Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Balancing My Brain

Painting: "The Transmigration of Jesus Christ" by Steve Kilbey. For more info, see The Time Being.

So there I waThe Transmigration of Jesus Christ, by Steve Kilbeys, bobbing around in a stream of molten lava, just minding my own business, feeling warm and relaxed. No need to fear singed flesh when you're vacationing in the subconscious. And then, out of nowhere, comes Jesus! He's floating along beside me on his old splintery cross and slowly we merge into one. Now here's a tricky question: is it possible to have an out-of-body experience when you're already out of your body? Because that's what happened here: I floated up like a cloud of smoke, and next thing I knew I was gazing down on the newly fused Jesus/Robert head--the Robert Lurie features slowly blending into and becoming the Jesus face (which looked more Jim Caviezel than Willem Defoe, I should add).

A religious vision was about the last thing I had been expecting. I was on this journey to find some relief from my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But here comes Jesus, pushing his way in, telling me--without putting it into words--that he might be able to help out and take on some of the burden. That whole "dying for us" plot hook--something that never made sense to me as a kid--came into sharp relief. They call it an "aha moment."

You're thinking, "What the hell, Lurie? Don't you know you're not supposed to mix acid with your New Testament?" Well, let's table for a moment the fact that I've never done LSD and never will. And let's also table the fact that I have nevertheless been "tripping" (in some strange I-must-have-been-dropped-on-my-head way) since my first conscious moments on this planet. My double-bill out-of-body experience actually occurred while I was strapped into a reclining chair with electrodes silly-puttied all over my cranium, undergoing something called "brain balancing" courtesy of the Scottsdale, AZ-based company Brain State Technologies. A friend who works for the outfit had generously comped me a week in the chair, no strings attached. I thought, Why not?

Objective data on the Brain State process is hard to come by. Even in the shadowy world of "alternative medicine" (a field in which I have a keen interest), Brain State is a bit of an unknown quantity. Sure, there have been testimonials on Oprah and in the pages of People magazine, but where are the third party studies, clinical trials, etc? The similar alternative treatments of bio- and neuro-feedback have already been scrutinized by the medical community, even if the results have thus far proved inconclusive. Brain State's website goes into a lengthy discourse on how their proprietary brain-balancing technology is different and better than those other techniques (the crux of the argument being that each Brain State session is tailored to the patient's unique brain chemistry, whereas most biofeedback takes a "one size fits all" approach) but the lack of any clinical data and the dearth of legitimate scientific terminology raises a red flag. Furthermore, the sessions are expensive. Is this all just a scam?

And yet...Brain State has an exemplary record of giving free treatment to returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Not to mention that they gave a bum like me a free ride. This points to a genuine confidence in their product.

Coming out the other end of it, I still can't tell you much about how the technology actually works. As I mentioned earlier, various diodes were attached to my head, supposedly reading and balancing my alpha and theta levels. At the end of the week I was presented with what looked like a seismograph readout, with two lines eventually smoothing out and merging at the end of a long jagged arc. The skeptic in me might say, "Hey, the whole thing could be a put-on; maybe they give this same graph to everyone." However, a bigger part of me does not care about these questions. My main criteria was always whether the week in the chair would have any effect on how I feel, and the answer is an unequivocal yes. For starters, there was the aforementioned Jesus vision--an experience that got me re-investigating the faith tradition in which I was raised. Now, for the record, I regard it highly unlikely that God actually popped in to say hello while I sat there in north Scottsdale listening to my brain waves play back to me in Pac Man sounds. But I do believe that the prolonged meditative state engendered by "brain balancing" melted down some of the barriers I'd erected around the various sections of my psyche. It's not surprising that a religion that I've basically been fleeing since I was a teenager would come back into focus for some kind of rapprochement.

On the non-spiritual side of things, I also had vivid visions of my childhood home, and of a vacation I took with my father and grandfather to Scotland in the summer of 1984. That trip came flooding back in astonishing detail; it had been the last joyful moment of childhood before the confusion and shame of adolescence kicked in, and I was surprised to find that every moment, every impression had been carefully "filmed" and filed away in a locker deep in my subconscious. The ability to relive this experience was a real gift.

According to the Brain State staff, I brought my alpha waves up to healthy levels over the course of the week. Whatever the truth of that, the aftermath speaks for itself: I was able to discontinue my Zoloft prescription; I began to sleep regularly and without interruption for the first time in years; my meditation practice deepened; and my day-to-day life, usually so scattered and chaotic, fell into an ordered routine. To be fair, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of this is the result of my brain training and how much derives from the other beneficial practices I have developed over the past year: karate and tai chi, Kabbalah meditation, a healthier diet. But it is clear to me that Brain State enabled me to pursue all of these activities with increased discipline and vigor.

Did Brain State cure me of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Nope. I doubt anything could. But I have made enormous strides in my ability to manage my condition. In fact, in 2010 I made more progress in that regard than at any other point since I was first diagnosed with OCD in 1994. At the start of this new year I find myself slowly, gingerly, inching--on hands and knees--toward something resembling peace. That may sound tentative and inconclusive but believe me, it is monumental.

I hesitate to make a blanket recommendation for Brain State Technologies. It's clear to me that you get out what you put in. Plenty of people could go through the training and not feel a thing. But for the imaginative and the creatively inclined, this is a powerful tool, one whose potential is--I suspect--not even fully grasped by its creators.