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Allan (0:49): Our guest today is the author of Your Brain Knows More Than You Think. He works with some of the most amazing people in the world from the perspective of understanding the brain and how it’s all wired together. Very interesting conversation. He has done a lot to help a lot of people, albeit some of his methods have been a little bit controversial and maybe a little bit extreme. But a very, very interesting conversation. I know you’re going to enjoy learning a lot about how your brain works today. With no further ado, here’s Niels Birbaumer.
Allan (1:20): Dr. Birbaumer, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness. How are you?
Dr. Birbaumer (1:27): Perfect.
Allan (1:29): Your book, Your Brain Knows More Than You Think, was not the book I thought I was going to read when I started reading it. Neuroplasticity is a topic that I’m very fascinated by, because as we get older we kind of feel like maybe we should decline a little bit, maybe we should let our brains go a little bit. But we also know if we work our brains, it’s like a muscle and it should get stronger.
Dr. Birbaumer (2:01): True. But even if it gets weaker with age, it gets strong in other areas.
Allan (2:07): Yes, and that’s what I really took from your book, that our brain is actually a very, very interesting organ in what it can do to change us. What I took from the book was, we’re not fixed. I think we all like to think we’re fixed, but we’re not fixed.
Dr. Birbaumer (2:28): Exactly.
Allan (2:29): We can change.
Dr. Birbaumer (2:30): Right, at any time in any direction.
Allan (2:35): And that’s what was fascinating about the book, was the stories and the things that you put together to say that. I think it came down to this concept of what you call “desired effect”. It’s the first time I’ve really ever heard someone put it that way, to say we all want something. Our brain, our bodies, our minds, our being wants something, and as long as we’re getting that, we will keep doing the things that help us get that. And if we’re not getting that, then we have to change. So, could you get into the concept of what “desired effect” means to our brain and why that drives our behavior so strongly?
Dr. Birbaumer (3:24): There is a circuit in the brain which is extremely sensitive to reward – any type of reward. Could be internal, thought reward, image reward, but mostly it’s external reward. That circuit drives us forward, and it reactivates all the time. It constantly asks, “Is this wish fulfilled? Where should I go? Is there a chance that I get this?” It’s what we call the wanting, the will system. That system usually is extremely active during the whole life, but I described in the book several conditions, like complete paralysis, diverse illnesses, meditation, diet, experiences, where that circuit is stopped or degenerates, or is eliminated, or the muscles are completely paralyzed so the brain learns that it cannot will anything because nothing of its wishes would be fulfilled. And even then, if all your possibilities which you imagined during your life are completely blocked forever, the brain adapts, and at the end of that adaptation process, these people – I’m talking about completely paralyzed people as an example, but there are many others – these people have a high quality of life, meaning that even if the central brain circuit of wishful thinking, which drives us forward, is degenerating or blocked, or the external world does not allow the fulfillment of our desires – even then the brain adapts and you can have a high quality of life in such a situation. That’s one of the topics.
Allan (5:20): The locked-in syndrome was something I had never heard of before, so it was really fascinating to think about a situation where this individual has zero control over anything around them, and now their brain is adapting to try to find a way, any way, to affect change in their lives. And most of us, we have so much capacity for change in our lives; we just choose not to.
Dr. Birbaumer (5:54): Right, because we are driven by the environment, usually.
Allan (5:58): We’re driven by the environment, and again, that’s this whole concept of neuroplasticity and saying, “What are the things we want?” Because when we say “desired effect”, I think everyone would want to eat healthy, to exercise, to do the things we know we should be doing for our health. But our brain has different answers for us than what we might want. So it’s desired effect, but the brain has its own kind of desire.
