A trip on the London Underground is rarely a relaxing experience, but the Covid-19 pandemic has added an additional level of anxiety to many.
I am going to try a new technology that promises to train my brain to relax. Sitting away from the other passengers in the carriage while wearing a warm surgical mask, I hope it works.
I meet Dr. Jamil El-Imad, who has had a successful career in the computer industry before, in his words, “being sucked into neuroscience”. The Lebanese IT expert knew all about computer languages and was intrigued by the similarities between the data and the way the brain processes information.
Recognizing the potential of virtual reality devices, he worked on how to use cloud computing techniques to acquire and analyze brain signals and create a machine to replicate the meditation experience.
Neuroplasticity, brain adaptability, is the science here. Neurons, the circuits of the brain, become stronger the more they are exercised. They are editable. And they are individual.
Neurons grabbed Dr. El-Imad. He sees our neurons as “a forest where every tree is different”. This means that each person needs their own approach to gain mental recovery ability.
His innovation was to integrate electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, which monitors electrical activity in the brain, with a virtual reality headset.
The combination means that it is possible to measure the response of the subject’s brain to images.
Biofeedback can be analyzed instantly using the accessible computer power offered by cloud computing, industrial levels of data processing rented on the Internet.
Murali Doraiswamy, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina in the United States and former advisor to Dr. El-Imad’s NeuroPro company, says that meditation and the whole realm of awareness are proven treatments for some conditions.
“There are many types of awareness and it’s not a panacea. But in the past 30 years, awareness has shifted from marginal science to mainstream. It can be as effective as drugs to prevent the recurrence of depression. It won’t be for everyone, but it can change our vision “.
The first contact I get with this system is when the EEG headset slips on my forehead. It is a semicircular band containing sensors that transmit wireless signals revealing exactly what is happening in my brain.
The EEG headset takes feeds from my attention level and registers when my mind turns off course. In multiple sessions this should help subjects master their mind and gain more control over their thoughts, which is a definition of awareness.
VR headphones are not a bulky helmet. It doesn’t really make sense of weight because of an elastic spiral that holds it and takes the weight off your head. Without that weight there is not even any sense of fence.
Hearing the ethereal music of the pipe, I see an island floating in space. The waves touch a beach and beyond the gigantic statues of Easter Island are planted among the rocks and palm trees. White feathers float on the breeze. I have been told that they symbolize freedom and my breathing makes them float.
I go to the beach and find myself on the sand looking at the statues planted on my right. But a white mist appears in front of me, flowing and ebbing as I try to focus on the faces of the statues.
That sea fog keeps coming back to block my view because I’m losing focus on the moment, and therefore I’m not relaxed enough.
Focusing on the moment requires effort. I am hindered by a journalist’s instinct to write down events. Dr. El-Imad tells me that our minds roam 50% of our waking hours, so excluding other thoughts is a challenge that we all face.
I capture the statues in a clear definition from time to time and emerge shocked to have been in the car for five minutes. It felt like two or three when I narrowed my thoughts on the scene in front of me.
Next to this configuration, a laptop screen reflects the signals that the EEG has caught leaking from my brain. Show illuminated areas of my consciousness. This data is saved for analytical purposes. Anonymized and encrypted can be sent to neuroscience researchers.
I am assigned a score that defines my level of concentration and provides an improvement goal. Dr El-Imad thinks my neurons performed well enough for a first outing, evaluating 30% concentration.
The sense of escape that comes from slipping into a floating vision of the island has diluted the anxiety stimulated by my trip on the subway. And the suspended stage on Easter Island is just a virtual location option among the promised relaxing spots.
Launching the Dream Machine to the public shouldn’t be expensive. NeuroPro uses standard technology, with VR and EEG hardware costing no more than £ 1,000 in total.
Possible sites for this service include gyms and fitness centers. Alternatively, it could be installed in chill-out rooms in corporate offices, relieving employees of anxiety and allowing the company to retain good talent.
This is where former Labor Party communications chief and mental health activist Alastair Campbell thinks that technology could have a real impact.
Campbell lectured on the meaning of awareness and says that the corporate worldview on mental health has changed a lot.
“We have underestimated the importance of how employees use their brains. I have certainly seen a change. In the city banks now they realize that it is not smart if they invest a lot in someone who then runs out.”
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In a service economy, protecting the brain power of employees through mental health initiatives makes sense, says Campbell.
A judgment is being reserved on the dream machine itself. “I’m always interested in everything that makes people talk about mental health. You can’t spend your life walking with a dream machine on your head but you can train your mind to work differently.”
The dream machine emerged from a technologist’s mind. But Dr. El-Imad admits that a smartphone company is bad for our brain. “We live in an economy that seeks attention, that distracts us and puts pressure on us. We are not a multi-tasking species!”
So it could be that our neurons need the Dream Machine to help us dodge the world that technology has built. Mr Campbell agrees. “I have to keep reminding myself of Twitter’s worthlessness, of constantly going over the phone.”