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Alice in Neuroland - Page 3

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Marvin presses another computer key, and on a second linked laptop, a yellow Pacman-like face appears. For the next six minutes, Marcia, without moving a muscle, will try to keep Pacman running through a maze, simply by firing her neurons fast enough to make the computer beep. When she's too tense, the beeping stops and Pacman goes dark. When she withdraws or daydreams, too many of her brain waves enter the slow, theta range (firing only four to seven times per second), and the beeping stops again. But the laptop is configured so that when she's in a sweet spot--calm yet focused, with neurons firing away on the right side of her brain at 12 to 15 times per second--Pacman gobbles away and the beeping is continuous. At tables all around us, other therapist-guinea pigs are staring into similar screens, and the air fills with a syncopated, off-rhythm chorus of electronic beeps.

We're doing more than just looking into Marcia's brain--we're resetting its inner clockworks. Neurons close to the surface of her skull will, we hope, come to fire in slower, calmer rhythms. They, in turn, should entrain other neurons deeper in her brain, relaying their calming influence from her cortex to her thalamus, which helps govern physiological regulation. The fleeting, repeated, bio-electro-chemical patterns of neural functioning that Marcia calls mild anxiety--once thought to be hard wired by temperament, early childhood development, and fate--are turning out to be malleable after all.

Our hope is that after just six minutes of training, Marcia will feel at least temporarily less anxious--without a DSM-IV diagnosis, a massage, a few minutes of meditation, a shot of Jack Daniels, or any other mood-altering technique of East or West. We'd like her to be able to sleep better and worry less.

We're exploring a new pathway to healing. We aren't viewing her anxiety hydraulically, as Freud did--as pressure that needs releasing through talk; nor as a chemical imbalance that needs carpet-bombing with Zoloft; nor as the product of distorted cognitions that need challenging. Instead, on the basis of a 14-page questionnaire she filled out, we're thinking of her as "overaroused" and are trying to teach her brain to reregulate itself at its most basic, cellular level.

Our healing technology isn't the imperfect body and soul of a therapist or meditation master, both of whom, in slow, time-tested ways, attempt to teach the psyche self-regulation. We are diving down a new rabbit hole into the psyche. We are early adopters of a wordless, computer-to-human therapy--a natural fit for a culture in love with iPods, GameBoys, and wired isolation. Our therapeutic tools are an electrode, some wax, a software program called the EEGer, and two Toshiba laptops. We've come a long way from Freud's couch.
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