Dr. Birbaumer (6:30): The desires and most of the plastic changes the brain does are not conscious. That’s why you say, “It’s the brain that does different things than I want.” But the brain is you; you are your brain. So the brain is you, but the brain has the body which is hanging on to this brain, and most of these processes of wishful thinking and fulfillment and everything you do in your life – 90% of these processes are not conscious. That’s why you think it’s not you, because the brain then decides… Assuming you get paralyzed for some reason or another. You’re paralyzed, and then the brain doesn’t need your conscious. You think, “This is a catastrophe in my life. It’s terrible. It’s the end of my life.” But meanwhile, the brain adapts to the loss of this full circuit and develops a new strategy to quiet down different areas of the brain. And at the end you will experience the end result of that plastic process. But don’t think that you are different from your brain. You are your brain, but your brain often does things which you don’t know of, and it does it very often on a long-term basis, and you will not know of that adaptation process until the end, when it becomes conscious. That could last a few days, and few seconds, but it could also last several years. My patients at the beginning say, “Oh well, I will kill myself. I cannot live in such a condition.” And after a year of this adaptation process, they say, “Now I’m really happy. I’m completely paralyzed, I’m on artificial respiration and feeding. I can do nothing, but I feel very good.” And that is an end result of such an adaptation process.
Allan (8:34): I think it’s really hard for us to accept that we can change that much.
Dr. Birbaumer (8:38): Yes, it is difficult. But on the other hand, it’s the only thing that should give us hope to get out of misery.
Allan (8:47): Yes. Now, you took that conversation in the book and you went into changing personality. This was an area where I thought you were going to lose me, because like everybody else, and as you mentioned in the book, I think my personality was pretty much set. I was not raised by my father, so when I met my father I was actually very, very surprised by how much I was like him. You get into the book about twins that had been separated at birth, and I’m looking at it from a different father / son and some of the aspects of my personality that are very similar to his. Can you talk about how our brains create personality and what that actually means with regards to neuroplasticity?
Dr. Birbaumer (9:41): First of all, all the circuits in the brain that create what we call “personality” are circuits which in principle are plastic; of course they’re created by the genetic upbringing. So when you are similar to your father, that’s not surprising. There was an excellent study in the U.S. in the ‘60s or ‘70s, where monozygotic and dizygotic twins who were raised apart for more than 20 years were brought together in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and they all stuck together. It was the last time that this happened in history, because now this type of twins cannot be separated anymore. In that study the main result was of course if the environment in which people live, and these separated twins, like you from your father – if the environment was roughly similar, they developed similar. If the environment was completely different, they developed differently. The main genetic factor, which was similar in both, even if they were separated, was a thing which is a personality factor, but we usually don’t ascribe to personality. It was political opinion. So, the genetic root of what we call “political opinion” is much, much higher than all the other similarities you have. That means the similarities with your father are mainly similarities of course in appearance, but what you call your personality, you are probably completely different from your father, except that your political opinion probably is the same.
But you know that political opinions and political ideas can be easily learned and re-learned, and the brain under different environmental circumstances can completely change these opinions. So, here we have the most plastic attitude which we think in life, which is political opinion, has the strongest genetic basis. At the same time it’s a personality characteristic, which can be very easily changed. And from that knowledge, I argue that the brain circuits that run these genetically determined personality traits can be easily changed by certainly strongly environmental change. If your father lived in the U.S. and you were raised in the U.S., even separated from your father, the chance that you become different is very low.
Allan (12:21): That’s the whole point – actually my brothers and sisters on the other side were raised different but still in the same country, so still with some of the same aspects, so very much politically aligned with the way we think. Like I said, it was very interesting to understand how my personality can be shaped by my environment, but that’s actually a good thing, because that means that I can by changing my environment, change my personality.
Dr. Birbaumer (12:55): Of course, completely.
Allan (12:57): So if I happen to be an overeater or someone who’s dealing with a problem, make some changes to my environment. You’ve done some interesting experiments, I’ll just put that out there. You’ve been out there on an edge with the studies that you’ve been doing, so you’ve made some friends and you’ve made some enemies, I think, is what I’ve come to understand from the book. You’ve used this thing called “shock compliance experiments”, and they don’t sound pleasant, but they get really good results. Could you talk about the change of environment or the change of desired effect to effectively almost change personality?
