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This article appeared in Ode issue: 6
Modern afflictions like stress, fatigue, depression and hyperactivity can affect the brain. Martin Wuttke has developed a training program that helps harmonise brain frequencies. His treatment removes most of the static so that the brain can heal. A conversation with a pioneer.
In the video that Martin Wuttke shows his audience, a bobsled loses control in a bend. The woman in the sled is Ann Abernathy. In painful slow motion we watch the sled begin to spin before eventually slamming against the side. Abernathy's head makes a strange cracking noise. The sled speeds on, the woman lies unconscious on the track. The audience is shocked. Wuttke, one of the most prominent neurofeedback specialists in the world and founder of the Neurotherapy Centers for Health in Atlanta, does not flinch. He has seen the film many times. But Wuttke does not need the drama many of his fellow countrymen add to their presentations. He is a man of few words and gestures.
Later in the video we see that Ann Abernathy suffers increasingly from blackouts; she suddenly loses consciousness at the strangest times. Her co-ordination is off. Her career and her life are ruined. A few shots later we see her sitting at a computer screen with lots of electrodes connected to her head. The screen shows three rockets in flight. Abernathy's assignment is to let the middle rocket fly ahead, while keeping the other two stable. Abernathy does not have a joystick or mouse in her hand. The rockets move to the rhythm of her brainwaves. Whenever she generates the correct waves, the rockets move in the right direction.
Wuttke explains: "A blow to the head, whiplash, excessive stress or an emotional trauma can cause damage to the brain. The brain then goes into a sort of state of shock. In general terms, it becomes locked into an abnormal wave pattern. Certain neural paths become unstable and this can result in fear, depression, irritation, fatigue, hyperactivity, mood swings, confusion and sleeping disorders, among other things.'
The computer animation program with the rockets is just one of the many that Wuttke uses to help people recover from ailments like whiplash or chronic stress. According to Wuttke these afflictions originate from damage to the brain. Each affliction in turn causes another one. The treatments are directed at helping to integrate the parts of the brain that are not integrated due to emotional trauma or damage. If the brain becomes balanced again, that is, if the natural rhythm of the brainwaves is restored, then the rest of the system can repair itself.
In one of the most appealing computer programs you have to get a dolphin to swim in a smooth line. Wuttke adjusts the program for each patient so that the more a certain kind of brainwave is produced, the more smoothly the dolphin moves. "When specific brain activity increases, the memory and emotional trauma that the imbalance causes can re-occur. Via the electrodes, I connect the emotional memory and the rational part of the brain with each other making the two sides more identical and causing them to vibrate synchronically. By adding rational thinking to the emotionally charged events, the events are seen in a different perspective. They becomes less weighty and more integrated." This process is also called 'reframing the experience'.
The exercises are part of the neurofeedback, or EEG Biofeedback, training that Wuttke has helped develop with other colleagues. What makes the training interesting is that it is a subconscious learning process. It does not demand any special intelligence or awareness. You only need to be able to sit at the computer and play the game. Whenever you produce the right brainwaves, you are rewarded by the dolphin swimming without any erratic movements or the rocket going in the right direction. Generally 10 to 15 sessions of about 45 minutes are necessary for the patient to become familiar with the feelings associated with producing specific waves. Depending on the severity and type of disorder, around 40 sessions are needed to repair imbalances and generate lasting results. At this point the brain takes over and the system corrects itself.
At the end of his lecture, Wuttke takes time to clarify the complicated subject matter. His relaxed attitude is a result of the enormous library of active knowledge that Wuttke possesses on the subject. This is a man who knows what he is talking about and most importantly is able to refer to an archive of first-hand experience.
"We have now come so far," says Wuttke, "that we can see where the damage is localized in the brain. By using what is called QEEG (Quantitative electro-encephalogram) we are able to chart the brain frequencies, which is called brain mapping. You can see exactly what part of the brain lags behind (doesn't show enough activity) or which parts are overactive."
The photographs Wuttke shows give volumes of information, at least for those who can read them. Experience has taught Wuttke how to discern whether, for example, someone has been abused during their childhood. Or whether they have more likely 'only' been a witness to abuse. He can see if someone is under a lot of pressure and reacts to it constructively, or if someone is drowning in it. The scans tell the story. "Some people say that they have forgiven their parents and that they love humanity. I look at the scan and have to sometimes conclude that their brain is telling another story," says Wuttke.
Martin Wuttke, 'Marty' to friends, has experienced a lot in his relatively short life (46). After a seven-year addiction to heroin nearly killed him, he went through a spiritual experience which he would later describe as an awakening. It left him with one desire: to meditate. After several years in an ashram, he happened to stumble across a huge psychiatric institution in a nearby town. He began to give meditation classes there and quickly became a member of the staff.
For ten years Wuttke worked at the institution applying his knowledge to patients suffering from afflictions such as depression, hyperactivity, eating disorders, addiction, chronic pain, fatigue and stress. He treated more than 1,500 patients and saw that every ailment demanded a separate type of treatment. Wuttke remembers the first days: "The results were phenomenal. I always had 35 patients at my disposal who I could treat twice a day. The successes were, and still are, incredible. In the category of present day common illnesses, chronic fatigue, ADHD and addiction, the success rate was about 70% to 80%."
In order to understand how the healing process in neurofeedback exactly works, a certain amount of knowledge about the brain is necessary. "The brain consists of three levels. First you have the brain stem, the oldest part, that regulates the basic functions of the body like breathing and all the processes that you do not have to think about. This is where qualities like surviving, instinct, fear and safety are located. The second level can be called the emotional brain. This is where many of our positive and negative emotional reactions are located. The third part, the neocortex, is what distinguishes us from most animals. This is where rational thinking takes place, which enables us to see the consequences of our actions and to make comparative assessments," Wuttke explains.
