs, high performing professional athletes are using this training to not just fix problems, fix deficits, but to go from normal well-functioning brain to better functioning brain. We start to see things like, for example, focus on a spectrum from highly distractible, something we might call ADD, to the capacity for very high levels of focus that go beyond what’s typical, what’s normal.
That’s a spectrum. If we conceptualize that in that way, instead of an on-off switch, you either are normal or you’re ADD, then we can start to go, “Oh, well, I wonder if I can grow my capacity for focus.” We can look at every aspect of brain function in that sort of way. These are traits that we can either be not so good at or very good at or somewhere in the middle. We have neuroplasticity. We have the ability to train to get better.
Anyway, with all of that said, this is a long-winded intro because I feel this is so important. I wanted to make sure to explain all of this to you and talk about my own personal passion and excitement about this and really recommend it to you all. With all that said, I want to first say– not first, but I want to add to this. You can do this at home. Peak Brain, which is run by Dr. Andrew Hill, today’s guest, has the capacity to set you up for home neurofeedback training. I actually didn’t know that they had this capacity prior to doing this podcast episode, so that’s wonderful news.
I asked them if they can offer a discount. They were a little reluctant at first, to be honest with you, but they agreed to set my listeners up with a discount. You get $250 off your initial brain map, and then you can sign up to do this neurofeedback training at home. They will literally guide you through the whole process. You’ll have expert neuroscientists interpreting your brain map result and custom-designing a protocol to address your specific brain weaknesses or areas that you want to optimize along with your goals. What are you actually trying to achieve? What are you trying to make your brain better out?
They can do that with you. You can do this training from the comfort of your own home. We will set up a link to that at theenergyblueprint.com/neurofeedback. With that link, you’ll be able to get a discount of $250 off beginning your neurofeedback training starting with your brain map. You can just start with a brain map if you want to start there. You can just do the brain map. You can see what’s going on in your brain. Then from there, you can figure out, are there areas that you want to address. You don’t have to go any further, though I highly recommend, and I would say pretty much everybody has areas that can be optimized if you so wish to.
You can start by just analyzing your brain. Having a neuroscientist say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on in your brain. How does that match up with your subjective experience? Are there any areas that you want to work on and optimize?” I would highly recommend basically everyone to do this. This is incredibly powerful as far as what this can do for you in your life.
If you happen to be in the San Diego area, I would highly recommend going to my friend Elia’s clinic in Solana beach called Brain Excel. I’ve personally had an amazing experience at Elia’s clinic at Brain Excel. He’s amazing, he’s really incredible at what he does, and I’ve gotten amazing results by working with him, so if you happen to be in the San Diego area, reach out to him at Brain Excel. Otherwise, if you’re not in the San Diego area, use this link to work with Peak Brain and get set up with your brain map, and hopefully, get started with at-home neurofeedback training.
That’s enough for me. Let’s get into the episode. In part one, this was recorded basically at the start of my neurofeedback training before I had done much. I think I’d just done a few sessions at that point. We go over a bit of my initial pre-neurofeedback training brain map. In session two, in podcast part two, I should say, we go over the new brain map after 20-ish sessions of neurofeedback training, and we get to actually see the new results from all the same tests and how my brain changed from those 20 sessions of neurofeedback training.
Check this out. I think you’re going to really enjoy this. I think you’re going to get a lot of value from it. Again, I really strongly encourage you to sign up for your own brain map. Again, you can do that at theenergyblueprint.com/neurofeedback. Okay. Let’s get into the episode. Enjoy.
Welcome to the show Dr. Hill, such a pleasure to have you.
Dr. Hill: Oh, well, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. Nice to be here.
Ari: I’ve been looking to forward to this interview for a long time now. For a number of reasons, I’ve been wanting to do neurofeedback for many years. It’s actually something that I did probably almost 30 years ago at this point as a child. My older brother was diagnosed with ADHD and they wanted to put him on Ritalin and my parents were in probably among the first generation of people to say, “No, we’re not going to put our son on Ritalin. We’re going to try this other new thing that seems very out there, but it’s called–” at that time, it was just called biofeedback. Now they call it neurofeedback and, they put my brother in that and they thought, “Well, if it’s beneficial for him, maybe we’ll just put the younger brother in there, too.”
I was doing this stuff when I was like 10 years old about 30 years ago. I think I did it for maybe a year at that age and then in more recent years, as I’ve seen presentations and podcasts with you and read up on the research on the topic, I became more interested in doing it again and I’m now about 20 sessions into neurofeedback training with Brain Excel down in San Diego with Elia Nikolaev who’s been trained by you and works with Peak Brain, your institute and I’m really enjoying it and seeing benefits from it.
Dr. Hill: Great to hear.
How neurofeedback works
Ari: I wanted to do this podcast with you to help others learn about neurofeedback because it’s one of those things where a lot of research exists, but not that many people know about it. Can you tell people what neurofeedback is and how it works?
Dr. Hill: Sure. The thing we call neurofeedback today that was called more biofeedback or other things over the past 50 or 60 years was discovered in the mid-’60s at UCLA, basically. It’s neurofeedback or biofeedback on the brain, on the central nervous system, basically, is the distinction. Is a way of mostly involuntarily exercising brainwaves or sometimes blood flow. In doing that, you can go after different brain resources and tune the brain the way you might tune, I think of tune the body. That can be true from like a physical therapy, occupational therapy perspective of rehab and helping functional resources. You can think of it as palliative for suffering, or sometimes more peak performance. Neurofeedback as we do it now, the field of neurofeedback probably has about half the field still focused on things like ADHD and seizures, actually, which is how it was discovered by mistake a little over 50 years ago.
The other explosion of technology, in the ’90s back when you were doing it as a kid, I have to ask, what was your experience? You’re watching stuff like Knight Rider on television, you’re seeing all this cool sci-fi show up on TV and you’re going into an office and having wire stuck to your head and I assume you’re watching a game move on the screen or a movie or something. What was your thought as a 10-year-old or whatever it was? I’m curious.
Ari: I didn’t really know what to think of it. I was just going along for the ride with my brother and it was easy enough. It was weird because at that time, it was more cumbersome than it is now. You had a full-on cap. Not just a few spots of electrodes and then we played very simple little video games that were mildly entertaining. Not nearly as fun as the video games I played at home. They were okay. There was nothing unpleasant about it, and I don’t know that I experienced anything subjectively, because at that age, I don’t think you can be attuned enough to really notice things yourself about your own brain function and attention control and things of that nature. Basically, I would say the experience wasn’t unpleasant. Beyond that, I don’t think I could say anything in the short span of time I had as a kid.
Dr. Hill: Sure. That does reflect people’s experience of it as rather innocuous to some extent. I would expect that even as an adult now, when you started, I would assume about 20 sessions in now maybe 7, 8, 10 weeks ago or something you started up again. I would guess the first few weeks of that first two weeks, at least you were like, “Okay, this is interesting” and didn’t actually feel too much, and then something here and there started to creep in, is that accurate?
Ari: Yes. I would say it was more like the first three or four sessions. Apparently, this is unusual, but I was not convinced that it was really measuring my brain weight because I was watching, for example, playing a car racing game or the plane flying game. It seemed more or less random to me and not linked with my subjective states of what I was experiencing internally as far as am I paying attention, am I locked on, or am I zoning out and doing something else? It didn’t seem to correlate to me. I actually would do things. I think at one point I even pulled the electrode off to see if it would change something.
Dr. Hill: The car stops.
Ari: I was experimenting with just different things I could do subjectively to see if– [crosstalk]
Dr. Hill: Clench your jaw and crash the car.
