Sunday, December 28, 2014

Head Games

Back in college, my friends and I would periodically go to school hockey games, and there was always some guy (probably on his second keg), screaming, "Hit 'em in the mind!". I never took it as a call to  skull-splitting, cross-checking violence but rather what passed for Ivy League frat boy psychological warfare. Don't know if it helped us win, but it always livened up the arena.

This Christmas, my parents bought me MindWave, an EEG  biosensor which is intended to measure basic brainwaves, mostly around attention and meditation. I actually had my first EEG testing back in 2010, to look for any seizure activity. I had subsequent scans during sleep studies for apnea. This winter, I plan to start some EEG-based neurofeedback treatment at the rehab to learn some self-regulation techniques and possibly map topographic activity within different lobes. I have plenty of pictures showing damage caused by the stroke, but none which show healing. Depending on who you ask, the damaged or dead brain cells on a fair portion of the right side of my brain can no longer serve a purpose. However, there is increasing evidence that merely damaged cells can generate new cells (neurogenesis) and that healthy brain cells can be rewired and recruited to perform activities beyond their original intention (neuroplasticity). For instance, even though the right side of my brain used to control the left side of my body, my current left-side mobility is now presumably controlled by retrained neurons in my left hemisphere. Or, so the theory goes. I may never know for sure. Some might say it's a moot point -- the proof is in the pudding: if I can move my left side, it doesn't matter how or why. It's one of the many ways we are blissfully ignorant of how our bodies manage to function. But I'm curious nevertheless. That's why I'm looking to go down this rabbit hole.

The Mindwave EEG has given me a preliminary picture (below), though I'm certainly not well equipped to interpret this brainwave data:

Brainwave Visualizer: shows the fluctuating levels of different types of waves.

Mindwave also includes some games designed to hone attention and meditation skills. Here are some screenshots:

The Mindty Ant: By focusing on the fruit, you help the ant roll it into his food cache.

Mind Hunter: Focus allows the game to target animals, blinking then shoots a bubble that whisks them away (very child friendly). 

Zombie Pop: You focus on the zombies being made in the zombie factory in order to pop their heads. I haven't yet made it to the level where you actually fight the zombies.

I'm not quite here yet, but I'm working on it.

My friend Marc -- unaware that I was experimenting with EEG already -- found a perfect non-virtual companion Christmas gift to the Mindwave with a MindFlex he found at GoodWill. It uses EEG focus and relaxation to appropriately speed and slow a fan beneath an accordingly rising and falling foam ball, with an eye toward navigating an obstacle course. Like this:
Now, while all of this attention and meditation exercise is a distinct area of improvement for me; and tapping directly into my brainwaves is cool, a pretty big part of my self-prescribed mental exercise regimen has long included retraining areas of memory, strategy, logic, spatial organization, and word finding through apps like:

There are more formal brain training programs like Lumosity and Mind Games, but I find them a little too clinical.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Here it is: I like Big Buts, and I cannot lie.

In this stretch of the year emphasizing gratitude, I find myself exhausted by thankfulness. This occurred to me initially on the day after Thanksgiving. I know it's called Black Friday because it's the start of holiday shopping and a profitable turn for retailers (getting, "in the black"), but it certainly sounds ominous, like the mayhem of getting up at three in the morning for the sake of a good sale. I realized in the midst of all my gratitude, I wanted to luxuriate in a bath of sour grapes. Black Friday could just as well be a day of well-earned resentment and bitterness -- bitter like a black cup of coffee.

Often, I feel like I can't complain about life because my near-death experience is supposed to have provided me some kind of grand perspective and enlightenment. That brings me back to the Big Buts -- horrible things I feel but am not supposed to admit, lest I sound petty or self-pitying:

  • I am and will forever be grateful for the support my wife's given me over the past four years, but I am bored with feeling beholden to that bolstering and being unable to resent the coddling I sometimes receive. Jamie, by the way, feels the same -- how can she properly and righteously get pissed off at me when I literally went to the brink of death and back for her and the kids?
  • I love and appreciate my kids for [mostly] smiling through our mutual trauma, but I do question research showing that people with children live longer than those without or that married men live longer than single.
  • Given what I've been through, I am very fortunate to hold a job and work with and for people and a company who want to see me succeed; but work can be a slog of ridiculous politics and facades. As meaningful as the end results of my work may be, sometimes it feels like all we manufacture in a white collar industry is angst.
  • My friends have been a force of encouragement, but I've found myself regularly having to be the one who invites, rather than the one invited; leaving me wondering if I've somehow ostracized myself by getting sick and being a downer. Of course, no one would admit to intentionally leaving out the strokey guy with the cane, but it can feel that way. Or, maybe I just prioritize escaping my life more than others.
If I hadn't burned my bridges before, maybe I've stuck my foot in it now. I'm not saying these things because I think I'm entitled to get away with it. I'm saying them because I think everyone has legitimate gripes sometimes, and honestly complaining about what I have doesn't mean I don't know how lucky I am to have them.

Someone at my brain injury support group threw out the motto, "Above ground and walking," to express the blessing of life. But, once again, I'm forced to question the notion that every moment is sacred.

Mindfulness teaches us to live in the present but also to not judge what we're feeling in that present. Yes, the present is a gift. We tend to praise and reward ourselves for feelings of gratitude in the moment. Not so much bitterness and anger. Neither end of the spectrum should be inherently good or bad. It's mostly subjective. Mind you, suppressing anger and resentment is tangibly unhealthy but, then again, so might expressing them. Fear is generally considered negative but is at least instinctually protective. What's resentment for? I'm still working that out and generally try to steer clear of it for that uncertainty -- it feels fruitless. Translating rage into anything other than an outlet -- even if it's an honest venting of legitimate emotion -- is rarely productive.

That said, just because it feels good to rant, I've compiled a list of rage anthems (from the man who has nothing to complain about):

Turn it Down for What?
We're Not Gonna Take It
Fight for your Right to Party
Sleep Now in the Fire
Anarchy in the UK
Fight the Power

In conclusion, Happy Holidays! Here is a gift of a picture of an early Christmas gift Jamie made for me this year. It's a pretty spectacular representation of the support I've had and am grateful for, even if it means I need to walk with the aid of a cane. Dammit. There it is.

Candy Cane cane