Dr. Birbaumer (13:40): I have some examples from my clinical work here in the book, which show how plastic the brain is. But the methods to change these circuits in the brain, if they are fixed over a long learning process, are extreme, and some of them are not allowed anymore. I’ll give the example which I also gave in the book, I think, but I don’t remember. You have a person who is washing themselves all day long because they’re afraid of getting an infectious disease. So these people clean themselves all the time, so they have an attitude and fear of getting contaminated by bacteria or viruses, and they had this fear all their life. What are we doing with these people? For example, we put them in Hyde Park – at that time I lived in London – we put them in Hyde Park, we picked up the sh*t of dogs, they had to put the sh*t of the dogs in their face and on their body, and they were not allowed to wash themselves for a week. And in order to avoid that they wash themselves in between, we changed them to the therapist, so even at night, they could not leave the therapist. We just blocked them from washing themselves. After a week of that treatment, they never, ever had a tendency to wash themselves immediately, and they never, ever developed a fear of contamination of bacteria.
This type of treatment, which was at that time called the “Trojan treatment” is so extreme that it changed the personality of these people for a lifetime, which is now not allowed anymore. If I would do that these days in the U.S. or in Europe, I will end up in prison as an academic for quite some time. But this is the only way to treat these things. Now what are they doing? They implant electrodes in the brain and they can train a brain area which is responsible for this type of personality. Because there are multiple brain areas, you would have to insert many, many, many electrodes in many brain areas to stimulate those brain areas and to treat the disease, which is life threatening. Of course I’m in favor of changing the brain by these types of stimulation, but this is much more dangerous than putting sh*t on the face of these people for a week and end up with the same result. You see the absurdity of the argument.
Allan (16:26): I do. But again, it was interesting to understand what you were doing was effectively putting them into the worst of their fears. You were putting them in the worst of their place and saying, “If things were the worst, what’s the outcome?” And the brain actually adapts and realizes and says, “I survived, so it’s not as bad as I thought.”
Dr. Birbaumer (16:55): It is important that this is not torture. Torture is if somebody has such an experience under forced circumstances, but in these situations there are no forced circumstances. In this case, the brain knows, “There’s no force here. I agreed to do this, I do it. But if I’m in there, then I’m forced and they’ll continue forever to treat me.” And they may not get well, because if I would’ve let these people wash themselves in between, they would have a tremendous relapse and would be a terrible result. Yes, they got the point.
Allan (17:42): Now, the cool part of this though is, from that we now move on to these therapies that are actually some of the things we’re dealing with today. My grandmother had a stroke, and it slightly bothered I think it was the left side of her body, which made it difficult for her to do certain things. Now, she wasn’t as bad off as other people, because some people will go through stroke and lose complete access to half of their body. Now, you’ve used some of your learnings, predominantly through the electric capacity of our brain, to re-teach us how to move our body when otherwise there is no way for us to make that connection. Can you talk about BMI as a strategy for dealing with stroke?
Dr. Birbaumer (18:36): I’m not claiming that I have a miracle cure for chronic stroke. I just follow the data, and the data of our studies and the replicated show that the best way in people who have a very severe chronic… Go back to your grandmother – if your grandmother’s hand is completely paralyzed on the left side, so far there was no way to get this hand functional, in the sense that she could grab a glass, that she could drink, she could walk on a stair without getting a lot of help, and so forth. Now, with BMI this can be done. That doesn’t mean that these people at the end are completely healthy. They still have some problems, but they’re much less. So, the only thing we do here which is different from all the previous treatments, is that we ask the brain to get immediate feedback off the success of the paralyzed finger, arm or whatever is paralyzed. So, the patient normally, in real life, wants to move the hand. So the brain says, “Move the hand.” And the hand is not moving, because the connection between the command, which is in the brain, and the hand is interrupted by the bleeding of the stroke. So the only thing we do, we just reconnect the brain with the hand.