Research in prisons show that many prisoners have abnormal QEEG's, up to 80% in the 'heaviest institutions'. The abnormalities may stem from a blow to the head, but in most cases they are the result of an experience that has developed an electrical circuit in the brainstem or emotional brain. When someone feels extremely threatened, a pattern is created which, the more often it is repeated, can grow to become an obsession or compulsiveness that stands in the way of clear thinking.
"We all know that feeling," says Wuttke. "Why do I keep doing this?" or "Why can't I end this relationship?" and so on and so on. These are repeated patterns that cause suffering and in the end often lead to psychiatric help or pills. By not being able to think clearly, the digit-span decreases, that is, the ability to take in a specific amount of information and to process and re-produce it. Most people are able to remember seven numbers and reproduce them when they hear them randomly called out one after another. Among criminals that average is four.
Drug abuse is one of many challenges facing today's society. Wuttke thinks that drugs damage the ability to assess the consequences of what you do. He is working on projects for prisons to use his methods to repair the damage, so that the chances of falling back into old habits decrease. Research in the Canadian province of Ontario has shown that after the first four sessions 65% of prisoners fell back into their old patterns. By the 16th session that number had dropped to 40%. By the 34th session it was down to 20%. In the United States, judges sometimes require neurofeedback therapy as a condition for someone accused of a crime to be let out on bail or probation.
In the case of his own addiction, Wuttke needed a spiritual experience to break the cycle. "I cannot give people this kind of spontaneous insight. What we can do with neurofeedback is give the brain the ability to take on this sort of experience. We can get rid of the static and harmonize and assist the development of the brain so that you have the ability to look deep within and find yourself again. I see it happen regularly. We even have a joke about it: "Who will see God today?"
Wuttke extensively studied the clear moments of deep insight because he is aware how important they can be to people's development. "In my work in the psychiatric institution I realized that it is best to measure these types of experiences within the brain itself. In the scans you see that something is happening. You see the wave patterns change. Such experiences always have to do with surrendering, with letting go. The brain relaxes and is able to get out of the vicious cycle of stress. Deep insight can develop as a result of this relaxation. It gives back the clarity needed to make good decisions.
The neurofeedback equipment not only provides peace and harmony, but also stimulates underdeveloped parts of the brain. When a part wakes up, people see things from a completely different perspective. "That can feel uncomfortable," says Wuttke, "You are pulled out of this worn-in pattern and think, My God, why didn't I realize this earlier? How could I have been so locked up?" These moments can be seen very clearly on the QEEG. These are the moments of actual change.
Wuttke's urge to help people with mental, emotional and spiritual disorders was further boosted when his son Jacob was born with a severe brain defect. Wuttke set up a special school for him, Jacob's Ladder, where students received specially geared lessons. As if life hadn't tested him enough, his marriage fell apart too. But Wuttke bounced back to find the love of his life, Susan Colpitts. Colpitts, however, was on the verge of dying, due to a neurological disorder. She was suffering from a serious auto-immune disease, bone marrow dysfunction, a complete system breakdown. Wuttke was able to re-animate her by using neurofeedback along with other methods.
It has become clear to Wuttke that almost all illnesses, except for perhaps chronic pain, are a result of some kind of system breakdown. "These breakdowns take place as a result of the way the three brain parts work together," says Wuttke. "Take smoking, the neocortex knows very well that smoking is unhealthy. But at the level of the limbic system it is a question of self-preservation. This kind of programming puts the individual into a permanent state of stress."
Wuttke is aware that most people do not recognize the warning signs telling them that their system is on the verge of a break down. "For example, signals like needing to take an aspirin or indigestion tablets every day. Many people become prisoners of a vicious cycle of stress. Your sympathetic nervous system, which is also responsible for increasing the heart rate and producing adrenaline, is working overtime, should I fight or run? That causes a permanent state of stress. This can mean that the entire system breaks down which in turn causes you to become ill. But usually you first see an overcompensation reaction of the parasympathetic nervous system, which works as a brake and makes sure that the sympathetic nervous system is not overreacting. An overcompensating parasympathetic nervous system can cause afflictions such as asthma, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and panic attacks. The worse the trauma, the deeper it can bury itself in the brain. If it goes too deep, it will inhibit the regulatory activity of the brain stem. That's when it gets dangerous. The body will then start to attack itself, these are the common auto-immune diseases."
Even in these situations and in cases of serious neurological conditions like autism, Wuttke has been very successful. "One or two sessions a week are usually enough to bring about shifts in the brain. The brain is an incredible organ that can learn at any given moment. I've even seen huge changes in the brains of 65 year-olds." Wuttke remembers an autistic child that could not communicate. Within two years the child was attending a normal school. CNN reported the story. "The boy still comes in once a month for servicing. He's a 'cool' kid, complete with screws in his earlobes."
Do these methods eventually make other methods of treatment superfluous? Are the days of psychotherapy, meditation and medication over? Wuttke says jokingly: "Finally, we can settle the score with psychiatrists and God." Then more seriously: "No. But neurofeedback does speed up the process. When the famous American psychiatrist Jack Woodward saw what neurofeedback does, he commented, "Changes that normally demand months and years to occur are accomplished in days and weeks with this method." If we can recognise our own divinity by direct attention to our deepest essence, then we will be able to get in touch with the self-healing capacity of our body. This day will come. I see the signs all around me. More and more people are waking up."
Waking up others and promoting the neurofeedback is Wuttke's mission in life. However, he is cautious and realistic. "We don't have any ready-made solutions for every problem yet. There are no easy answers. The neurofeedback system is just one component in an array of methods that we can apply. But after everything that I have experienced and tried, I can easily say that it is one of the most powerful components."