In my Podcast with neuroscientist Joshua Heyl we took a nose dive into electrical representations of functional states of consciousness. In other words we looked at how electrical signals on the heads surface change depending on the current „mindset“. I prefer the term „functional state of consciousness“ to „mindset“.
„Functional State“ is a term from systems biology that was coined by Pyotr Anokhin, a scholar under Ivan Pavlov. He took Pavlovs research on reflexes (stimulus-response) to the next level by introducing the concept of adaptation as the primary goal of the organism (stimulus-response-adaptation).
In contrast to the term „mindset“, „functional state of consciousness” appreciates the adaptive and dynamic manner of the emergent quality of consciousness.
While „mindset“ is often imagined like a switch, a Functional State can be imagined as one of many valleys where a ball comes to rest. In contrast to the image of the „switch“, the ball can make fluid transitions between states of consciousness. To transition from one state to the other, the individual will have to spend energy (to move the ball over the hill), but once the ball has crossed the hill, the next state of consciousness will be a stable equlibrium and only a new input of energy will transition the state of consciousness to another one. The body will only make this energy-costly transition if he expects a positive adaptation.
This way it is easy to imagine an individual „landscape of consciousness“ for every individual. The valleys serve as „attractors“. They attract attention and the deeper the valley, the more stable this consciousness. Some valleys are deeper than others, meaning that this individual will probably spend more time in these valleys, and getting out will cost a lot of energy. Some other individuals might have many different very shallow valleys. They will transition a lot between states of consciousness. This variability serves them well in some situations, but this lack of „consistency“ can hinder them in others.
Joshua Heyl and me discussed how states of consciousness differ in the LOCATION, FREQUENCY and RESONANCE of their electrical signals.
For example a state of „focussed attention“ is dominated by shorter wavelengths, while a state of „relaxed tranquility“ is dominated by longer brain waves.
This is nothing new and forms the basis of electroencephalography (EEG). But the interesting idea we discussed is how we are able to transfer from one state of consciousness to another. The ability to transfer fluently from one state of consciousness is most certainly a trainable quality. Think of this ability as „mind fluid“ instead of „mindset“. It is a landscape of consciousness with shallower valleys. Ways to achieve this ability include awareness methods like meditation. A trained meditator will fluidly be able to transition from focus to tranquility to anger and back to focus and tranquility. The meditation practice evened out the landscape of consciousness and valleys are no dead-ends anymore. The valleys become more shallow and it is easier to move out of negative feedback loops or unproductive states of consciousness.
But meditation is not something everyone is open to. Especially young athletes often do not see the immediate benefit of meditation and this „mind fluidity“. To achieve the first relevant results in this ability it might take 1-2 years of meditation. This can be frustrating. And I think this is where neurofeedback plays a role. Through neurofeedback we have a much faster portal to the ability to transition between states of consciousness. The basic essence of neurofeedback is that it visualises brain activity in real-time and easy to understand ways. Instead of hieroglyphic brain waves we see for example a butterfly (our current state of consciousness), that tries to land on a flower (the desired state of consciousness).
It puts our current state of consciousness in relation to a desired outcome and uses all kinds of visuals and acoustic signals that make it a lot of fun to modulate our state of consciousness to reach the goal. It might be a butterfly that tries to land on a flower, or it might be a video that only plays when we inch closer to our desired state of consciousness, and stops playback when we dont move in the right direction.
For a first time user of neurofeedback it is jaw-dropping how we can „trick“ our (sub)consciousness this way, but when we think of it our body constantly adjusts and modulates bodily systems to the current environment. Neurofeedback is one of the easiest circus tricks for our body.
I see neurofeedback as „awareness crutches“. It makes the implicit (state of consciousness) very explicit (visual signal) and thereby serves us crutches for low functioning of our own awareness. I see the big value in the creation of many questions in athletes. Every athlete that jumps into neurofeedback will be fascinated by his own body and will ask thousands of questions. These questions will lead to inquiry and more training. Neurofeedback serves as a kick-off event to go from „mindset“ to „mind fluid“.
Gerrit Keferstein is a Medical Doctor specialised in Performance & Functional Medicine. He is most known for his work on the optimisation of recovery and adaptation in elite athletes.