So we build a prosthetic device. We put a prosthetic device on the hand and we put an electrode on the brain or in the brain – it doesn’t matter where you put it – where the command is created. So the patient thinks, “I want to move my hand”, and in that moment the patient thinks, there’s electric activity in the brain. That electric activity will then transfer to the prosthetic device or directly to the hand, and the hand is moving. So the interruption is between the command in the brain and the hand. We then have transferred the command across the lesion, across the interruption, and that gives the brain the experience, “A-ha!” The brain learns that way, “If I have a command, it’s followed by a consequence.” And by that the circuit between the command in the brain and the periphery which executes the command, is reactivated and restores itself. We have to do this thousands and thousands and thousands of times with the electrodes on your head or in your head, and after a while, other brain areas take over. They take the command from the top of the head and they bring the command back to the periphery. So it’s a very simple trick, which in that case of course technology does that. You have to have the electric brain signal of the command and the technology then, which is wireless, brings the electric activity of the brain back to the hand. That’s the whole trick.
Allan (21:52): I think that’s just fascinating, and it really speaks to the capacity of our brains to deal with problems. If we give them the opportunity, you see the solution.
Dr. Birbaumer (22:06): For some of these things you need technology. This was clear to many doctors for many years that it has to be that way, but they didn’t have the technology to grab the command in the brain and then transfer the command to an external device. The new brain amplifiers and brain technology, we can easily do this fairly cheap with wireless devices. So, it’s a technological advancements. The principles are known since people lived; it’s nothing new.
Allan (22:37): Yeah. Now, stroke is a big one because it is a killer and it is something that really puts a lot of people down. But more and more we’re facing Alzheimer’s. We’re living a little longer, which is one reason that people are saying we’re dealing with Alzheimer’s more, but I think there’s also some dietary issues and some other things that are going on that are causing it. If not an epidemic, it’s still much more prevalent today than it ever was. You’ve actually used similar technology to help Alzheimer’s patients deal with some of the memory loss and some of the issues they’re dealing with.
Dr. Birbaumer (23:14): I’m not saying that we can treat Alzheimer’s. There is no treatment available for the causes of the disease. The only thing we claim, and we showed it in some experiments, that even in the advanced cases, when patients don’t know their own name, they don’t know the name of their family members, and they seem to be completely distant from everything – even then, if we get the activity of the emotional areas deep down in the brain, we see that they recognize in an unconscious manner, but emotionally – they recognize, for example, the difference between a positive emotion to a family member and a foreigner. Then we take out this information, we put an electrode in those brain areas or we calculate mathematically the activity of the brain areas, and then we know when the patient recognizes something and remembers emotionally something. You cannot remember it consciously because the conscious memory is destroyed by the disease. But he knows that this is something familiar, and then we can discriminate between a positive emotion and a negative emotion. And for the personnel who treats those patients this is very important, because right now they don’t know when the patient is in a positive mood, what does he want, what is necessary, does he have a negative emotion? What should I do in that situation? Is he aggressive? And by detecting the activity in these emotional areas, we can tell the family members and the caretakes what to do in that situation. So that helps. It’s not changing the treatment, but helps in having everybody – patient, and the family, and the environment, and the caretaker – a better quality of life. It’s not helping the disease, but it’s helping the situation.
Allan (25:18): I think that’s really the positive message of this whole thing. You’re touching on some very important aspects of when you get down to those emotional centers, those are going to drive more of who you are than you ever wrapped your mind around before, because when you get to emotion, that supports your desired effect, that supports what you need to go forward.
Dr. Birbaumer (25:45): And what you want.
Allan (25:47): So, the more emotional you can make the things that you want in your life, the more they matter to you, the more likely you are to accomplish those things.
Dr. Birbaumer (25:58): Yes. The circuits that we’re talking about, these circuits of will, the circuits that drive us forward – all these circuits anatomically are identical with the emotional circuits, and they’re not connected very strongly with the cognitive conscious circuits. Of course they are connected with them, because all these wishes and desires at least come to that circuit. That’s not new; we know this since mankind exists. If you go down in antiquity and you go back for thousands of years, this was always known. The only difference between those times and now is that now we have the chance to make these processes, which are of course deep down in the brain, to make them visible, and we can modify them directly, and we can change them directly. And we see in the development of mankind these very old circuits, which everybody saw unchangeable, like the one you were talking – personality circuits – now we know that these circuits are extremely plastic also, like the rest of the brain. That’s the surprise I want to transfer to the reader of that book.
