If you have toured around my site at all, you might have noticed that my perspective on the brain is quite different from what you ordinarily find. That might excite you as a doorway to new ideas or it might make you suspicious as to whether I know what I’m talking about — and I’m ok with that. In either case, if you are interested in learning more about the brain,you may want to know a little bit more about me as a “brain expert”.
My Credentials: Just the Facts
- Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from McGill University in 1988, with dissertation research focusing on children with ADD and their similarity to adults with frontal lobe dysfuntion
- Training in neuropsychology at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hamilton Health Sciences Centre Acquired Brain Injury Program
- Certificate of Registration since 1989 as a Psychologist (C.Psych.; #2318) with areas of practice being clinical psychology, rehabilitation psychology, and neuropsychology
- Canadian Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology (#04949)
- Certified Brain Injury Trainer, American Academy of Brain Injury for the Certification of Brain Injury Specialists
- Certified Open Focus Neurofeedback Practitioner
- Technical Certification in NeuroCARE Approach to CNS Functional Transformation using Non-Linear Dynamical Control Procedures
- Hemoencephalography training with Dr. Jeff Carmen, creator of the passive infrared hemoencephalography system
But all that doesn’t really give you a picture of who I am and how I’ve arrived at the perspectives I share with you here and in my upcoming book The Way of the Brain. So if you have some time, let me tell you more about how my brain works…
My Brain and its Evolution
My brain owes a lot of how it works today to my father. His life lessons (embedded in my everyday life, not as lessons per se, of course — that’s what made them so powerful) turned out to be at the heart of who I have become as a neuropsychologist and as a person. So — what were those lessons?:
- My father taught me not to follow the crowd. (“So, if everyone else were going to jump off a cliff, would you do it?”)
- My father taught me to be suspicious of anything too popular. (Makes sense, right? Might be a cliff.)
- My father taught me to be an information sponge, but to also critically analyze information I discovered. (Really? How do we know that? Are there different ways to understand or explain that?
- My father also taught me to be open to the wonder and the possibilities of what I can’t explain. (Wow…what if that were true? What could it mean for me/you/us? How might this be true…what might explain it?)
- My father taught me to be frugal and value having “just enough”. (No, really — this is relevant to my brain’s thinking about brains and life. Hold on for a moment and you’ll see…)
So, what do all those lessons have to do with my brain’s understanding of brains?
A lot, as it turns out.
Once upon a time, I was a pretty conventional neuropsychologist, professionally speaking. I understood the brain as I was taught to understand it when I joined the professional Ph.D.-club. That is to say, the brain is a collection of brain cells (”neurons”) that are connected end to end by gaps (synapses) across which chemicals float (neurotransmitters) to create the signals that drive brain activity. Brain regions are organized by function and damaging a certain region creates predictable symptoms. My job was to identify whether damage or dysfunction was present.
Once I was working as a rehabilitation neuropsychologist, my job broadened to include describing strategies to get around damage (compensatory strategies) and to learn with cope with the life changes brain dysfunction creates. When I was trained and initially working in a brain injury unit, it was a bit of a mystery as to whether recovery after damage or illness happened as the result of the brain creating its own “work-arounds” and/or whether there was healing of other things (secondary effects) that got in the way of daily functioning, but it was generally accepted that the brain couldn’t actually repair damaged cells and connections, compensation and coping were the only ways to go.
So straightforward. So…tidy…in its linear "A causes B” thinking.
Too straightforward and tidy, in fact.
In practice, I applied my father’s lessons to go a different route. I worked with individuals with profound injuries that no one else saw as having “potential” (I saw them as having “possibilities” instead). I worked with their families to try to restore lost abilities since they couldn’t really compensate, being way too damaged. And I truly tried to collaborate with those families and other injured individuals, letting them lead the way and offering my expertise where it might be useful, but not assuming I was the expert in their lives or how they wanted to live or what strategies they wanted to try. I can’t tell you how much that irritated many of my “expert” colleagues.
After a few years of this (ok, 15, but that’s still a few, right?), my own arthritis history caught up with me and I had a serious flare that virtually incapacitated me. I saw a rheumatologist, but couldn't bring myself to take the medications she recommended. Nor could I accept the idea of learning to "cope" with my disability. Then I realized what a hypocrite I was! I expected my clients to accept and learn to cope and compensate; but when it came to myself, I just wanted to get rid of disability! When I came across the neurofeedback literature, I realized I would be much more satisfied helping people to possibly get rid of barriers than learning to cope with them and my switch was started.
Now, without going into a whole story about neurofeedback (that’s on my other site at: http://www.BrainandHealth.com, if you’re interested), what’s important here is that neurofeedback as a field has at least a couple of camps. One aligns with the disease model I was trained to use as a neuropsychologist: assess to find the Problem, target the Problem, and Fix it. Tidy. But super complicated to execute and open to “side-effects” if misapplied.
This is where my father’s lessons 1 (don’t follow the crowd if you can help it) and 2 (if Everyone does it, it’s probably not quite right) come in. If this is the most popular, most common, approach that “everybody” uses …hmmmm????…are there alternatives that might be more effective, or safer, or simpler? Is there one that better matches the non-expert way I worked with people as a neuropsychologist -where I could offer my expertise, but let the person (or their brain, in this instance) lead the way?
It turned out there was and I started using neurofeedback using a system that let the brain create its own changes -- the self-regulating brain. My father’s lesson 4 (you don’t have to understand everything for it to be true) was critical here for awhile — let the system do the its thing, while I executed Lesson 3 (learn as much as you can and question everything). Again, without telling you all about that system, I need you to know that the theory underlying it (the brain as a "nonlinear complex dynamical self-regulating system") challenged everything I “knew” about the brain and introduced me to a whack of new vocabulary, new concepts, new ways of thinking about what brains Do.
This website and my upcoming book, The Way of the Brain, are my explanations of what I learned. But in a nutshell, here is where my father’s Lesson 5 (aim for just enough; less is more) has come through… what I’ve learned is that if we understand some core principles(”just enough” explanation) behind how the brain works, then we can use exactly that same set of principles in our lives — the brain as a Rosetta Stone for life.
- When we try to understand the brain as a collection of anatomical bits, we both over-simplify it (what you see is what you get, A leads to B, “this” happens “there”) and over-complicate it (thinking we need to map out billions of connections to understand how the brain works).
- Having a few core principles gives me a totally different perspective - almost magical, in the way the “new physics” is magical — science-based, but resulting in seeing the brain as a nonlinear, self-regulating, bundle of Wisdom.
- Holding this different perspective — that my Brain is always doing its best for me and that “symptoms” are just pointers for course changes empowers me to live my life from a totally different place. I can use the Way my brain works as a spiritual Way when I need to sort things out, make decisions, choose what I surround myself with, stay calm in the face of upheaval — whatever Life brings my way.
This perspective simplifies things, but not overly so. It acknowledges the complexity of the Brain and Life, but gives a perspective that builds in the guidance of the Way, the Rosetta Stone.
And this is what I want to share with you here and in The Way of the Brain.