Ari: Exactly, to see if it would actually play out in the game. I brought a lot of skepticism to the whole thing. I would say after four or five sessions, I started to see the correlation between my subjective internal state of, “Okay, I’m focused. I’m paying attention. Now, I can feel myself zoning out.” Then in the picture game, for people listening, it’s like where pictures– You have a picture that’s chopped up into, let’s say, 20 pieces, 50 pieces and the picture is slowly revealed to you as basically each part of the picture is revealed as basically reward for your brain state being in an optimal place. The picture is revealed and a little ding happens when that’s revealed. Then I could start to see ding, ding, ding, ding, ding when I’m locked on in a good place.
Dr. Hill: Little runs of it, sure.
Ari: Then I’m zoning out and then it goes silent for a while. There’s nothing happening. I started to experience that. I would say I experience a lot of that now. My subjective state is strongly linked to what’s happening.
Dr. Hill: You’ve developed the ability to notice how the game reflects your subjective state which is a little unusual. Most people have very little sense of voluntary control and/or internal experience shift related to the game because we can’t feel our brainwaves. The brain, let’s say you’re measuring on the right-hand side, measuring some theta brainwaves which we often want to train down for better executive function or control over attention.
The way you train the brain to do this is you measure the theta moment to moment as the brain makes it. Whenever the brain makes a bit less for half a second, you applaud the brain with more cars driving faster, or more puzzle pieces in the game, filling in like you described. A couple seconds later, your brain moves in the other direction, the wrong direction for that workout that day and the game slows down or stops, the car slows down and hits fewer zombies. I hope Elia has turned on the zombie apocalypse level for you in the car game. If not–
Ari: No. He hasn’t. Actually, I played the plane game, the car game and a few others. I actually have been sticking with just the pictures.
Dr. Hill: A lot of people really enjoy the simple games, actually. They find them deeply satisfying somehow.
Ari: I like the consistency of objective feedback. I can see my scores from session to session and see if I’m improving.
Dr. Hill: The picture game gives you discreet feedback, beep, beep. If things are happening, at the same time, you get a picture square revealed you get a beep. It’s discrete events. I use that game, that exact little picture game called Formation. I use that game and the software developer who’s a veteran in the field for many, many years, a guy named Howard Lightstone, who used to build real-time operating systems for F-16s in the ’80s or something, then he retired and went into neurofeedback. He developed the software called– now it’s called EEGer.
I called him up when I was doing my PhD and said, “Hey, I want to do double-blind placebo-controlled neurofeedback,” and it wasn’t possible at the time. We worked together a little bit and designed a placebo control module. I did a 40-subject placebo-controlled double-blind sham neurofeedback experiment with a 64-channel cap, a BioSemi cap on top of the two or three wires we were training on and looked at the evoked potentials, the brain reacting to neurofeedback because I wanted to figure out how is it working? How does the brain know that the environment is reflecting it? Where’s the control structure? How is the binding and the yoking happening? Where’s the informed bit of information? Where is the associative learning reinforcement coming from?
Yes, it’s easy to say to a client, “Your brain gets applauded. Audio and visual happens whenever your brain makes more or less of a brainwave.” How is the brain actually figuring that out that discreetly?
I did some digging around.
Ari: You’ve answered some of my questions. I’m glad you brought that up.
Dr. Hill: Essentially, it’s parameterized. Meaning there’s billions of things your brain is doing and you’re only applauding one of those things, the brain is like, “Ooh, hey. Wait. That’s weird.” The big trick here is moving the goalposts, so every 30 seconds or so in the way that we set up, we adjust what we’re asking for. Essentially trends you’re engaging in not events you’re engaging in are what are really applauded, reinforced. You can think, Skinner’s pigeons, not Pavlov’s dog here. I promise we don’t make you drool when someone turns a light on a bell or something but we do shape stuff that already exists, behavior that already exists.
Ari: Maybe explain, I’m sure people are familiar with Pavlov’s dogs, but maybe not Skinner’s pigeons.
Dr. Hill: Skinner’s pigeons. Skinner was the father of associative learning, the father of conditioning in some ways. While Pavlov took things, learning that was already existing and would yoke stuff together that wouldn’t normally yoke together like drooling when a bell goes off or a light goes off because you associate it with giving some dog food, you can transfer learning that was the cool Pavlovian conditioning. We also have Skinnerian conditioning. Skinner just worked out some of the basic rules of how reinforcement learning works. When something happens and you notice it and get some reinforcer, you tend to do those things more.
This is the basis of both intelligent cognitive aware learning and involuntary neurons that fire together or wire together basic, heavy, and plasticity learned all this.
When a baby learns to crawl, it’s because the brain was excited at the random association of muscles that made them look further that day. “Oh, wait. I can see 10 feet? Whoa.” It wasn’t thinking about the muscles but the random association activity was reinforced with more information. In neurofeedback, we’re taking something that already exists, shaping. Brainwaves already exist, the amount of theta is the thing you’re making. It fluctuates, and you applaud stuff that is moving in the right direction. Skinner would applaud pigeons when they packed a certain way. He would teach them essentially over several days by successively rewarding behavior to create little superstitious pigeons that would jump up and down and pack a bunch of times to get food, essentially.
The same technique, this reinforcement learning, this shaping and rewarding is also the basis for different things like ABA and autism, this applied behavior analysis, token-based reinforcement learning stuff. You can take things that are involuntary and shape them or do associative learning on them as well. That’s what neurofeedback is in the brain. When you train the EEG electricity or the blood flow, you can’t really feel those things nor can you really voluntarily control them. You discovered a week or two in, you have to let it happen, you can notice the association but you couldn’t make it happen. That’s probably what you were, in some ways, tripping over in the first week or two you’re like, “Come on. I’m concentrating. Nothing’s happening.”
That’s right because concentration does all kinds of things in your brain not just dropped theta and raised beta. At one circuit that might be involved with executive function or sleep regulation or whatever it is we’re doing that day for your exercise.
How Intention affects a neurofeedback session
Ari: Let me ask you a question related to that. How much does intentionality matter as far as what somebody is doing with their subjective state during the training session, meaning, and maybe I’ll interject something into this which is SMR. I’ve heard you describe that as like let’s say a cat locked onto a target like it’s hunting something and the body is completely still and its eyes are locked on. One of the things I’m being trained in is SMR, I’m getting a score of SMR. It made sense to me to have some intentionality of that visual of, “Okay, that’s what I’m trying to achieve during this training session. I’m going to intentionally bring that energy locked onto my target, body’s calm but I’m locked in.” Does that matter? Does it not matter? Is there a proper-
Dr. Hill: Great question.
Ari: -intentional subjective state to have during your training sessions?
Dr. Hill: If you look at the way learning works and if you look at the literature and science and all kinds of what we understand with the brain, one would expect that expectation increases learning. That’s what one would expect. However, this process was discovered in cats, not very good instruction followers. This process works exceptionally well in people that are non-verbal, that have no cognitive language, that are screaming and seizing. This works on people that are unconscious reliably.
Dr. Hill: It works on teenagers that want to be in your office and sit in their phone and ignore you the whole time. Yes, maybe sitting– More importantly, perhaps practically, you can get in the way of the process by tightening up and adding noise to the measurement, EMG or muscle tension, the movements.
Ari: I’ve experienced that, too. If I shift or clench my jaw, I noticed that it disrupts it.
Dr. Hill: It’s really classic. The flying game, there’s a target in the middle, as you close the target, focus, go, “Mm,” and tighten your forehead up and suddenly your little guy misses because you were tightening it up. [crosstalk]
Ari: Like they’re controlling it with their body.