Allan (27:18): Yes. So the book is called Your Brain Knows More Than You Think: The New Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.
Dr. Birbaumer (27:23): Exactly. That’s what it meant.
Allan (27:27): It’s a wonderful, interesting read. Some of the experiments you have done are very, very interesting. So, it was a very good book, a very interesting read, and it taught me that I have capacity within my brain that I never actually understood. But it comes back to the reality of what I’ve always kind of known – that if I really, really need something, my brain is going to help me get there. So, very, very positive.
Dr. Birbaumer (27:54): Yes, you don’t need it now. If you don’t need it now, it’s okay.
Allan (28:00): But when I need it, it’s going to be there. Thank you.
Dr. Birbaumer (28:07): I appreciate it.
Allan (28:08): If someone wanted to learn more about you, learn more about the book, where would you like for me to send them?
Dr. Birbaumer (28:12): You could put my email in the book, or whatever, in your…
Allan (28:20): I can send them to Amazon to buy the book, I can send them to your website, I can send them to an email. Just let me know.
Dr. Birbaumer (28:27): Sure. You can.
Allan (28:30): Doctor, thank you so much for being a part of the 40+ Fitness podcast.
Dr. Birbaumer (28:34): Thank you very much.
Allan (28:36): I really appreciate having this conversation.
Dr. Birbaumer (28:37): Take care, Allan.
Allan (28:38): You too.
I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. Very fascinating man, very fascinating career, and I learned a lot from him. I hope you did too. And if you did, if you enjoyed this episode, would you please leave us a rating and review? It means the world to me. You can do that through the app that you’re listening on right now, or you can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Review, and that’ll take you directly to iTunes, where you can leave a rating and review for the podcast there. And I’d really appreciate it if you’d subscribe as well, so you don’t miss any episodes. I am looking to launch a couple extra bonus episodes in October, so be on the lookout for those. I don’t want you to miss any of those, so please do subscribe. You can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Review to leave a rating review for the podcast, or just through the app that you’re listening on right now. There’s probably a review button pretty close to the top, somewhere around there. Just click that button, leave us a rating and review. It helps other people find the podcast and helps us get this information out to more people. So, I really do appreciate you and I really would appreciate a rating and review.
I spent last week in Belize with my wife. We are actually trying to look for a place where we might do our active retirement. I’ll continue to do the podcast, I’ll continue to do the training and whatnot, but we are looking to downscale our lives, reduce our stress and effectively go into an active retirement, and we’re looking at Latin America as a location for that. So, took a trip down there, really enjoyed it. Got eaten up by mosquitoes, so hoping I’m not going to get malaria or Zika or something like that. But it was a fun trip otherwise, and really enjoyed the time down there and liked the place. So, hopefully we’ll have settled on something soon, but right now we’re just in that looking and searching mode. But that was kind of fun.
And then the book is currently off with the editor. I’m working through some of the marketing side of things with the book and I’ll be working with the layout team fairly soon here. That’s where I am right now, but I would really love to have you as a part of my launch team. With the launch team, there are some bonuses, some things you’ll get as we get closer to the launch. You also get a weekly update from me that will have a lot more information about the book, about what’s going on than what you might be getting on the podcast here, and a lot more timely. So, if you want to be a part of the launch team, and I really would appreciate having you there, go to WellnessRoadmapBook.com. Again, that’s WellnessRoadmapBook.com. On that page you’ll find a sign-up form to join the launch team. You’re not going to get inundated with stuff; this is just a way for me to keep you in touch with what’s going on, have you a part of the launch team so as we start looking at booking events and doing different things related to the book, you’ll be a big part of it. I really do want to have you on the team, so please go to WellnessRoadmapBook.com and be a part of The Wellness Roadmap launch team. Thank you.