Dr. Hill: That gets in the way of measuring your brain. It’s a weird counterintuitive process during the EEG-based neurofeedback. We also do HEG, or hemoencephalography, I don’t know if Elia has done that with you down there, yet-
Dr. Hill: -but we use an infrared camera on the forehead and measure the brain’s metabolic outflux, basically, the little waves of heat coming off your brain. You can learn a little bit semi-voluntary to concentrate, and about two seconds later, you get a surge of metabolism after effort in the brain. That you can develop a conscious awareness of. You’re a psychology grad kind of guy, right? You’re finishing up your doctorate and stuff.
You’ve probably come across the term “BOLD response,” the blood-oxygen-level-dependent response, which is the fMRI signal, the metabolic activation signal you see. That takes two seconds roughly to show up in the brain, after effort, unlike EEG, which is instantaneous.
Can’t feel the EEG, but you can feel the blood flow. You can also make the blood flow happen by concentrating or by thinking happy thoughts. It’s a way to do vascular tone pumping in the front, as well as individual circuit tuning with the EEG, and then we, of course, do multiple channels to train relationships between that stuff. Those are two flavors that peak brain tends to focus on as individual channels of training, one, two, three channels at a time kind of stuff, after doing a full head assessment. We did a full head cap for you, I would assume.
Yes, we did. I looked at it with Elia at one point. We did a full head cap as the qEEG, the assessment part of it. We also had a really boring attention test as part of that. We always put those things in contrast. Again, good scientific rigor is to look forward to what’s called the “double dissociation.” The easiest way to find that is to look for physiology and performance moving against each other, at least when looking at human stuff in this person-to-person level thing.
We put those things in contrast because we have an attention test which is a little flexible to how you’re feeling, but really straightforward to look at to interpret what’s going on in your performance, and then a brain map which is very straightforward to interpret in terms of what kind of brain waves you have, but not so meaningful in terms of what does it mean for you because people are a little bit unusual. We want to avoid using brain mapping as diagnostic, use it as exploratory, model what could be true. As that matches stuff you understand and know about yourself, you probably found stuff you care about. The performance testing can also really break down performance in a nice granular way, better in some ways than diagnostic language around attention for some folks.
Ari: Maybe we’ll dig into that in terms of having you look at my personal results and see what we found, some of them are very insightful.
Dr. Hill: Oh, yes. We could pull those up.
The benefits of neurofeedback
Ari: Before we go there, I actually want to jump back to something I think we should have covered earlier. Forgive me because I’m sure this is something you’ve talked about thousands of times, but I think it’s important for people who are unfamiliar with neurofeedback to hear. I would love for you to tell the origin story of how neurofeedback was discovered. I also want to talk about just some of the big-picture benefits. Why would somebody do neurofeedback, what benefits does it have?
Dr. Hill: There’s a few different flavors and forms of neurofeedback, and like many technologies that are based on the natural world, several people discovered this stuff at once over about a decade or two in different flavors and were more or less successful in understanding what it was and commercializing, et cetera, but the flavor of neurofeedback that is dominating the clinical world and seems to have the most impact on regulatory stability. Attention, sleep, stress, seizure, a bunch of those things have regulatory dynamics as a core feature. All of life, all of energy flux, any system, even things that aren’t alive in terms of consciousness, weather systems, planetary systems, anything that is dynamic and somewhat stable and has an exchange of energy throughout it, has to have the features of delay and feedback to create the oscillation.
That’s what creates regulatory stability and systems, be it weather, planets, or us. You can think about depression being cortisol goes up and stays up, and the hippocampus dies, you get depressed. Your insulin goes up and stays up, and we get insulin-resistant and diabetes. Regulatory health requires dynamic range. Dr. Barry Sterman, UCLA, in the late ’60s, was looking at a particular brain wave that cats make. He’s a learning scientist, Dr. Sterman still appears in LA, America’s faculty at UCLA, still does lectures every so often. Back in the ’60s, he was learning for its own sake, basically. NASA approached him and said, “Hey, we have astronauts getting sick breathing in methylhydrazine,” or rocket fuel, basically, “vapors and getting nauseated and headaches. We have to figure out how dangerous this stuff is as we develop the space program.”
Sterman got a small grant from them to study toxicity, essentially, of rocket fuel. Back in the ’60s before we were limiting animal research, there were some more destructive animal research. This is some of that. He was putting cats in plexiglass cages with little beakers of hydrazine and starting a stopwatch. He ran about 32 cats through this experiment, and three-quarters of them had a perfect dose-dependent curve where minutes in the vapor meant increased symptoms.
They had crying, drooling, stumbling or ataxia, seizure, coma, death, basically. It was a perfect curve for these 24 cats out of the 32. About 40 minutes in, they were all having seizures. The other eight cats, two and a half hours in, were just starting to show some instability events in their gait and things. He couldn’t figure out why a quarter of the cats were so seizure resistant to toxins. Then, he remembered that six months prior, he’d done another experiment on operant conditioning and reinforcement learning for cats, for brain waves.
He taped a milk dropper inside their cheek, were squirting chicken broth into their mouths whenever they made SMR, this brain wave that most mammals, I believe, make at a pretty high level for lots of reasons, but cats and all mammal predators, use this thing to be alert and hold still at the same time. If you’ve seen the cat on the window sill, with a liquid body and laser-like focus, you’re seeing SMR at a high level. Literally, the opposite of SMR, the movement stuff where you can’t sit still, the opposite of the calm cat, and the attention is being pulled by novelty and pulled by patterns, not pulled by the thing you’re sustained on. Other ways that SMR fails, so to speak, or gets weak, produces difficulty in resisting seizures.
All human brains can be put into seizure if you push them hard enough with a threshold for that instability. That threshold’s maintained by SMR. SMR also maintains staying asleep when you hear small random background sounds, the architecture stuff about maintenance of sleep. We call SMR “sleep spindles,” if we’re asleep, little bursts of 12 to 15 hertz waves show up if we hear the dog barking from three houses away that we’re used to hearing so we don’t wake up.
SMR as a category of neurofeedback, that’s what you’re seeing on your screen, by the way, SMR score, doesn’t matter if we’re doing an SMR wave or not, it’s the whole category of neurofeedback that’s called that, but SMR itself is on the motor strap ear-to-ear, the sensorimotor strip is the sensorimotor rhythm. It’s like alpha, the idling rhythm, but for the motor and sensory system. When you sit still, surges of it, when you relax, when you become calm, self-controlled, stay asleep, et cetera.
SMR was obvious, and Dr. Sterman reinforced it and created this really strange effect. He had a lab assistant who has medication, uncontrolled epileptic on huge doses of Tegretol and Nevral and Dilantin and things like that. They did an audio-based neurofeedback system for over about a year, she trained her brain a bunch, went off all of her meds and became seizure-free for a couple of years.
Dr. Hill: This was a big deal in the field, in psychology and neuroscience. There’s been a mixed adoption of this stuff that remain very fringy and in the edges of science and neuroscience and psychology for a long time ever since, really. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. One of the more recent papers Dr. Sterman did, maybe 10 years ago, there’s a review article he did on seizure. He looked back at 20, 30 years of history of papers that he had examined seizure, which is one of the better research things in neurofeedback. He found the average impact on humans is about a 50% reduction in seizures, and 5% of humans seem to get a total complete control of seizure activity for at least a year, which was the length of the study.
Now, I’ve trained a bunch of people that have seizure epileptic difficulties historically, probably more than 100. I’ve never seen a result as poor as 50%, not even close. It’s usually a fairly dramatic effect, but like ADHD, for instance, I’ve trained, I would say, multiple thousands of people that have some sort of executive function difficulty. Without fail, they have very, very large effects, multiple standard deviations on a bell curve of attention assessment, for instance.
You can do a lot with just SMR in the field ran for 30, 40 years that way, and then maybe 20 years ago, it really started to branch out into other techniques and other subtleties and elaborations. Some of it’s great, and some of it’s not necessarily elaboration for elaboration’s sake, doesn’t help practitioners nor doesn’t help people try and change their brains sometimes. I tend to walk the line between the weird cutting-edge neuroscience stuff that no one’s heard of and then drawing a line beyond which I think stuff has turned into woo or is not well supported or is too complex or causes the side effects. I tend to have a mix of a biohacker’s focus on pushing the envelope but doing so with low risk and with improved regulatory stability and subjective experience, that kind of staff. Not push people through changes that are uncomfortable, generally.
Is neurofeedback worth the money
Ari: Got it. On a practical level in terms of one subjective states, how would they experience the benefits of neurofeedback in their daily life? Why should they be compelled to go sign up for a few $1,000 worth of neurofeedback sessions?
Dr. Hill: Sure. I haven’t looked at your history, of course. I’m not your direct coach even though I do consult with the company that trains you as a Peak Brain affiliate. They work with us as heavy lifting data analysis protocol development as they need it. Generally, the average person across complaints will get improvements in executive function, sleep regulation, stress response, and speed of processing. Depending on what your complaints are or your goals are, symptoms or peak performance, you can do an awful lot with getting better control over how you respond to anxiety features, let’s say. Anxiety’s a good one to talk about for a second because it’s not a disease process.
Most anxiety stuff is just a normal resource. It’s cramped up like a muscle almost. We have individual circuits that do things we enjoy all the time. When they cramp up, they become anxiety like posterior cingulate. Does the “watch the road,” “catch the Frisbee,” “Hey, heads up, orient.” When you’ve learned the world isn’t secure, you over-resource the posterior cingulate. Now you’re biased towards threat sensitization, rumination, trauma response, that kind of stuff.
If you can learn your brain and look at it and see your perseveration, rumination, sensory issue, the brain fog you have from COVID, the high fever that’s giving you ADHD, squirrel kinds of stuff. The mix of gifts and challenges, the front midline post anterior cingulate can have a failure mode, if you will, in theta or beta, lubrication or gas that produces obsession, perseverative stuff. It’s almost never only bad. When you have the front midline hotspot, you tend to have the features of like OCD but you also tend to have the features of a CEO. Your highly focused mind like a steel trap.
Part of neurofeedback, part of qEEG brain mapping, and the neurofeedback tuning the brain becomes this process about understanding how your sleep, your stress, your mood, your attention, your executive function, your sleep regulation, how it actually works not putting it into a diagnostic context of, “Oh, what’s wrong with me? Oh, fix me,” but putting a context of, “Hey, I would like to optimize some things and I’m not feeling as sharp or as clear or as focused as I want to or I’m drinking too much or I’m having seizures or I’m having migraines.” Big stuff can be addressed.
Once you look at your brain maps, I would imagine that Elia, your coach, had a conversation with you that was like, “Here are some things that could be true and which of these things are most important to you.”
Dr. Hill: Then he and I would’ve worked together to develop master plans, so to speak, to start pushing those resources around pending you, experiencing something. 50 years ago, no one did a lipid panel on their blood and we all thought of heart attacks and stuff. Now lipid panel and go, “Ooh, triglycerides,” and cut our Ben and Jerry’s habit down for six weeks. Do it again and go, “Nice. I guess I can have two pints of ice cream a week without any risk.” You’ll appreciate this. I use this thing religiously, which is a ketone meter for the breath. It’s to watch that energy flux, to find that edge that I can handle the protein, the carbohydrates, the fats at a sufficient level. I don’t have to listen to any keto gurus about how many grams of carbs and fiber and stuff. I can just watch what my metabolism does and steer the sucker.
I really, really work to not create transference like most feedback people do. Our coaches instead thrust agency back up on you by teaching you about what your data might mean, helping to reinforce what you already experienced. You probably haven’t had a second map yet or maybe you have 20 sessions in, soon, if you haven’t.
Ari: I haven’t. No.
Dr. Hill: You haven’t. The second map’s fun, usually. 90% of the time it’s fun because you’re made some changes and it reflects something you’ve experienced so now you go, “Oh, okay.” We usually do two rounds of that for folks that are wondering what the process is like. It’s usually three times a week. It takes usually a few sessions to feel anything. Then as you try new stuff, it builds up briefly after every session, then it wears off unless you repeat it.
You have an opportunity to iteratively push and then we tend to map the brain every other month and do two rounds of that to create permanent new baseline as folks first neurofeedback usually and some things take more neurofeedback. Big stuff, developmental things with autism, major injuries, that kind of stuff. Someone’s got some anxiety, some traumas, some ADHD, drinking too much, anxious, whatever. Three to four months is a huge amount of brain training.
Think about what your body could do in three months with a structured set of workouts and some discipline, the brain changes extremely faster than the body does. It’s built to change in a way the body’s not. People generally experience huge changes in attention, stress, sleep, fog, clarity. Research is pretty good on showing huge long-lasting changes and things like ADHD. You can see good research on creativity, IQ, amazing research on alcohol and drinking. There’s all kinds of interesting resources. When I started to get into the field, I moved out of this.
I started working in autism initially, and then I moved into more broad mental health and I ended up doing work with neurofeedback and substance abuse for a while. Now, Peak Brain, my company, and our affiliates like Elia who has Brain Excel in San Diego. We work on whatever you want to work on. It’s your brain. We become your guides and your coaches and your support system to navigate tech and approaches not to tell you what you should do to yourself. We don’t want to have your goals.
This is not a clinical process of, “Here’s what you need.” It’s an iterative process of trying to Marco Polo our way towards things you want to change.
Ari: I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of it.
Dr. Hill: Great.
An interpretation of Ari’s personal scans
Ari: Maybe this is a good opportunity to segue into my personal results.
Dr. Hill: Sure. Let me pull those up for you.
Ari: You’re the only man in the world who has mapped my brain. You’re in possession of my brain data, and it’s interesting. There was a lot that was surprising to me that was there. There was some stuff that matched up well. I’ve enjoyed the framing of it which I think Elia’s done a great job of-
Dr. Hill: Good to hear.
Ari: -what you just talked about as far as how some of these things may be a weakness or they may actually be serving you in some way. They may be a strength in your life.
Dr. Hill: We’re looking at unusual stuff, not good or bad, and navigating it. We don’t find things you don’t know about generally or not a lot of stuff anyways. Let me share my screen here. You might need to enable that.
Ari: Oh, let’s see. You should be able to do it now.
Dr. Hill: There you go. Perfect. Cool. Still smaller. We have a couple of things on the screen. One is your attention test which is often the straightforward one, that’s the bar graphs. Then we have your brain map, and that just shows unusual brain activity. Let me just show you quickly the attention task because you’re pretty good broadly but there is a specific challenge showing that is interesting. You can see two sets of bar graphs here. One’s called attention, one’s called response control. What we did was–
I’m sure you remember, how did you click on a one or a two as it popped up or either on the screen or spoken? 1, 1, 2, 1 for about 20 minutes or 15 minutes. There’s 440 trials on that test. The only instruction is to click on the one and don’t click on the two. It runs at a speed that’s designed to unload all your resources. Very rapidly you’ll start missing on the one or clicking my mistake on the two or drifting or something else or people will in general. We call response control the ability to pump the brakes and not, squirrel, click by mistake, not be reactive or automatic or impulsive.
We’re doing age match sample stuff here and on a bell curve, the average score is 100. Your response control or your impulsivity or reactivity stuff is very typical at 103. The auditing visuals are about the same which makes sense. Most things in the world are both. These systems tend to run together. Then even though it’s not that exciting, we have resources below the impulsivity or response control. We break down into prudence, which is carefulness. Can you correct and adjust? Stamina, can you stick with it or do you get worse? And consistency, minute-to-minute consistency. That’s all typical. It’s not perfectly efficient in these maps, you can see these little bars aren’t level across the clusters. That means you’re using your stamina more than your consistency. For instance, you’re bearing down a little bit, not perfectly efficient but it’s a fine score.
The attention side, grabbing that one when it comes up, comes in at 79, which is about a standard deviation and a half off the average. Something’s in the way suddenly. If we break the auditory versus visual down, the visual is 98. It’s fine. The auditory is at 64, which is now two and a half standard deviations off the average. As we dig into the auditory, we see your speed is 89, which is fine. Focus is 79. That’s in the way. Focus is when things get non-dynamic and boring. 1, 1, 1, again, and again, same trial.
That’s a focus check and you drift a little bit. The first one of those series is called vigilance, the alertness check. For that, you’re about two and a half, three standard deviations off the mean on that. There’s something going on with the auditory system not operating with enough crisp alertness, essentially.
Ari: Can you repeat everything you just said? I didn’t hear any of that. [chuckles] No, I’m just kidding. Go ahead.
Dr. Hill: Great. You all can see the sustained scores below the bar graphs. Bar graphs are one second probes, sustained scores are the whole trend across time. The same thing shows up where sustained visual is 98. No problem there. Sustained auditory is a 69. Two standard deviations off the mean. Something is in the way in the auditory function. When you dig into reaction times and things, you can see it there as well. Reaction times for the visual system, if I scroll down, are pretty good. 184.
Actually very good, very, very crisp, very performant, faster than a lot of my professional athletes, actually in the reaction times. Your auditory is 80 milliseconds slower than your visual. On this test, they tend to be the same. Something’s in the way in the auditory. What we’re finding is… We found a local bottleneck, essentially. That’s within one person, very unusual to have two and a half standard deviations of difference between auditory and visual.
Ari: I came home after this brain map and I told my wife about it and I said, “Look, you’re going to be really happy to hear that it’s not just that I’m not paying attention because it’s not interesting to me, it’s my brain.”
Dr. Hill: Not just that, but you see– [crosstalk]
Ari: That’s my excuse for [crosstalk]
Dr. Hill: Absolutely.
Ari: It’s always like, “How come you’re never listening to me?” I’m like, “Look, it’s my brain. I can’t help it.”
Dr. Hill: We see in your brain map– I pulled your brain maps up for those folks who are just listening. We have a low amount of beta waves on the left auditory cortex behind the ear, which is the place we use for receptive language. We have two auditory systems behind both of the ears and they’re like the leg, designed to be used in pairs. You can use one at a time, but not super efficient. Plus the ears never stop working. They never turn off. Unlike almost every other sensory tissue that moves stuff in and out of the brain, the ears are always active. It’s a very loaded, heavy activated system. One of yours and not the other is running in slow motion a little bit or sluggish.
This is like having a hard plastic tire on the front left wheel of your car at a stop sign. You tap the gas and it spins for a second and then the car moves. This is going to produce your wife walking up behind you or from the next room, starting to talk to you and you go, “Sorry, what? Did you say something?” Because you weren’t in listening mode already. If you’re doing this listening thing and you’re being a good listener, a good husband, you’re probably fine, but the orienting, the alerting to the moment of change, it’s difficult.
Ari: Yes. She could attest to that. I think also the other side of that is when I am attending to something, I’m locked onto it. It’s very difficult for me to let anything else in. I don’t have the squirrel thing going on where I’m shifting my focus here and there all the time with every new thing, I’m locked onto whatever I’m doing in that moment. Then if she starts speaking to me, for example, during that, I will almost completely block it out and then have to finish what I’m doing before I can attend to that.
Dr. Hill: Of course, we see that on your stamina, on the auditory system is above average. You’re able to lock in. We see it right here in that dark blue bar, 120% [unintelligible 00:45:10] You are locking in and bearing down with effort in the auditory system and not being impulsive in the slightest. Your auditory impulsivity is 106, above average, but the auditory attention for grabbing stuff is 64.
This is that moment of change. A couple of things. One is this probably already has changed a little bit in the first 20 sessions of neurofeedback, if not more than a little bit, and we can target it more for you in the second half of your first program probably, but short-term to help your relationship, here’s how you work around it.
Ari: Please, give me the hacks.
Dr. Hill: First of all, honey, it’s not your fault. I want to listen to you. Here’s how you get me to listen to you better.
Ari: Dr. Hill just said it’s my brain. There’s nothing I can do about it.
Dr. Hill: First part of that’s true. Second part not so much. We are changing your brain so sooner or later, no excuse, but in the short-term, here’s how you work around it. You get her to call your name or whatever and give you a two second lag, a beat, and then continue. “Hey, honey,” three, two, “You want pizza? Maybe Thai,” is so much better for you than, “Come on, honey, third time I’m asking, what do you want for dinner? I have the menus out here. I’m looking,” because you’ll come online at the moment of break and orient and roll the last tape to catch up and you might even develop a habit of like, “Oh, sorry, what?
Not because you didn’t hear, but because you’re trying to get her to stop talking for a second so you can roll the tape and catch up and orient to her. It’s an auditory processing issue. We see it in your brain and in your performance, very likely to be a real thing you deal with.
Ari: Yes, for sure.
Dr. Hill: Okay. Again, trainable, almost always. [unintelligible 00:46:42] filter busy environments, sit in rooms with people talking pretty soon and have an easier time with that.
Ari: Were there any other key insights that jumped out to you about my brain?
Dr. Hill: A couple things. A lot of fade on the right front corner can produce a sense of overwhelm and dread for some people, feel a little heavy and burnt out. Not sure if you experienced that or not.
Ari: I’ve had a couple years of COVID stuff that’s been pretty stressful.
Dr. Hill: Okay.
Ari: I won’t get into all the details, but there’s been some level of stress around that that matches up to some extent with that. Nothing [crosstalk]
Dr. Hill: Your brain’s not making a lot of Delta. Delta is the rest mode. Your brain has no chill, is the scientific term here. The place where it has the least chill, the alpha is acting like a beta wave. It’s taking over like a fast alpha in the front middle of the head. That’s the anterior cingulate. I would guess you have a little bit of that, like CEO meets OCD feature set where your mind latches on and hyper focuses a bit uncomfortably at times where it can’t turn away from stuff you’re thinking about.
Ari: Most definitely. Yes.
Dr. Hill: Let’s see here, one second. [silent] What is interesting, and one of the reasons I love to do brain mapping and attention testing alongside each other is we can look at some features that often pick up classic stuff like ADHD, for instance, but for someone like you, distinguish that it’s not ADHD, it’s an auditory processing issue, because ADHD is a very classic stuff anyways, is high amounts of theta relative to beta and the inattentive spacey stuff, which is where the performance hit is for you, shows up as large amounts of alpha everywhere.
As you can see, you have access, compared to the average guy your age, you have access to those brainwaves slightly, just right next to the ear on one side in ratio, basically. The beta is weak on the right [unintelligible 00:48:43] are high on the left. It’s a mix of both sides, but it’s a mild auditory processing issue that you have. That’s the big takeaway and I bet it produces a touch of stress, poor deep sleep, that kind of stuff. The only other thing I would guess about is there’s a measure here of the speed of your alpha waves and the alpha waves are really a proxy for speed of processing.
These can be dragged down into negative numbers and spread out, and yours are, when we get sick or tired or stressed or angry or concussed or a whole bunch of reasons. I would expect that you’re experiencing some sort of internal speed of processing drag from this, and that looks like word finding issues and delayed recall. It feels like you’re driving your car with the emergency break on too, I would guess. It takes too much effort mentally to drive through tasks sometimes or you have low stamina a little bit here and there for some of those tasks. Are you experiencing that delayed recall tip of the tongue word finding thing? Is that happening?
Dr. Hill: Okay. This is not a classic phenomena or it’s not in the way enough for you, essentially.
Ari: Let me explain further what I mean by that. Hold on. I’m having trouble finding the right words to– I’m just messing with you. Very insightful stuff. I’m curious to do round number two and see how much change we’ve gotten so far. Maybe I’ll do it around session 30 or something like that.
Dr. Hill: Each affiliate that’s not a true Peak Brain. Like Ilia, it’s his own company. He’ll decide usually somewhere based on what’s happening, but somewhere between 20, 25, 30 will generally show a full standard deviation of change. Depending on what you’re working on and working through, you would generally experience some stuff for the first six or eight weeks, remap, and see your data’s different. We should see those 60% points on the auditory stuff. If we’ve changed the tissue, we should see it come up and how much it has and can refocus on it now.
Ari: He did tell me recently that some of my scores in the picture game are the highest that he’s seen. I’ve set some records in his clinic and I asked him to get me a trophy that says number one neurofeedbacker in San Diego. [laughs]
Dr. Hill: All right. Well, he can [crosstalk]
Ari: Maybe that’s time for brain map number two.
Dr. Hill: Maybe it is.
How neurofeedback can help treat metabolic dysfunction
Ari: Another question, and actually this was inspired by conversations with Elia. He’s also curious about this. Given that we know that the brain is very much linked with the rest of the body and that there is, for example, a gut-brain access. We know what’s going on with overall metabolic health if somebody has, let’s say, a metabolic syndrome or chronic inflammation or obesity and insulin resistance, or really disturbed gut microbiome issues and intestinal permeability, there’s a number of things, mitochondrial dysfunction, we know, of course, mitochondrial function also relates very strongly to what’s going on in the brain.
How much of what might show up on a brain map and what we’re seeing when we look at somebody’s brain might be the result of these bottom-up body-driven processes? Is there a way to distinguish that? I guess to bundle one more question into that, to what extent would doing neurofeedback as a brain-driven practice address those issues if it’s being driven by this bottom-up process or health in the body more broadly?
Dr. Hill: Great question. I would say that we can see things that are driven by more physiology and metabolism and less by the mind, if you will. Those things tend to be dysregulations of slow brain waves, deltas, alphas, and thetas and things. The delta’s the heartbeat of the brain. When your delta is dysregulated, we tend to get metabolic issues, brain fog. I see an awful lot, unfortunately, of post-COVID brains. In my experience, it’s a fairly clear signature in a lot of people, a few months– it doesn’t happen right away, actually, it’s like a concussion, but it looks just like a concussion for a lot of people. COVID also seems to interact with old concussions and [unintelligible 00:53:22] inflammation for some folks.
Ari: One of the things you found on my brain map was that the possibility of brain fog or an old concussion, and brain fog doesn’t match up at all with me. I don’t have any issues there, but it’s certainly possible that I had an old concussion. I also just had COVID recently, maybe [crosstalk]
Dr. Hill: All three of those things could produce the exact same signature and you can hand wave and explain one. It sounds reasonable, but it could be the other. It doesn’t really matter which of them has caused the difficulty unless it’s still active. COVID, chemo, mold, Lyme, apnea, PTSD that causes sleep issues.
Ari: I also had mold poisoning a couple of years ago as well.
Dr. Hill: Those are all metabolic hits and I see them in the brain, full stop, generally, not always, but if they’re in the way, subjectively, I almost always see them. They train really well with neurofeedback. We tend to do a mix of EEG and blood flow training. When there’s more metabolism we bring in more blood flow, generally. It can help in, top down so to speak, a couple ways. One is if you’re regulating sleep [unintelligible 00:54:32] off, that helps the whole system heal.
You also get a huge surge of plasticity in the brain and body after every neurofeedback session. You can also do some types of neurofeedback, alpha training in the back midline to actually surge T cells. If you have autoimmune inflammatory stuff, you can do some things around that. You can regulate sleep, you can regulate people’s background stress from being ill, sick, injured, whatever, you could hit the brain fog directly, you can help some central apnea, not obstructive apnea, but central apnea stuff.
That tends to help the whole system because if you’re training the gut, acute gut dysregulation generally has to be addressed or it can get in the way of neurofeedback. I have a colleague in San Diego who’s probably the world’s leading expert on Parkinson’s and neurofeedback.
Ari: Who is that?
Dr. Hill: Dr. Lisa Tataryn. She’s done some work with-
Ari: I’ve seen that name around.
Dr. Hill: -the Fox foundation. She’s wonderful. I’m sure she’d love to come to your show and talk about Parkinson’s and neurofeedback, but she has a lot to say on gut health because she works with Parkinson’s both in a research with clinical context and has seen that unless she regulates the gut, hard time making change. I’ve worked with 20 or 30 people with Parkinsonian phenomena, and I’ve never really addressed the gut with them and I’ve made change every time. Maybe I got lucky.
Ari: Potentially the change could be amplified if somebody also addressed some nutrition and lifestyle factors as well. Would you agree with that?
Dr. Hill: Maybe not amplify, but maybe more permanent. Generally we get very large changes, but when things are fighting back, that’s when things don’t stick or don’t stabilize.
Ari: Got it.
Dr. Hill: When you train the brain, it trains the vagus nerve, which of course affects the heart and the gut. What happens in the vagus doesn’t stay in the vagus ironically, and you end up with this flexible system. SMR training changes HRV. HRV training changes SMR, so you can–
Ari: Which just goes to illustrate the mind-body dichotomy is not real. You can work in both directions because they are connected.
Dr. Hill: That’s right. The brain is part of the body and there also are ways to hack the brain using the gut if you have severe anxiety, like the kind of brain you have, for instance, with some of the front midline activation. If you have anything at all in your gut, or if you were a teenage girl with PCOS, abdominal inflammatory stuff or you were insulin resistant, then I’d be suggesting something like NAC because now you can go ahead and work on the serotonin cofactors in the gut that are going to be thrown to the brain to produce more serotonin metabolism, create more anxiety. There are some ways to go after hacking the brain through the bottom-up way as well.
Ari: Got it.
Dr. Hill: Top down, for emotions in the vagus nerve, 90% information [unintelligible 00:57:26] It’s a very gut-driven. The body drives emotions in some way, but for intervening and for making huge changes, top-down rules, is my experience.
Ari: Got it.
Dr. Hill: [crosstalk] biased, but–
Ari: [laughs] What aspects of energy and fatigue can be affected by neurofeedback? If somebody’s got chronic fatigue, stress-related exhaustion, chronic fatigue syndrome, how can neurofeedback help those kinds of situations?
Dr. Hill: Well, generally, the chronic stress and chronic energy flux, that’s not happening. Dynamic range that’s been lost is re-established. If you train up in front– you had some low beta on the left-hand side of your head, which usually means you aren’t waking up all the way or sleeping all the way. Two states are a little bit intertwined. You aren’t all the way down or all the way up.
Ari: Sleep has been a struggle lately because I’m traveling for a few months in Airbnbs and sleeping in a lot of non-optimal conditions and not my home bedroom and I’m not getting nearly as good a sleep.
Dr. Hill: We should be able to train your brain through that honestly, but there’s things you can do to maintain the circadian signaling every day to support that, like don’t eat before bed, lock in your wake time seven days a week, make it nice and early and do low-intensity exercise when you first get up to burn off cortisol, not high intensity, makes you cortisol resistant and slim resistant if you have any issue. Low intensity when you first wake up.
Generally, with neurofeedback, you can hack these systems unless there’s a new Epstein-Barr virus, a new mold exposure, a new whatever, then the brain fog, the fatigue, the sleep quality falls away in the presence of huge plasticity boosts, better sleep regulation. We get executive function improvement even if you’re already fine as well. It’s not night and day like, “Oh my gosh, that person’s different,” but it keeps creeping up. This is not a zero-sum system.
I have clients that come in as peak performers, fix some anxiety, some flow states, some creativity, keep training because they love how it feels, and every so often have breakthroughs in their music performance or their red carpet not being stressed out for the cameras or their football snap being perfectly aimed or whatever. When you work on your brain, things start to creep in. The first time you went to the gym and really got in shape, three weeks in you’re walking in the street, like, “Hey, wait a minute, my balance. Ooh, I’m sexy. Ooh, I’m getting coffee. My body feels good.” It bleeds out into everything when the system changes. That’s just your physical body.
Imagine when it’s your stress response, how fast your mind works, how self controlled you are, how many things you can hold in your mind at once without feeling stressed. It starts to affect everything. This is why I work with athletes and actors, musicians as much as kids with autism and people that have seizures and who are drinking too much. I don’t really care what it is you want to work on as long as we can iterate towards some goals for you, essentially.
Ari: Yes. Actually, that’s the thing I’ve noticed the most in my life, is I can have an enormous amount of pressure from a variety of sources and I’m juggling a lot in my life between business and kids and dogs. One of my dogs got pregnant recently right before we were about to spay her. She went into her first heat and got pregnant now we have puppies. I’ve got four dogs at the moment-
Dr. Hill: Oh my [crosstalk]
Ari: -and I’ve got two kids and a business to run. I’m doing school stuff as well, continuing education as well always, and also trying to give my kids a great life, homeschooling my kids, and then sometimes stressful situations come up on top of that, emergency situations and whatever else. I’ve noticed that in recent weeks, I’ve been remarkably cool and calm and collected under fire, in the midst of chaos and emergencies of just like, totally even-keeled and maintaining, I would say, an optimal state of physiology and mind function in those situations.
Dr. Hill: That’s great. That makes some sense. Resilience tends to be a thing that shows up when you do neurofeedback. It is in this inhibitory tone, this ability to sit on your automatic reactivity or to handle stress better. I joke, if you walk into Equinox, you see all the abs hanging out on the staff, but if you walk into a Peak Brain, everyone’s like good listening and kindness and balance is hanging out. They’re all 30 and 40 years old, they aren’t some magical ancient Zen monks, but they read like they’re Zen monks, even though they’re 30, because you work on your brain, it tends to transform you.
Ari: Yes, absolutely.
Dr. Hill: It’s fun to work yourself out, I think. I am biased on that front.
Supplements that complement neurofeedback
Ari: Are there any supplements or nootropics, brain related herbs or other compounds that synergize with neurofeedback training?
Dr. Hill: There are many. What I often do though is dial in a nootropic strategy after a bunch of big basic resources are chained. I have two different views on nootropics. Some are anti-aging and long-term supporting and some are more spot. You want to either backfill problems [unintelligible 01:02:55] difficulty having goals or use them occasionally, depending. I tend to have some anti-aging and long-term strategy nootropics I recommend for people.
To some extent, they become more important in this post pandemic world we’re in, in terms of immune function and things like that, but no, not really. I helped create a nootropic company several years ago when I founded Peak Brain and also I founded True Brain the same year, which is a LA based nootropic. I’m a big fan of nootropics, I get my mom nootropics. I want to change the whole system for folks and then the strategy of dialing what you might need and for boosting beyond that, I find can be a little more subtle. Unless you’re just trying to boost the whole system, then I don’t have a stock nootropic strategy anymore, generally.
Ari: I have a couple more questions for you-
Dr. Hill: Sure.
Ari: -and I actually have to go to my Neurofeedback appointment.
Dr. Hill: Oh, fun.
Ari: In the same vein, I’m sure you’re familiar at this point, since you’re kind of in the biohacking sphere, with peptides and some of these brain related peptides like Semax, Selank, and Cerebrolysin. Even to expand that a bit more to compounds which might enhance neuroplasticity, and even psilocybin or maybe micro dosing some of the other psychedelic compounds. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how those might pair with neurofeedback. Are you more likely to get a bigger change, if you take some neuroplasticity enhancing compounds in tandem with that?
Dr. Hill: You might.
Ari: Asking for a friend.
Dr. Hill: Right, SWIM. Someone who’s not me.
Dr. Hill: You might and I have had people who’ve done that themselves. Peak Brain also operates in a gym membership in terms of brain mapping. Once folks have one, they have freedom to do multiple maps throughout the years. They often do like, “Hey, I’m doing my Semax, my Selank, my CJC-net [unintelligible 01:04:55] whatever. They come and they do several maps looking at nootropic strategies, peptide strategies and learn from it, empirically Adderall, Cannabis, Ritalin, whatever. We can answer some of those questions for you, empirically, and you care more about your own response to stuff than you do about the general perspective on it. I do think several of those peptides are not worth risking.
Ari: Which one specifically?
Dr. Hill: Almost all of them. I don’t think that you should be mucking about with research chemicals, unless you are trying to solve problems, unless you have big suffering. I think risky nootropics includes, from my perspective, peptides, because of the sourcing being so squirrely, essentially. All the ones that are promising for cognition seem to have been pulled off the shelves 10 years ago, because they had weird cancer results in rats and things.
I don’t know there are amazing peptide out there that will work really well. I think if you’re trying to hack the system to improve it and you’re not dealing with major difficulties, then your threshold for risking side effects should be extremely high. Basically only go after things that are unlikely to cause trouble. I see them to cause trouble with nootropics all the time, with random peptides [unintelligible 01:06:14] well, with things that aren’t exactly nootropics but affect the dopamine system things like kratom or [unintelligible 01:06:21] or whatever else.
It’s too easy to read something on a website and think something is, “Oh, it’s [unintelligible 01:06:30] oh, I must have an imbalance.” No, there’s no such thing as an imbalance of neurotransmitters. It doesn’t exist. People get after hacking their brains not knowing what they’re doing with random stuff they buy on random websites, and they get in trouble with it. I see it all the time. It depends on who you are.
If you’re dealing with degenerative brain issues and mysterious conditions and all the wear and tear in the world and you’re throwing everything at it and you have all the resources and you’re carefully monitoring, maybe there are some conditions that it might make sense.
Ari: I have to ask you, there’s no such thing as a neurotransmitter imbalance. Given that we’ve been indoctrinated for decades with the idea that everybody with depression has a neurotransmitter imbalance, what is your perspective on that?
Dr. Hill: It’s never been established that levels of neurotransmitter are related to mood, not once. Serotonin, in fact, is related to anxiety and sexual function, not really depression. SSRIs don’t actually raise serotonin, all serotonin neurons have auto receptors. If you do give someone Prozac or whatever, five weeks after they start taking it, your intra-synaptic serotonin levels are lower than you were before you started taking it.
Anything that causes depression to lift, be it an SSRI or therapy or exercise or whatever, does so as a final common way of raising plasticity in the hippocampus, the BDNF [unintelligible 01:07:53] release. It’s about plasticity loss there of, or enhancing that in terms of depression. Another example, Parkinson’s, you don’t develop any symptoms, no cognitive symptoms or tremor symptoms or anything in Parkinson’s until you’ve lost 75%, 80% of your dopamine in the brain.
Does that mean the first 80% is meaningless and the imbalance only occurs at 20%? No. The system is incredibly dynamic and the absolute level of a chemical is meaningless, receptor density, phosphorylation sensitization, increased receptors, recurrent connections between neurons, the system is really, really smart. Some guy woke up 10 years ago from a coma in the UK with 15% of his brain left, intact cognitively because the brain remodeled its density over 20 years.
The brain seems will work through almost anything in terms of information flow up to a certain point. By the time things fall over, you’re not seeing mental illness, you’re seeing the systems fall over. When Parkinson’s is happening, you’re getting close to the system’s dying, essentially, the failure point of the whole system. Depression, ADHD, drug addiction– Drug addiction might be chemical imbalance you’ve created, of course, that may be the one exception, but you don’t have an addictive brain.
There’s no such thing as a brain that is addicted because of your genetics. Yes, you might have a mule opiate receptor that makes alcohol 25% yummier for you, but there’s no such thing as an addictive brain thing. It’s learning full stop. Everything’s learning, including levels of neurotransmitters. The brain can tune around any level of anything, that’s why the level of neurotransmitters is somewhat meaningless. We’ve all been lied to for 50 years about serotonin stuff.
The latest ground-breaking research on the brain
Ari: Indeed. There was actually a big review that just came out. I’m sure you saw that finding by [unintelligible 01:09:44] was the lead researcher on the study talking about how basically the body of evidence doesn’t support the serotonin deficiency hypothesis of depression.
Dr. Hill: The one before about the fact that the Alzheimer’s theory doesn’t seem to have anything to do with amyloid, which makes sense because amyloids are immune molecule, turns out.
Ari: Then they spent hundreds of millions or billions of dollars developing these amyloid blockers, that when they actually tested that in Alzheimer’s patients– [crosstalk]
Dr. Hill: How many millions of people died in that 50 years? Clearing amyloid doesn’t improve symptoms at all.
Ari: Exactly. It actually accelerated the development of symptoms.
Dr. Hill: We knew something was wrong because Papua New Guinea people have [unintelligible 01:10:26] status, that is the whole, population’s APOE [unintelligible 01:10:29] and all they eat is starch, historically, the more primitive people, all they ate was tubers and stuff. No atherosclerosis, no Alzheimer’s, because the microbial environment was harsh enough to make the amyloid act as an innate immune system, not as an oxidizer of internal tissues.
Ari: Say that one more time.
Dr. Hill: Amyloid is an innate immune molecule that fights microbial environments.
Ari: Oh, wow. I didn’t know that.
Dr. Hill: It was dirty enough, if you will, microbially in that permanent environment so the starch load was handled fine, and the extra amyloid was used to fight off microbes. The population doesn’t develop oxidation of starches in the heart or in the brain, which is essentially athero or Alzheimer’s essentially. Glycation is one of those big features of all those neurodegeneration things, of course.
Ari: My last question to you is about other neurofeedback devices. There are some at-home devices that have been popularized. I’m curious how you would differentiate that from what you’re doing. I’ll tell you my personal experience of why I didn’t go with that and I chose to do it in the clinic was largely because I felt like the clinic was going to be much more robust and sophisticated as far as what they can actually determine about what’s going on in my brain. They could personalize the training to what’s going on in my brain. I also read a huge amount of negative reviews about people having just poor experiences with the at-home devices.
Dr. Hill: The one size fits or tailored systems have that problem. The technology’s not great, they’re not really any cheaper, ultimately, a lot of them. There’s really no gain. Peak Brain, my company, we do home neurofeedback with the exact same software and hardware, as we do in the offices with live coaches, teaching you everything, how to do it, and then giving you live support for setting up.
We’ve actually closed the gap and I would say about three quarters of our clients never visit our offices. We do brain maps remotely, we give people equipment like this and they plug wires into boxes and things from home and coaches double-check placements if they need. The hard part of neurofeedback is the basic set-up, the execution. With somebody standing by to help you, you can do tailored work, essentially.
The other hard part of neurofeedback is telling us what happened to then fine tune the process. That doesn’t matter if you’re at home or you’re in an office, but if you’re at home, it’s easy for that loop of information to be broken, or for your– I’m not sure what the metaphor is, but you know when you buy a treadmill and use it to hang your laundry on, there’s probably some metaphor here with your feedback gear. That’s the risk, but if you’re relatively structured, if you’re talking to your coaches, we give all of our clients a private Slack channel that’s open seven days a week for support live.
They train more from home because it’s convenient. We get 50 sessions done in three months at home and it tends to stack the effect, get huge effects and people learn what they’re doing. They try stuff. They can do little short sessions, because it wasn’t their one session that day. I actually like home training better than office training now, but it’s only because I’m doing it with equivalent tech, with equivalent staff helping, with equivalent software.
Maybe 10 years ago, not even, five years ago, we were not using the same software. We weren’t doing brain mapping for remote clients, they had to come to the offices, and it was not as good, but as the technology field [unintelligible 01:14:02] elaborate, we have these big consumer device systems you can rent and get, but they have not solved the good neurofeedback piece of it. It has solved the delivery of tech piece of it. It’s imperfect basically.
Ari: I hope you are enjoying these episodes. I say these episodes because this is the end of part one. In part two, which you need to listen to, we go over my new brain map, the new one after 20-ish sessions of neurofeedback training, and you get to see the contrast between the two, you get to see how much my brain objectively improved, pre-Neurofeedback to 20 sessions in. 20 sessions isn’t a lot, this was just a couple of months of training.
I’m now two months more into the training, compared to when I did that second brain map. This is something I plan to continue, really, for years, probably for the rest of my life. It’s that powerful, I’m that passionate about it. I’m that in favour of you doing it, which is why I actually asked Peak Brain, Dr. Andrew Hill’s company, to set you guys up with a discount so that you can get started with your own brain map, and to get started with neurofeedback training, hopefully, at home.
If you’re in the San Diego area, by the way, you can do it at the same clinic, the exact same one, with the exact same person, Aelia, that I did it with, at Brain Excel in Solana Beach, which I highly encourage you to do. If you’re not in the San Diego area, go through Peak Brain and get set up with your own brain map and your own at-home protocol. You can get a $250 discount on your brain map by going to theenergyblueprint.com/neurofeedback.
They set up a special discount code for all Energy Blueprint listeners, podcast followers. I hope you guys are enjoying this, so far. Definitely check out podcast number two so you can actually see the results. In podcast two, I also asked Dr. Andrew Hill a whole bunch of other questions. It was supposed to be a 10-minute, 15-20 minute call where we go over the results, and it ended up becoming much longer than that. We spent a lot more time going over my results.
Then we spent a lot of time– He was gracious enough to answer the million questions that I had for him. I thought of a whole bunch of questions more, that I didn’t get to ask him in podcast number one, which you just heard. There’s lots more good stuff, lots more gold nuggets about brain enhancement in general, and neurofeedback, specifically, in podcast number two. Make sure to go check that out. Again, you can get started with your own brain map.
Again, in San Diego, if you go to Brain Excel in Solana Beach, or if you’re not in the San Diego area, most of you are not going to be, you can go through Peak Brain and you can get $250 off your own brain map by going to theenergyblueprint.com/neurofeedback. I will see you in podcast number two with Dr. Andrew Hill.
How neurofeedback works (17:16)
How Intention affects a neurofeedback session (27:55)
The benefits of neurofeedback (33:28)
Is neurofeedback worth the money? (41:27)
An interpretation of Ari’s personal scans (47:43)
How neurofeedback can help treat metabolic dysfunction (1:02:08)
How Neurofeedback can help with fatigue (1:08:25)
Supplements that complement neurofeedback (1:12:13)
The latest ground-breaking research on the brain (1:20:20)